Thursday, 16 July 2009
Buy a Burrito, Save a Family Farm
In the way that Proust could taste his childhood in a Madeleine cake, Paul Willis’ pork chops were a transcendental experience for Shirley and me. We were driving to Thornton, Iowa because it is the mother lode of the richest pork we could remember. We are food writers, not environmentalists. Our tongues compel us to travel to places like Thornton, not our consciences. It’s the destination, not the journey, that matters.
And yet, we took the slow route. Because Paul Willis’ hog operation in Thornton has been called “a vision of the future that looks like the past,” it seemed appropriate to get off the interstate and drive up US 69. North of Ames, we realized that the old highway now models another, distinctly opposite, vision of Iowa’s future. Where Burma Shave slogans used to dot the fence posts along this road, there are now skull & crossbones warnings -- not about dangerous curves, but about giant hog confinements. We could see the DeCoster hog confinements near Blairsburg from miles away. We cold smell them even further. Shirley said they reminded her of some factories she had seen in Vietnam, where they wouldn’t let journalists go. Then she asked me how come, if these were pig confinements, we couldn’t see any pigs, except for the dead ones that overflowed the dumpsters.
According to Robert Kennedy, jr. such warehouses can shoehorn 100,000 sows into claustrophobic cages that hold them in one position, over metal grate floors, for a lifetime. Below them, aluminum culverts collect and channel their waste into open-air pits three stories deep. Swine feces has birthed a toxic microbe that killed a billion fish in one instance and causes brain damage and respiratory illness in humans.
Mathew Scully’s new book “Dominion” animates the horror. Pigs taken prematurely from their mothers root obsessively for something to chew. If they are spending their brief life out on Highway 69, the object of their obsession becomes the tail of another pig, one crammed in their face. Chewed tails often get infected, leading to “unauthorized deaths.”
Dead pigs overflowed factory farm dumpsters
So when such factory farmers wean piglets, 12-16 weeks before nature intended, they amputate the tails with a giant pliers. That leaves pigs with a lifetime compulsion to keep their sensitive stubs out of their pen mates’ mouths, a futile task when there is no room to turn around. When Scully asked an exec from Smithfield, the worlds’ largest pork producer, if there wasn’t something sad about this, he was told that the giant pig factories actually protected pigs from the dreaded free range, where they might “get mosquito bites.”
Iowa is today as emotionally polarized about raising hogs as it was about abortion, Vietnam and the gold standard in other decades. As US 69 cuts through the legendary Des Moines lode, the giant confinements blot the hummocky habitat. This was the rich dumping ground of the most recent glaciers to cover north central Iowa. After ripping out Clear Lake and thousands of smaller potholes, they melted and left bogs and fens that weathered into the finest farm land in the world. When the Europeans came, they drained the slews and tiled the fields, put up fences and planted crops where wild grasses had reigned.
For Shirley and I, this was the last leg of a long, strange trip to the source of the greatest pig meat in America. The journey began at San Francisco’s Harris Ranch, arguably the home of America’s best aged beef. While comparing Harris Ranch’s steaks with rival Niman Ranch’s, Harris’ general manager Keith Reese mentioned that he served Niman’s pork.
“Niman’s pork was just astronomically better than anything else out there. We were blown away by it the first time we tasted it. With it, you can get the true flavor of pork,” he said.
Harris Ranch was using superlatives to praise a pork product made by its chief competitor in the high end beef business. Shirley and I determined to do what investigative food reporters do -- follow the taste. At Niman’s bustling operation in Oakland’s International District, macho men in hairnets prepared the next day’s orders. We knew then this was not a typical company. Niman has been developing discriminating markets for free range beef and lamb, mostly in food-hip northern California, since the 1970’s. In the last seven years, their sales doubled annually. This coincided with Niman’s return to the pork business.
