Sunday, February 24, 2008

Thoughts on Local Food - An Attempt at Clarification

I seem to have really bothered some people with the previous post, New York Times on Small Dairies, Local Food Bias as Anti-Quality.

I probably covered too much ground in that. When I look back at the points I brought up, I can see how people latched on to a few things and criticized them. It seems that just because I wrote something that people didn't expect to read, they assumed I was saying something that I wasn't saying (e.g. flown-in strawberries taste better or factory-farmed pork is OK).

One thing I find odd about the situation: you'd figure that as someone who eats conscientiously and produces, markets and distributes some of the best pigs and pork in the Americas, I probably have some insights into these topics that normal folks don't have.

Here are the points I wanted to make:

  1. Food is physical. How it tastes is a function of its chemistry. If you really care about flavor, that's what you need to pay attention to.
  2. What's "local" in America isn't considered local outside of America (or similar places).
  3. Locally produced stuff that you can buy is often inferior - because the very best stuff gets moved to where the money is.
  4. Small production is often less efficient - particularly less fuel efficient. Distribution in America greatly favors big producers.
  5. Small farmers living in rural areas without garbage collection degrade the environment more than their city-living customers suspect.
Many things derive from point #1. E.g. food produced by Trappist monks, Zen Buddhists, hippies or your friendly small farmer doesn't necessarily taste better than that produced by faceless agribusiness. It all depends on the food chemistry.

Of course agribusiness has trouble with perishables like strawberries - so smaller producers can make and distribute better stuff. But in the case of stuff that keeps (and a lot of obviously stuff does), agribusiness can produce and distribute great products very efficiently. American agribusiness doesn't provide much evidence for that - but European companies do.

For example this month's "Saveur" magazine, in addition to talking about our "incredible bacon", mentions a list of notable butters. There's butters in there from fairly small American producers (often organic) side-by-side with butter produced by German agricultural giants (e.g. Meggle brand).[1]

Many of the butters listed are run-of-the-mill European butters - they aren't marketed as premium (or "artisanal") products. They are commodities you find nearly everywhere. I figure the difference is due to most American companies are providing consumers with cheap, low-quality products, while the European companies produce for more demanding customers.[2]

In my own experience, small American producers often can't produce stuff as good as the big European food companies. E.g. there is no American producer I know of that makes marzipan as good as these guys.

I would hope that American dairymen (big or small) would decide that they'd better study what those big European dairies are doing and why - consumers would benefit if there was better product on the shelves. Given their weak competitive position, small American producers need to learn how to make good products, or they'll get pushed aside the day bigger companies produce higher quality products cheaply.

Nobody seems to have gotten bothered about me talking about the odd American concept of "local". For example, I've had many tell me that my pigs are "local" to Seattle - despite there being 285 miles and a gigantic mountain range in the way. In addition, we have a completely different climate, economy and politics - but apparently we are local.

My idea of local is (like my wife's) about 20 miles. Hence, what I'd consider local production (which exists in other countries) isn't going to happen in America for a long time - if only because zoning laws and property prices make it illegal or too expensive to keep, slaughter and process pigs close enough to the city. And if we had to market our pigs on such a small scale, we'd have to go out of business or make inferior pigs. The fact that some consumers will buy based on their taste buds, and not their sense of what's "local" enough means we can stay in business.

The idea that locally produced stuff (that you can find on your local shelves) is often inferior seems to have bothered people the most. If you go to any area that produces food (e.g. Yakima valley, California, Alaska, Iowa), you'll find that the top grade of product is usually getting exported to some market where people pay a big premium for it. Those places are importing it because their own local stuff isn't as good. And the locals who live in the producing areas can't buy the best stuff, as it gets exported. So what's locally available is inferior (even if the locally produced product being exported is the best in the world).

