Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Whole Hog and the Nasty Bits

For several decades now, restaurant chefs have known that buying high quality meats requires direct purchasing of whole animals. In America today, there is rarely an alternative. This is the result of cheap commodity meats dominating the market, and placing enormous economic pressure on the small rancher and family farmer, who can rarely compete with the scale of commodity prices. At Park Kitchen, I have been directing a whole animal butchery program for the last four years, and seeing the difference in quality can be shocking. Sometimes, guests will ask what we've done to make the pork so juicy and delicious. It can be difficult to explain that we haven't done anything unusual, other than to buy a quality animal, and they may have never tasted that before.

When did this happen? And why? Several decades ago, America began an infatuation with diets. Diets that usually preached about eating leaner, not eating less, but lean meats and low-fat foods. Beef sales began to decline, and chicken was rising fast. Pork producers decided to market their product as "the other white meat," and indeed, that is what it became. The loin, the leanest and least flavorful cut, became the highest value, and pig breeds were selected and raised based on the length of loin. The marbling of pork fat, and the essential American staple of lard virtually disappeared from the market. Any old-fashioned pig farmer can tell you, pork used to be a red meat!

The pastures of Square Peg Farm

On about 40 acres of land in Forest Grove, Chris Roehm and Amy Benson have a variety of operations. There is an apple orchard on one side, what remains of a christmas tree farm on the other, some vegetables and a you-pick strawberry patch, a few hundred laying hens and a few dozen hogs. Chris has been developing his hog breeding program, and producing some very fine swine.

In order to balance desirable traits (keeping the hogs vigorous and healthy, and less prone to illness) Chris cross breeds black, red and white breeds. Of the purebreeds, Chris' favorite, and mine, are the black-haired Berkshires. Not only are they personable and intelligent, but delicious at the table. Some of the best crosses were the Berkshire-Durocs and the Duroc-Yorkshires. The hogs pastured in open fields of rye, clover and vetch, and are fed an all-organic feed of corn, wheat and barley. Organic is always more expensive, about twice the price. They buy the feed by the ton at about $0.32 per pound, and they feed about 40 hogs 2,000 pounds of feed per week.

Breeding on the farm is a calculated process. Chris has 11 sows in all. When a gilt is in heat, she will be penned with Harry, his three year old breeding male. The mating window lasts about 48 hours. Harry, weighing in around 700 pounds, wastes no time. The gestation period lasts about 4 months, and the sows are expected to carry 10 litters over a period of five years. A litter is usually 8 to 10 piglets, though one or two may be crushed by the mother.

Healthy pastured hogs at Square Peg Farm have a feed conversion ratio of five pounds of feed for one pound of weight gain. The miracle of pork is how quickly the young animal grows (by contrast, the feed conversion ratio for beef is about 16 to 1). A suckling pig can weigh 60 pounds after 10 weeks, and over 260 pounds in six to eight months. Chris was targeting a profit of $0.25 per pound, making his sale target $3.44 per pound, including the slaughter fee of $45 at Emmert-Buxton Meats in Sandy. There, the animal is hung for six days before Chris delivers it to me at Park Kitchen in his truck.

Getting what you pay for

Park Kitchen buys a half pig every other week until summer time, and we prefer to buy the head of the animal as well. The last half pig (with the head) I received from Square Peg weighed 114 pounds, and cost just over $380. That leaves me with 36 pounds of shoulder, 30 pounds of leg, 32 pounds of loin (including the ten pound belly and two pound tenderloin) and a 16 pound head. Although I could buy commodity pork as cheap as $1.70 per pound for a half carcass, it is so lean, pale, flabby and flavorless as to make $3.44 sound like a bargain. If I were to buy 114 pounds of cheap, rubbery pork loin, instead of the whole animal, at the shocking price of $3.10 per pound, what happens to the rest of the animal?

These are the questions of conventional purchasing. There are at least two middle-men taking a cut between the rancher and Park Kitchen. It makes me wonder how I can possibly buy that commodity pork so cheap? How could anyone make a profit from that price?

The hidden cost of big business, and mountains of Shit!

Who is Square Peg's competition? In general, it is the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. Instead of Chris' 40 animals, these CAFO's can maintain tens of thousands of animals in a very small building, and their numbers are rising. Over the past twenty years, the number of CAFO's has gone from 3,600 in 1982 to over 12,000 in recent years. The number of animals raised on large farms over the same years rose from 257 million to 900 million. It's easy to see that if Chris needs to make $0.25 per pound on his 40 pigs, the big guy can bring his 50,000 pigs to market for a fraction of that cost. But there are costs that never make it to the bottom line.

Lester Brown, a fascinating agrnomist and author, wrote the article Massive Market Failure, in which he writes about unaccounted expenses in various "free market" industries, and their effect on the economy. Because of the enormous assets that CAFOs muster, they are able to reserve all the benefits for the company while assigning all the risks to the public. The most glaring example is the shit! CAFOs own the hogs, and the profit from their sale, but they somehow don't own the shit, or the costs of managing it. The EPA exempts CAFOs from reporting certain toxic gas emissions above 100 pounds per day. Now consider this, the Government Accountability Office studies show that CAFOs annually produce more raw waste than is generated by the citizens of major U.S. cities.

Because they control most of the policy lobbying and advertising dollars that flow to the local media, it is difficult to promote awareness of these hidden costs that pollute water and air. It is up to the taxpayer to build the infrastructure and to clean up the mess. The CAFO will often get into a community promising to bring (low-wage) jobs, but they require subsidized infrastructures, sewer systems and roads, and their costs to the community always outweigh the tax benefit realized from their creation.

When its dinner time, remember that every dollar spent is a vote for the future. Support restaurants that buy whole animals, and grocery stores that buy sustainable meats, and if they only offer conventional pork, tell them what you want. Their purchasing power is determined by the buyer. If the price of something seems too good to be true, it usually is. For some reason, everyone recognizes this when it comes to anything else besides the food they eat!


  1. Nice work!

    Thanks for trying to explain our predicament. In case you didn't know, we have a newish group in the area, Friends of Family Farmers, www.friendsoffamilyfarmers.org, who are keeping an eye on CAFO's coming to Oregon. They might be a good link for your side bar.

  2. Jonathan MorrisMay 3, 2009 at 8:41 AM

    I've talked to a number of people in Northeast Missouri who have suffered from the polluting effects of one industrial farm (PSF) just as you have detailed here. I've also had at least one good friend who worked for two years in the hog slaughtering plant (I can think of no other way to describe it) run by that corporation, and can say that the debilitating effects (physical and more importantly psychological) of such an operation may not be something that can be economically measured but still ought to be considered when making ones personal purchasing choices. Although such farms do employ a large number of people, it is far less than could be employed (and how much more wholesomely!) in the numerous small farm operations that could exist in place of Agri-Business if the market conditions favored them instead. Here's an article about a recent "settlement" imposed on PSF for polluting neighboring farms with pig shit.