Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Reply to Walter Jeffries about "Local" Food

Photo by Scott Eklund.

Walter Jeffries made a comment that I think is worth addressing. Mr. Jeffries raises and markets pigs himself. His situation in Vermont is clearly very different from ours in eastern Washington.

Me: "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."

Jeffries: Yes. Small farmers can pay more attention to this 'little' detail a lot better than they're doing on the large 'farms'. Craftsmanship.
I think the topic of the size of a producer and their craftsmanship is a fascinating issue.

As I pointed out, Saveur's list of good butter has a bunch of American butters (from what appear to be fairly small operations) along with a bunch of gigantic European producers. If you only look at big American food companies, you might think that agribusiness can only churn out lousy products. If you look at European companies, you'll see that big companies can produce great products - often more efficiently than smaller competitors.

When it comes to meat, the situation in America works against small farmers - due to the law that requires that meat and meat-products be produced under USDA inspection. As I've mentioned, we can produce excellent finished pigs - but once we start dealing with USDA processors, it can all go downhill - because we can't control the processor.

Hence, if a company is going to produce the best meat consistently, it needs to either have a good processor, or it needs to be big enough to have its own processing. Small farmers need to be lucky and have a good processor.

Me: "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.
Mr. Jeffries seems to have misunderstood me. I was talking about "the very best", not "the mediocre." He's right that a lot of mediocre stuff moves great distances; that's how America's food system works.

But he's ignoring what I wrote: the very best stuff moves to the consumers with money, who pay to have it sent to them - which is exactly the case with Vermont maple syrup, which moves to people who pay for it.

When Vermont maple syrup moves to Canada (a producer of maple syryp), those Canadians who insist on buying Canadian are buying stuff inferior to that from Vermont. And when the very highest grade of Vermont maple syrup leaves for places like New York and Dubai, the syrup remaining in Vermont (that locals get to buy) isn't as good as the best.

In light of the fact that the "eat local" crowd in both Vermont and Canada generally isn't getting the best, I wrote, "Locally produced stuff that you can buy is often inferior - because the very best stuff gets moved to where the money is."
Me: "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.
Mr. Jeffries is blessed to live in an area where he can distribute pork efficiently. In the West, small farmers have to haul there animals to slaughter and haul their meat to the farmers' market (perhaps several times, if it doesn't sell out the first time). This article hints at how bad things are.

Due to the USDA processing requirement, farmers in California's Napa have to haul their animals about 3 hours to get them slaughtered. Then they have to haul the meat back for processing. Farmers in western Washington have similar problems. The situation is fuel inefficient, in addition being tough on the animals.

Many don't know that it costs roughly as much to haul one pig as a full trailer - and the same applies to other freight. So it is a lot more efficient to operate in a large scale, integrated fashion. E.g. it costs Iowa hog producers $.20/lb to move a pig from Iowa to Oakland. In the best case, that's about 5-10 times more efficient than someone moving loads of freight from Washington to Oakland - which is why I say that distribution favors big producers.
Me: "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... 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.
I didn't write that rural folks degrade the environment more than city folk - but Mr. Jeffries seems to think I wrote that. Nor did I say anything specifically about Mr. Jeffries, whom I'm happy to hear is extremely responsible.

Sadly, in in the West and much of the USA garbage collection in rural areas is expensive. Rural people have ranch dumps, or illegal dumps, and they burn their garbage. Or perhaps they go and illegally dump their trash. If you consider the terrible problem of removing trash, broken equipment and other stuff from a rural area, it all makes sense: hauling it out there makes sense. Once it is trash, it is best to just burn it or dump it somewhere. Illegal dumping is a way of life in much of rural America.

My original point was merely that most city-dwellers take garbage collection for granted, so they don't wonder where their favorite small farmers are putting all their garbage or junk. In general, I suspect city customers would like to think that their small farmer is necessarily a steward of the land who doesn't burn a lot of fossil fuels (per pound of product) compared to the big agribusiness. In general, I don't think things are so rosy.
Mr. Jeffries: 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.
There's nobody else with Mangaltisa pigs in the USA. Although Mr. Jeffries has stated, "There are quite a few breeders in the USA," he cannot name another American breeder with Mangalitsa pigs.