E.g. the Japanese are famous for importing the highest grade of pork, tuna and cherries. Those who happen to live in the pork, tuna and cherry producing regions of the world have a hard time buying the best stuff - it is all spoken for and sent to Japan. What they can buy is necessarily inferior - if it wasn't the Japanese would snap it up. At the same time, a Japanese producer of pork, tuna or cherries (if he even exists) is probably producing goods inferior to what's available to consumers - as they are already importing the world's best.

The best Gravlax I ever ate, made from Alaskan salmon, was in Munich. Europeans import the best. I have yet to similar stuff as good in America, despite it being produced here. Our local stuff is undeniably inferior. The same is definitely true of almonds and marzipan - as we don't even grow the Jordan variety of almonds, we'll probably never make marzipan as good as Germany's (a non-almond producing country where no almond is "local").

I don't see how anyone can dispute the reality of those points, even if you argue that they aren't important to the decision to buy or not buy local products.

It is my understanding of the physical nature of the food experience (and feedback from others) that leads me to say that Wooly Pigs produces some of the best pork in the Americas. We've gone through considerable expense to import some of the world's best-tasting pigs (we are the only ones with them!), and we raise them the way some of the best pork producers in the world (Austrian Mangalitsa breeders) do. Unless your local pig farmer gets the same pigs and raises them the same (or better than we do), your pork probably won't taste as good. Hence, if you insist on buying local pigs, they will probably be inferior. Our frozen Mangalitsa pork is probably better than your fresh local pork.

If we had "local" pigs that as good as the ones I imported, I could have saved myself a lot of effort and expense to get some good pork.[3]

The fuel efficiency issue seems to have bothered a lot of people. I don't see how you can dispute it: America's food distribution system (for factory food) is incredibly efficent, but only for big producers. Animals get killed by the truckload, processed by the ton, distributed by the truckload, etc. As a small producer, I'm painfully aware that because we can't operate in volume we are much less efficient - in a way that doesn't help our quality. Our costs to distribute a pig's pork are very high compared to any reasonably-sized producer.

From the other side: one reason why stuff costs so much at the farmers' market (besides them typically operating like cartels[4]) is that small producers aren't efficient. That farmer has to get $3.85/lb for his chicken, given all the driving he has to do. This is all a consequence of America's sprawl - unless you transport and process goods in big lots, you'll pay through the nose.

Despite my understanding of this, we continue to raise the pigs in a fairly sustainable, humane way that produces the best meat we possibly can. My appreciation of the economies of scale - particularly in distribution - doesn't change that. I wish it was possible to operate more efficiently - but that's not how it is.

When it comes to my own personal choices, I will continue to buy food from ridiculously small farms that produce the best-tasting stuff - even though I know they are burning up a lot of gas to get me that food, and even though I know they've got an ever-growing ranch dump.

[1] Despite my mentioning of the "Saveur" article a few times in the last 24 hours, the topic of the magazine is butter, not our pork.

[2] You can actually find books written in German about what to feed cows to produce the best raw milk. The people working at the big food companies in Europe have some idea of what you do to produce good milk and butter. Given America's focus on cheap food, this information isn't typically available in English. I haven't met a small dairyman who could explain to me how and why their system produces the best product (in a chemical sense) given their resources. This puts dairymen who want to produce quality butter at a disadvantage. There's a similar lack of pig fattening information in English, with the result that small American farmers feed things that ruin their fat.

[3] I'm in the pig business because it wasn't possible to find pigs like the Mangalitsa in the USA or Canada. If they had existed, I would probably have just bought Mangalitsa feeder pigs and finished them, or perhaps a breeding pair.

[4] Most farmers' markets are not open to all producers who meet certain criteria. They operate like cartels. That costs consumers.


Josh said...

I think there is one thing you are leaving out of your reasoning, and it is a big important issue. Today's big agribuisnesses have decided that the *most* important issue, by far, is price. They sacrifice a huge amount of quality to get the absolute lowest prices possible. I don't think they are evil for doing this, it is clearly what most consumers want, I am just not one of them. Like you, I care about quality, and I am not being served by the large corporate interests.

