Your locally-produced "artisanal" ham is almost certainly inferior to this stuff.
New York Times on Small Dairies
There's an article in the New York Times about small dairies and how great they are:
Why is a smaller dairy going to produce better stuff than a bigger dairy? Why can't a bigger dairy just copy the smaller dairy and, due to economies of scale, make the same products cheaper? If two small dairies go toe-to-toe, which one produces better milk or butter, and why?
At the same time there is an increasingly sophisticated public that appreciates the difference between mass-produced dumbed-down food and the handiwork of a small dairy that has learned to produce exceptional butter or yogurt or ice cream by doing it the way it was done before World War II, when there was a creamery in every town.
Typical American reporting encourages people to believe irrational things about food. It is possible to do a lot better.
Don't get me wrong - my wife and I have been taken in by this stuff too. We really enjoy our vintage port. I once tried buying some port produced in Washington (where I live), thinking it might be something like the port we got in Portugal. For $30, we figured it would have to be at least as good as other $30 wine. I felt good buying something "local". I didn't expect it to be as good as the vintage stuff - but I expected something worth $30.
Yet the Washington product was essentially undrinkable. I felt like a complete idiot. My wife still teases me about my unrealistic expectations. You want a fantastic port? Spend $300 to get some imported vintage port from Portugal. You want an OK one? Spend $30 on some imported stuff. The Washington "port" is for suckers.
Here are a few beliefs promulgated by typical American food reporting:
- Food produced by smaller producers tastes better.
- Food produced in some particular way (e.g. "free-range", "organic", "biodynamic", "sustainable") necessarily tastes better than that produced differently.
- Food produced near me tastes better than food produced far away.
- Selling off half of my herd doesn't improve the taste of my remaining pigs. Whenever I take hogs to market, the remaining ones don't taste better.
- Someone who raisses Angus cows free-range can't produce meat as good as pen-raised Wagyu, even though the Wagyu live a life most animal welfare advocates would abhor.
- Most California almonds are grown for their looks and ease of processing - not taste. No Californian producers raise the Jordan variety (raised in the Mediterranean) - considered to be the best-tasting in the world. Californians who insist on buying local almonds are buying inferior almonds.
That sounds audacious. Yet when we sent our pigs down to The French Laundry, I got some calls from guys who produce pigs down the road from them - super local! They'd seen our carcasses and were wondering what we did to produce our pork.
Despite them running their pigs free-range and giving them mast (e.g. acorns), their pigs were inferior, with soft fat, not hard white fat suitable for cured products. Whether it was their supplemental feed, genetics or the age of their hogs, they did something wrong. Our hogs, despite having traveled 850 miles and not having access to mast were obviously superior.
I'm not writing that to say bad things about those guys. If they improve their program, they'll do a lot better. In principle, given their acorns, they should be able to do better than us. I'm just trying to bring some rationality to the topic of quality by showing that it is orthogonal to "local".
In any case, as a result of the buy local bias of Californian consumers, I'm now marketing live pigs so that I can get them raised in California.
A few observations:
- Food quality is a function of the physical properties of the food. Food with the same physical properties (e.g. chemical composition) tastes the same, whether produced by Buddhists practicing biodynamic agriculture or gigantic, faceless agribusiness.
- Local is often inferior - because if something travels well (and most things do in an age of air cargo), the highest quality stuff moves to where people have the most money to buy it.
- Smaller is often inefficient and overpriced, due to lack of economy of scale.
If there was anything I wish people understood, it is the first point.
Local Food - An Unworkable Concept in America
My biggest problem with the "buy local" mentality is that it is anti-quality concept that can't work in America.
Where my wife comes from, "local" is about 20 miles. If you go further than that, people speak differently, eat differently and folk costumes are different. In that environment, "local food" has some meaning.
In contrast, my pigs are 15 miles out of town, 32 miles from the nearest big city (where we have no hope of selling our product, due to its high quality and corresponding price) and 285 miles from our nearest major market. By no stretch of the imagination are we "local" to most of our consumers - yet people routinely describe us as "local" to Seattle. You have to cross a gigantic mountain range - but hey, that's local.
Additionally, given our goal of producing the absolute best pork we can, the odds that we can sell it all "locally" are zero. If we wanted to sell our stuff locally, we'd have to cut lots of corners to make it affordable for our broke neighbors who live near our farm.
A Nasty Secret About "Local" Food
"Local" food (in America) requires a lot more fuel to distribute:
In one case, a small farmer trucks 100# of food to a farmers' market. He has to drive 100 miles there and back. He doesn't sell it all, so the next day, he drives to other markets, trying to unload the stuff.
In another case, a tractor trailer carrying 80,000# moves from a giant farm to a distribution center in a major city. The food gets distributed and sold within a matter of hours or days.
There's the argument that vegetables produced on a small farm, marketed in a nearby area require less fuel than ones from big agribusiness. I don't believe that. In America, almost all farms are more than 30 miles outside of cities. The farmers who live on those farms drive to and from the farm every day to buy supplies. They produce an economically insignificant amount of vegetables, which require a huge amount of fuel to market. They also dump all their garbage on their farms, illegally. Usually they burn some too, which is also illegal. Supporting small farms means necessarily supporting illegal burning or dumping of the garbage that farm generates.
 On TV in Austria they did a story on a farmer who raises cows for meat. He explained that he controls the breed, feed, how he keeps the cows and slaughter stress to consistently produce superior meat. Meat scientists have a similar understanding of pork quality.
Refreshingly enough, the fact that the guy was a small, inefficient farmer wasting gas slaughtering and delivering only a few cows at a time had nothing to do with his meat being better than average.
 Illegal dumping is a problem wherever people live in areas that don't have a sanitation service. It isn't just a farmer problem - it is a rural problem. My point in bringing this up is to try to make it clear that small farming isn't the environmental panacea that people make it out to be - to the extent that farmers burn more diesel and gas and illegally dump, per pound marketed compared to more efficient producers.