A Tale of Two Pork Chops: Small-Scale Farming
After the disheartening afternoon spent in the bowels of the internet trying to find information about my first pork chop, it took a while for inspiration to strike. Finally, I’m ready to start on part two. Fortunately, the research for the alternatives to the typical industrial pork industry was a lot more fun. There was a lot more time spent outside watching pigs rather than inside staring at a computer screen.
Part two is split into three scenarios. There are many ways to buy pork from small-scale farmers, depending on how much you want to know about where your meat comes from. I’ll start with a very hands-on way and go from there.
The Second Pork Chop
1. Buying a Hog Share
After about 45 minutes driving, I pulled up to a large Victorian house in the woods of Aromas. Just as luck would have it, while in the midst of reading Pig Tales, I reconnected with a distant relative (we’ll call her an aunt) who happens to be involved in the sustainable agriculture movement and raises pigs with her partner. Wayne and Diana have a small herd of Berkshire pigs (with a new addition of a few Mangalitsas) under the name of Wayne’s Fine Swine.
When I got out of the car, Diana greeted me and showed me around the property. She tends to a small garden with all sorts of produce right next to the pig area. The pigs have free reign to run around and forage for acorns from the oak trees. Just their prize sow, June, is in a smaller enclosure with her piglets, separated from the other pigs, to make sure their safe. Diana told me all about how they make sure the pigs have a happy life. They interact with them daily so they are used to people. Wayne built a fodder system in their garage to provide sprouted grains as a supplement to their non-GMO corn feed. Unlike industrial pigs, Wayne and Diana’s pigs grow much slower, so they keep them around until they are around 9 months to a year old. This gives them plenty of time to gain weight and run around the fields (and make them fattier and more delicious).
I really regret not taking a picture of the pork chops we had for dinner that evening. Diana and I cooked up some veggies from the garden while Wayne grilled the pork chops. I got a look at them before they were cooked and they were massive. Bone-in, thick cut, with lots of fat and marbling. They tasted even more delicious than they looked. Of course, they also sent me home with an armful of pork shanks, homemade pepperoni, trim for stir fry, and lots of farm-fresh veggies. Everything was extremely flavorful and fresh, I couldn’t get over it (but more on that later).
When the pigs’ times come, Wayne does the deed by shooting them in the head, the most quick and pain-free way for them to go. There’s no stress of transportation or fear of people to make their last moments unpleasant. It’s quick and painless. Wayne and Diana sell the majority of their pigs through shares. You can buy a half share or a nano share (1/10 of the pigs).
If you purchase a share, you are invited to be part of the 3 day process of breaking down your pig. Slaughtering the first day, butchering the second day, and sausage and charcuterie making the third day. It’s about as involved as you can be without raising the animals yourself. Purchasing a share also helps you to get creative. In addition to the typical cuts like chops and roasts, you get things like offal (kidneys, liver, heart), jowls, bones, and blood. You can make all sorts of great things and have access to them, which you would never find in the store. I’m hoping to take part in one of their 3-day pork parties (work schedule allowing). Stay tuned for that in the coming months.
2. Buying from the Farmers Market
The Campbell Farmers Market covers several blocks of downtown Campbell, California. It’s a small town just south of San Jose, but the market is one of the bigger ones in the South Bay. It has vendors from all over the Bay Area, stretching from north of the city to south of Santa Cruz. Since I had the morning off, we went to pick up some produce for the week and since I’d been throwing around this little experiment in my head, I kept an eye out for someone selling pork. We came across a small booth with a chalkboard sign out front that was selling a variety of meats, including pork chops.
The young guy working the booth told us that Fiesta Farms is in Watsonville, about halfway between Monterey and Santa Cruz near Monterey Bay. They raise pigs and chickens. They raise a variety of heritage breed pigs including Berkshires and Hampshires. All the animals are left to forage in oak forests for the majority of their food, with some grains to supplement their diet, until they are about 6-9 months old before they are brought to market.
For what I didn’t find out from the young guy at the market, I took to the internet. The Fiesta Farms website is extremely informative and I learned much more about the farm, the family and the pigs in 20 minutes than I did the entire afternoon researching for my industrial chop. Aurelio and Sarah Lopez began Fiesta Farms in 2010. Aurelio are up in Oaxaca, Mexico where he was a farmer and worked for an organic CSA in Watsonville before starting Fiesta Farms. They are very open to visitors. They host a couple public tours a year, but also offer private tours as well. To purchase pork, they currently sell only half and whole hogs. For purchases of individual cuts, they sell at farmers markets.