You are also making a pretty big assumption with your 3rd point. The better quality stuff will only move if:
1) There is a market for it. Not everyone cares about having the very best carrots in the world, and is willing to work to seek them out.
2) There are people willing to move it. Not every food is like Tuna, with Japanese Tuna buyers scouring the world to find the best stuff.
3) The farmer is interested in selling far away. For example, here in MA we have a wonderful lactofermented pickle company ( that I love, but they will not ship out of New England.
4) Moving it makes economical sense. Just like it is possibly less efficient to move food from small producers to a farmer's market, it is less efficient to gather up a bunch of small producer's produce and move it across the country to where the market is.

Rafe said...

In response to the previous comment, I'd suggest that the truth is that American consumers have decided that their number one priority is price. If consumers refused to buy lower quality food, the agribusinesses would respond and offer better products.

Heck, we see many agribusinesses offering boutique lines of foods these days that offer higher quality or the promise that they were produced in a more environmentally sensitive fashion. The reason they're still boutique lines is that most people just want bread or milk or whatever and don't care if it's any better than grocery store brand.

bruceki said...

"I probably have some insights into these topics that normal folks don't have"

Starting a business, or buying some livestock, doesn't make you an expert in this, or any other subject. Experience, research, and time will all contribute to your knowledge, but assuming that you're somehow gifted with knowledge because you like to eat or can come up with the money to buy some pigs is a little bit of a stretch.

Heath said...

Bruceki - Do you have any response to this?

You made a provocative assertion (one can economically import Mangalitsa products into the USA), but didn't provide any evidence for it.

I've got plenty of reasons to want to get my hands on that stuff, yet I'm saying that it isn't possible to legally import it.

I'd like to deal with your other assertions (for which you haven't provided any evidence) after that.

bruceki said...

Heath, regarding the previous: There are cured products that are imported from europe, and there are local products that are made according to european tradition. I did a quick perusal on amazon and found several different salamis and cured meats that claimed european ancestry, but didn't go as far as to determine if they really came from europe or not. as you've discussed, even in europe it's hard to tell what product is made of what percentage of which animal, so after spending a few minutes I moved on.

bruceki said...

Your point was that provenance isn't an important point for food products that can travel well. That being the case, if you felt that way, I'm not sure why you just don't import the products you want and distribute them, vs growing them.

You view the pigs as a troublesome way to get the meat. I actually farm because I enjoy taking care of the animals (and eating them) and working hard.

I believe I'm the only person unaffiliated with you who's actually done a taste test of your product vs other products. I'm not surprised that when you taste your product that you like it better than others. If I'd spent $150k on it, I'd like it, too.

your publicist has done a good job of getting you mentioned in the press; I can't think of another pork producer that has a publicist. But mentions in the press don't make your product taste better. It doesn't make your product healthier (vis the references to fat quality and so on) and it doesn't make your product superior.

Taste makes your product superior. Plain and simple. I'd be a lot more impressed if you place well in a taste test -- locally, regionally, nationally.

Your product does taste good -- make no mistake. But is it twice as good as other producers?

I spent the time and money to test it because I'd like to raise the best pork I can. I'm still interested in a lard-type pig, but I'm unconvinced that it can be much better than a properly finished berkshire.

Heath said...

Bruceki - You made two important statements:

"Your point was that provenance isn't an important point for food products that can travel well. That being the case, if you felt that way, I'm not sure why you just don't import the products you want and distribute them, vs growing them."

Because one can't do that economically. It is essentially impossible to do what you are telling me (and my customers) to do.

"I believe I'm the only person unaffiliated with you who's actually done a taste test of your product vs other products. I'm not surprised that when you taste your product that you like it better than others. If I'd spent $150k on it, I'd like it, too...I'm still interested in a lard-type pig, but I'm unconvinced that it can be much better than a properly finished berkshire."