The first batch of Mangalitsa market hogs is still quite young, so we haven't killed many of them. The few we killed have all been sold. We'll kill more in the next few months.
Mr. Jeffries: 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. :)
That's how an older Mangalitsa's loin looks. The fat on that thing is delicious. It really isn't like normal pork.

Although Mr. Jeffries (and many consumers) don't like how it looks, in places like Austria and Spain, that fatty pork, like fatty tuna or Wagyu beef, sells at a premium (3-5 times normal stuff). Japanese consumers pay a lot to eat that sort of meat; they freeze and ship the meat from Spain to Japan.

The fatback that Mr. Jeffries doesn't like can pay for the pig. A properly fattened Mangalitsa pig - see the photo above - can bring a restaurant $8,500 or so in revenue.

There's a similar phenomenon with Wagyu. Many consumer think this meat is too fatty. But many consumers love it, and pay a lot of money for it.
Mr. Jeffries: 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?
Although we have only killed a few Mangalitsa, many of those who've eaten it have been delighted by it. We've also managed to take standard meat-type hogs and produce highly-preferred products by applying what we learned in Austria - despite our processing troubles.

So far we are doing well.
Mr. Jeffries: 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.
We don't know. We err on the side of castration, because we don't want to waste a pig. The rule in Austria is that if the animal hasn't had sex, it is OK even if it is 7 months old.
Mr. Jeffries: 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.
I feel I've stuck to the facts. I'm sorry if I've bothered people like Mr. Jeffries. My goal was to show people some of the counterintuitive things I've learned.

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.

Friday, February 22, 2008

New York Times on Small Dairies, Local Food Bias as Anti-Quality

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:

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.
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?

Typical American reporting encourages people to believe irrational things about food. It is possible to do a lot better.[1]

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.
These beliefs aren't realistic at all.
  • 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.
  • 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.
A California chef who insists on buying "local" pigs is almost certainly buying inferior pork than that of Wooly Pigs.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.[2] Supporting small farms means necessarily supporting illegal burning or dumping of the garbage that farm generates.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Guy Busted For Pig Roasting

Christoph Wiesner, Head of the Mangalitsa Breeders' Association, grilling a Mangalitsa.

Previously it was guys accused of slaughtering pigs in their illegal rooming house, now we've got a guy accused of illegally serving roasted pig to the public.[1]

In both cases you've got foreigners accused of meat preparation outside the bounds of the law. This stuff doesn't just impact foreigners. E.g. they had a grand boucherie in southern Louisiana. Because of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, they had to remove that pig and substitute another one:
"Federal health code regulations prevent attendees from eating what is slaughtered during the celebration, Hardy said. So the butcher, after showing what is done traditionally, will take the carcass and byproducts to his shop to finish preparing the meat."
I can't tell you how much that bothers me. I understand that we don't want uninspected meat winding up in restaurants, as then customers won't know if stuff is safe or not. But it just seems wrong to interfere with a bunch of Cajuns killing a pig the way they've done it for hundreds of years.

[1] That guy's defense, that he wasn't serving pigs to the public, but rather his extended family, is beautiful:
"Enad said he had an extended family of 600 people and he only roasted for those whom he considered close ..."

Good Sow!

Above is a photo of a Berkshire sow with her 11 Mangalitsa-Berkshire piglets.

Below is a European Wild Boar (a sow) with her piglets:
The Mangalitsa is directly derived from the European Wild Boar - explaining the origin of the stripes on the Mangalitsa-Berkshire piglets.

Breeding a Mangalitsa boar to Berkshire sows allows us to produce a lot of crossbreed animals - because the sows multiply the boar's genetics. One boar and 20 sows produce a lot of crossbred piglets. Add a few more boars to breed the 50/50 females and you've got a lot of 3/4 Mangalitsa market hogs. That's what they do in Spain and Hungary.