This is the pork chop that is in the picture, compared side-by-side with the industrial chop. I’ll do more of a comparison of price, flavor and texture below. But first, scenario number three.
3. Buying from a Co-op
Purchasing direct from a farmer is all well and good, but what if you don’t want to buy a whole hog or can’t make it to the farmers market on Sundays (like is most often the case for me)? Estabrook talks about the co-op alternative in Pig Tales.
The most well known is Niman Ranch, which not only distributes hogs, but other meats as well. It’s also less of a co-op as it is a distributor. To become a producer for Niman Ranch, there are very strict guidelines set out that are enforced by auditors that visit farms. The basic rules are as follows. “1) Livestock are raised outdoors or in reply bedded pens 2) Livestock always have access to fresh, clean water 3) Livestock are able to express their natural behaviors in healthy social groups 4) All our farms are gestation crate-free.” These are detailed even further, as well as other protocol for raising hogs in a 14-page document. Additional pork rules include: no antibiotics, no hormones or growth promotions, and all-vegetarian diets.
They have a page dedicated to some of their top producers with videos and pictures and information about the families, but with over 720 family farms in their network, it would probably be hard to find out which farm a pork chop actually came from. However, they do sell their pork at a variety of specialty grocery stores such as Sprouts and New Leaf near me, so at least I know I have access to humanely-raised pork.
The second co-op I researched was Heritage Foods. Founded by Russ Kremer, a fifth generation hog former, the network contains over 60 families from Illinois, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas and Kremer’s home state of Missouri. Kremer originally farmed hogs the industrial way, but after having a near-death experience with an antibiotic-resistant infection from being cut by a boars teeth, he converted everything to a more natural way of farming. He founded Heritage Foods to help develop the market for people raising pork in the same way.
Heritage Foods has quite a few large customers as well. They sell directly to Whole Foods in the Midwest as well as Chipotle Grill. If I want to get a hold of Heritage Foods pork, I found that a hot dog and sausage producer called Fork in the Road, based out of San Francisco. Fork in the Road has all their producers audited by the third party Global Animal Partnership to ensure animals are raised humanely. They focus on purchasing products from family farms that grow products sustainably. They sell to a variety of Whole Foods and other specialty grocery stores in the area. I wouldn’t be able to get a pork chop from Kremer though.
Overall, scenario three took me a lot more internet research to find out information, and it was a lot more like the rabbit hole of researching my industrial pork chop, trying to figure out exactly what farm the meat comes from. It was less depressing, though, to know that at least there are larger companies that are attempting to provide quality, humanely-raised products to the public. The co-op system is much more viable when it comes to mass production and distribution.
Comparing the pork chops
Side-by-side, the pork chops are very different. I’m sure if I compared even the pork from Diana’s to Fiesta Farms to one of Russ Kremer’s they would all be very different as well. But here are my takeaways from my little experiment.
- Texture - I cooked my pork chops both to medium rare with just a little butter and salt and pepper. Cutting into them, the texture difference was immediately noticeable. The industrial pork chop was harder to cut through and I had to saw a little bit more to get through. When I took a bite, it became even more apparent. The muscle fibers were much thicker, making the meat chewier and slightly tougher. There also wasn’t very much fat on the pork, which added to the toughness. Though the Fiesta Farms chop was thinner (and I was afraid I’d overcooked it), it was much easier to cut through and chew. Tender and much less chewy. I also wanted to taste the fat, to see if there was a difference. The fat on the Fiesta Farms chop was soft, almost like butter, whereas Farmer John’s was rubbery.
- Flavor - When it comes to pork, I always hear “fat is flavor” and that definitely held true. The Fiesta Farms chop was marbled with fat throughout, with a thick layer around it. It was porky and almost sweet. However, Farmer John’s chop wasn’t that much different. It tasted different, but there was still a meaty flavor. Again, the biggest difference was in the fat itself. The fat on the industrial chop was almost inedible with the texture and lack of flavor. The fat from Fiesta Farms was almost like a condiment, adding flavor to the meatier sections.
- Price - This was the most obvious different, which I was expecting. My pack of 2 from Safeway was about $9, and the total package was almost two pounds. My pack of 2 from the farmers market was also $9, but the total weight was just under a pound for both. Same price for half as much meat. No wonder people avoid purchasing from a farmers market. However, looking into it on the website, I could get the same pork from Fiesta Farms as a share and pay $6.50 per pound. But that would come with 100 pounds of meat and I’d have to use all these other parts of the pig. Something I wouldn’t mind doing, but not practical for a typical family.