So you haven't tried the Mangalitsa, but you feel comfortable saying that you probably don't think it is good enough?

Please show me a loin from a meat-type hog (Berkshire, Duroc, etc) that looks like this Mangalitsa.

In lieu of that, please explain how thousands of European consumers who routinely and repeatedly pay 3-5 times more for lard-type pork than meat-type pork are getting ripped off.

If I heard that there was a kind of beef in Japan that people said was incomparably better than Angus - and that it cost 5-10 times more than Angus, I'd assume that it was probably very good. I wouldn't go around saying, "I haven't tried it, but I doubt it is worth the premium. I bet a properly finished Angus is just as good."

Anonymous said...

Heath, I'll buy a few pounds of your product, and a few pounds of others, hold a taste test and post the results. I'll see you next saturday.

Heath said...

Anonymous - I'm out of Mangalitsa right now. It will be a few weeks until there's more for sale.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned that you will have crossed piglets and live pigs available for sale. What are your prices?

Heath said...

Bruceki - so because it is possible to order in some cured meat from Europe (made of who knows what), you went and said that not only was it possible to order in Mangaltisa products - but that one could do it cheaper than buying fresh Mangalitsa from me?

That's not at all how things work.

Just study the difficulty of importing Iberico products - the Mangalitsa situation is quite similar.

After you study that you'll have a better understanding of why things really aren't as simple as you've declared them to be - and why American consumers are happy to be able to buy my Mangalitsa- even at the price of $25/lb.

Having dealt with the import issue, why do you claim that wet-curing is inferior to dry-curing? Are you saying the Austrians like the Spitzbart family are wrong for doing it that way? The Austrians can do it however they want - yet that's how they generally do it.

Their stuff sure tastes better than any cured products I've eaten in America - even the "artisanal" stuff - because the Spitzbart's carefully produce the right raw material.

What is your justification for declaring their wet-cured products inferior to dry-cured products?

Give a bunch of people two plates, one containing Spitzbart's products, and one containing the best American cured products you can find (according to you, these would have to be dry-cured). People will sample both and then have a feeding frenzy on the Spitzbart plate - finishing it first. Then they'll move to the second plate.

Heath said...

anonymous - Where do you live? How many pigs do you want? How will you finish the pigs?

It is important to me how the meat winds up getting marketed.

If you are seriously interested in acquiring some feeder pigs, please email me and describe your situation. Please keep in mind that any pigs you'll get would be neutered.

bruceki said...

Heath, your comment about wet cure, and I quote

" That is a cheap and fast process that produces convenient and bland food that doesn't keep long. "

Your own words about wet cure. The only cure you offer.

Your pork might be well suited to dry cure. In fact, it might even produce excellent dry-cured products. We'll see.

Heath said...

bruceki - I think the brine injection and hot smoking process is inferior - but not all meat that gets wet cured gets done that way - and hence, not all wet-cured meat is inferior.

As you point out, the only process I've got is the one I consider inferior. That's unfortunate, but that's the state of American meat processing.

What are you suggesting I do? Hold off killing pigs until I get meat processing that I consider perfect? Ship the live pigs thousands of miles to get better processing?

On the bright side of things, a lot of Americans like that stuff - so when I use the raw material and give them what they want, they are happy.

Although I'd prefer to process the meat differently - for my own personal use - I doubt most Americans would want to eat and pay for that. That's to be expected - I've got a very different perspective on pork than most Americans.

E.g. take the bacon. A lot of people tell me it is the best they've had. I personally would rather have some Austrian-style Bauchspeck instead - but selling a lot of that would be a huge challenge, because although I prefer that to American-style bacon, other people don't know how great it is.

I think the situation would be even worse if one tried to market salo. Lardo from Mangalitsa can be incredibly good. But good luck selling that to Americans.

Walter Jeffries said...

"Food is physical. How it tastes is a function of its chemistry. If you really care about flavor, that's what you need to pay attention to."