When the federal government seized Bill Niman’s original ranch in 1976, to create the Point Reyes National Seashore, Niman was allowed to continue ranching cattle, but not hogs. Freed from an 18% mortgage, he could spend more money developing a superior product. He raised only black and red Angus, Herefords and their cross, Black Baldy, the ultimate beef cow. They grazed only on grass about to go to seed, for more than a year, whereas most commercial cattle never graze and are slaughtered at a year’s age. When Niman’s cattle go to feed lots, at 800-900 pounds, they are fed only sugar beet pulp, corn, barley, wheat, cane molasses, hay and soymeal. They are not slaughtered until they are at least 20 months old.
Bill Niman couldn’t find a pork producer with the same commitment to quality. Blind, countercultural luck intervened in 1994. Thornton farmer Paul Willis was visiting an old Peace Corps friend’s California lamb ranch which was supplying Niman. Bill heard that Paul’s hogs were raised much the same way as Niman’s cattle and sheep. Niman asked Willis to send some pork and, after tasting it, he asked him what a fair price would be for such hogs.
In Thornton’s Chit Chat Cafe, where Gary Muhlenbruck’s world famous duck decoys define the style, Paul Willis remembered that day in California, when his life changed.
“At that time, no one had ever asked me about a fair price. Buyers simply quoted their bottom dollar as take-it-or-leave-it. It wasn’t a hard decision, would I rather raise 50 pigs and make $2 each, or raise 2 pigs and make $50 each? Bill gave us a chance to farm another way, to maintain an alternative to what you saw driving up Highway 69,” he recalled.
Bill Niman had told us that when hogs sold for 8 cents a pound, he was paying over 43 cents to Iowa farmers. Shirley asked Willis what Niman got for the extra money? “Let me show you,” he replied.
We headed out of Thornton passing a house where a dozen cars were parked. “We call that the casino. A bunch of older guys get together there regularly, some say to play cards. It’s the busiest place in Thornton,” Paul joked. A casino in Thornton, however euphemistic, made as much sense as the luck that thrust this sleepy town into the culinary limelight. Niman Ranch pork has a story full of ironies and oxymora. Mingo farmer Larry Cleverley, who distributes Niman products in Iowa, calls Bill, Paul, himself, and almost everyone associated with Niman Ranch, “a bunch of hippie businessmen, who make gourmet hot dogs and like four star restaurants.”
In some large cities, Chipotle Grill has run an intense media campaign featuring Niman farmers. Duane Dorenkamp, of nearby Sheffield, looks like Grant Wood in a tractor cap and is as well known in Washington DC, a Chipotle stronghold, as Subway’s Jared is here. The Chipotle ads suggest you can save a family farm by eating a burrito, a claim with considerably more merit than the average meat producer‘s, according to Diane Halverson of the Animal Welfare Institute.
“We run into PR firms trying to talk the humane talk without walking the walk. Pipestone Family Farms markets themselves that way, but, as the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune wrote, it’s simply not the case,” she explained, adding “There is so much at stake here. Companies like Du Breton pirate the Niman image, but they also do most of their business in the conventional manner. If that type of agribusiness gets a niche in this market, it will be impossible to remove them. We are not endorsing Niman because we care about selling pork. We care about selling a value system.”
Niman pigs are allowed to behave naturally and to fulfill instinctive behavioral urges. They are given continual access to pastures, dirt yards and pens with straw bedding. They are never given antibiotics, hormones or sulfas to mask disease. Niman also encourages farmers to husband their land, and Water Keepers Alliance, Kennedy’s group, endorses Niman.
Willis returns some of his fields to wetland. One of his farms, set on a hummock above fens full of buffalo skulls, reminded us that we were standing over eons of history.
It was a good place to consider the past and future of pork in Iowa. The last 30 years brought catastrophic changes to the relationship between humans and their meat. Looser regulations, lax trade rules and huge farm subsidies have helped consolidate the agricultural industry. But the public’s loss of taste drove all the above. Politicians gave us cheaper meat because that’s what we wanted. There were predictable, “acceptable casualties” : family farms, local lockers and butchers, pure meat, safe meat, and good tasting meat.