Yes. Small farmers can pay more attention to this 'little' detail a lot better than they're doing on the large 'farms'. Craftsmanship.

"Locally produced stuff that you can buy is often inferior - because the very best stuff gets moved to where the money is."

No. Stuff that is produced remotely is often mass produced in factory farms using bad chemistry. See #1 above.

Stuff we produce for our own family is the ultimate in local and has the highest quality and best taste. I couldn't afford to buy what we produce.

Other people in our area are producing superior products to what is shipped in. Vermont produces the highest grade maple syrup. Fresh produce is locally available and is far better quality than what is shipped in. We have plenty of high quality local meats. We also have quality craftsmen producing stone and wood products from local resources - yes, they ship to non-local markets, but you can also get those same things right here and a lot cheaper.

Lastly, just because it is the best stuff it doesn't mean it gets moved to where the most money is. We produce premium pastured pork yet only sell locally. I'm not interested in shipping meat. It's that simple. I get requests weekly to ship live pigs and to ship meat but it isn't something I want to deal with. No need since I can sell locally. Local customers are getting the advantage of being local and getting the highest quality for that reason.

"Small production is often less efficient - particularly less fuel efficient. Distribution in America greatly favors big producers."

No, this is fundamentally wrong. You're looking at too little of the equation and possibly bad examples. Your thesis is simply wrong.

We use virtually no fuel for production. We pasture our animals. They collect their own food most of the year. They distribute their own manure all year. Distribution is local. We use almost no fuel to get our pork to our customers. We're far more efficient than any large scale production or medium scale production.

"Small farmers living in rural areas without garbage collection degrade the environment more than their city-living customers suspect."

This is an asinine comment and untrue. First of all, we generate far less trash than city people. But that is a life style choice more than anything else. People in the city choose a lifestyle that creates a huge footprint on the earth. Cities are like that. On the other hand, in our rural town the average homestead is 100 acres. Ours is considerably larger. We use less resources and we spread that usage out over a far larger area. We degrade the environment by orders of magnitude less than city people. That is reality.

Secondly, why do you assume we dump our trash on the landscape (lack of collection?). We take our trash, the very little amount we produce, to the transfer station about once every month or two when enough has built up and it is a zero cost trip since we're doing other errands or deliveries too.

Furthermore, 90% of what we take goes to recycling. It isn't even trash. Our family of five generates about one medium bag of actual trash per month.

We are degrading the environment far less than city-living people. Our footprint is tiny in comparison. Your comment is totally off base and bogus. Jeez, get real. Maybe you degrade the environment because you don't get trash pickup or something but don't apply your ways to the rest of us rural folk.

You claim a lot of uniqueness. You do a lot of marketing. You keep saying you don't have product though when someone asks for it. Interestingly, This Search yields lots (>800) of other info about breeders of wooly pigs not at woolypigs. There are quite a few breeders in the USA. I have heard other people claim they were the original importers of this breed. I don't know what the truth is but it is interesting.

By the way, I took a look at the photo of loin you mentioned. I'm not impressed. Way too much fat, way not enough meat, too much back fat. That pig is over fed - you're wasting feed or slaughtering too late and it's not getting enough exercise. Could be simply poor genetics. Of course, it is hard to evaluate the taste over the internet. :)

You do seem to be marketing it well and getting lots of press. The real test is how long you'll keep doing so and how the sales will be. Is it sustainable for you?

One last thought, I'm curious on the boar taint. You say you castrate if you think the pig will have boar taint. Have you tested for boar taint (smell is obvious) and if so at what ages? We've been doing a lot of experimenting. The oldest intact sexually active boar kept with the breeding herd we've now done was 30 months of age and had no taint. We haven't had any taint ever in our herd so we now don't castrate unless a customer demands it - and then we charge extra for the service. I am curious if you have found any boar taint in your pigs.

There are many things we agree on about pigs but you've gone off the far end with this post and the previous one. Stick to facts.

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