This had been going on since 1970, but it took “enhanced pork” before Shirley and I really noticed. That’s what they call the tasteless crap that our major grocers have been selling the last five years. It’s “enhanced” (remember, bragging is legal in advertising) with a chemical water solution that accounts for as much as 18% of its weight (remember, pork is priced per pound). Grocers could fire butchers and replace them with lower paid stackers. Win-win, as long as customers don’t notice the taste.
Most didn’t. Pork became white, rather than pink and this was advertised as a good thing. Quality was marginalized. So when Willis passes out his pork at the Farm Aid concert each year, stunned tasters ask him what marinade he uses. He laughs and tells them they just rediscovered the taste of pure pork.
While Paul was reflecting on history, Shirley had a bigger problem. At each of a half dozen farms, happy pigs and piglets ran up to the pickup truck, much as dogs would. When she got out of the vehicle, they made eye contact.
“Stop being so damned cute. If I have to give up cooking pork, I’ll have to find a new career,” said the chef to the piglets.
These pigs obviously trust humans, and they aren’t afraid. Fear causes animals to self-produce chemicals, like adrenaline, that toughen meat and disguise its natural flavors. Paul joked that his pigs only have one bad day in their lives, as he showed us farms where sows were busy building straw nests in large barns, while little pigs fought with one another like puppies. In the Spring, they run in the fresh grasses and alfalfa that surround the barns. In the summer there will be sprinklers, mudholes and fresh dry straw.
Niman’s pork operations are half owned by the farmers, 70% of whom are Iowans. The day we visited, Lori Janssen was busy testing pork loins, from Yorkshires. Janssen would be the quality control manager, except that Niman doesn’t do job titles. Everyone is a partner. Loins had been sent by farmers wanting to join the Niman family. Janssen’s goal was to find a Yorkshire that produced meat that wasn’t dry, a tendency of the breed. Color breeds produce good juicy meat, but they lack the Yorkshire’s mothering abilities. A Yorkshire bloodline could give Willis an extra piglet per litter. We helped taste the candidates. Sorry Charlie, not every pig can be a Niman.
When 50 hogs a week sufficed demand, Willis produced all of Niman’s pork. Now that they ship exponentially more hogs a week, he has recruited hundreds of farmers. These hogs don’t look anything like the industry’s standard, nor like show pigs. Willis showed us a picture of a so-called grand champion, calling it “an Olympic weightlifter on steroids.”
The “other white meat” usually comes from a lean, mean, fast growing machine of a pig that averages 54% lean in the USA, and 58% in Scandinavia, where most European imports originate. Niman hogs are only 48% lean, with up to an inch of back fat. Their meat looks like the pork our grandparents ate. You can actually see marbling and the flesh is much darker than supermarket pork. Taste is the startling difference, whether you try fresh cuts, or processed products, like Niman brand bacon, ham, sausage and hot dogs that are prepared in Webster City.
Most Niman pork goes from Iowa to Chicago and to the two coasts. While the three and four star restaurants that made Niman famous use prime cuts, Niman partner Rob Hurlbut has been building markets for cheaper cuts. “We sell the feet , the tails and even the fat back, which is prized for its high Vitamin D count and its lack of hormones,” he told us.
That market for low end cuts will increase with the rapid expansion of Chipotle. Each time the chain opens a new store, every three days, Niman brings one more family farmer on line. The math inspired Chipotle’s advertising campaign. Buy a burrito, save a family farm.
The Chipotle-inspired growth presents a new challenge for Niman. Because carnitas for burritos is made from the leg and shoulders of pigs, Niman anticipates an abundance of higher end cuts. Bill Niman says the low end markets might help make them more price competitive at the high end. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see them in a Hy-Vee someday. That’s the final irony of this story. The impetus of Niman’s marketing has gone from the high end, to the low end. They’ve come whole hog.
Niman pork is served in greater Des Moines at Sbrocco, Phat Chef’s, Cyd’s Catering, Bistro Montage, Raccoon River Brewing Co., Star Bar, Cosi Cucina, South Union Bread Café, Centro, Splash and Django.
Niman Ranch sells directly at www.nimanranch.com, or 510-808-0330.