To produce the hybrid pigs pictured at the top, we put Hans in with a harem of Berkshire sows (Franz, the other boar, is with the Mangalitsa sows). Although Hans is about half the weight of the Berkshire sows, when they are in heat, they'll stand in a hollow or on the downslope of a hill, allowing him to do his job.

This method - natural breeding - is quite archaic. The normal thing to do is AI, which, if you have the facilities, makes things go a lot smoother.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Vegetarians and Meat

Hybrid Mangalitsa-Berkshire piglets. They have a lot of potential!

In my late teens and early 20s, I didn't eat much meat. Most meat that I could buy was fairly flavorless, and eggs and cheese didn't taste very good. I was something like a vegetarian - but not for any philosophical reasons; the meat I could buy just didn't taste very good. It is still that way: I can barely bring myself to buy meat in a supermarket - it just looks so terribly unappetizing.

While working in Europe I discovered that things like dairy (cheese, milk, cream), eggs, pork can taste great. I got used to the fact that in Germany, I could go to a typical store and buy normal (not premium) cheese, meat, etc. and really enjoy it. I ate more meat[1] and cheese as a result.

In general, America doesn't have meat or cheese as good as in Europe. The fundamental problem is that the American consumer demands a cheap, low-quality food product. American producers give it to them.

One consequence of this is that until American producers start producing better products, "buy local" will mean "buying inferior." E.g. if you as a chef insist on using "locally sourced" cured products, they will necessarily be inferior to imported Iberian products - because right now, no American producers produce to those standards.

I think the relative low quality of American meat and cheese partially explains why so many Americans can manage to eschew meat and dairy.

Killing animals and enjoying their meat makes it hard to dismiss all meat eating as evil, if only because people get used to watching animals slaughtered - at which people focus on having a good time with family and friends. If the animals taste particularly good, people associate the killing with having a really great time with family and friends.

Here's a video of a traditional pig killing in Slovakia - called a zabíjačka. Those guys kill a really fat Mangalitsa. Fairly soon after, it is looking like meat.

If you have never seen a pig get slaughtered it probably bothers you to see that pig die. They kill that perfectly healthy pig in cold blood - so that they can eat it. And the fact that the guy pumps the leg (to work the blood out of the animal) seems bad - why doesn't he just leave the thing alone?

If you are from a culture where people kill pigs at home and eat them, or if you know what Mangalitsa fat tastes like, you are probably salivating. I see that and think (on the bright side):
  • It is great that people are helping to preserve the Mangalitsa breed, which necessarily means eating them. People will only raise large animals for meat, so eat them now or they'll be gone in a few years.
  • It sure is nice that they killed the pig without stressing it. And it is good they pumped the leg to get the blood out - otherwise they'd have inferior pork. If you are going to kill a pig, please do it correctly and make the most of it.
  • Assuming they fattened it properly, that Mangalitsa will make great cured products. If not, they just wasted that Mangalitsa's life.
I've asked some vegetarians, "if we could raise meat in a vat, and that meat was indistinguishable from that we get from animals, would you eat it?" The ones I've asked get uncomfortable and try to find a reason to justify their feeling that eating such a product would be wrong.

I've seen people get visibly discomforted by the question. You can practically see them getting nervous and thinking, "eating meat is bad, but if it is produced through human artifice, is it meat? I want to say it is wrong, but what is the reason?"

Many of them feel OK eating highly processed imitation meat products designed to imitate meat, yet don't want to eat the perfect imitation. Such people are just irrationally anti-meat-eating; even if we had perfect imitation meat, they'd find a way to eat their relatively flavorless soy hot dogs instead.

I would love it if we could get the delicious pork of a Mangalitsa without needing to raise pigs - raising pigs is dangerous and inefficient. I'd be happy if we could produce perfect imitation meat, even though it would have some unintended consequences.[2]

Someone who grows up eating meat and cheese in Europe is unlikely to conclude that eating that stuff is immoral. When I read this remark from this Croatian arguing that illegal killing animals in the traditional fashion is wrong, the exasperation at not being taken seriously really hits me:
We are aware of the fact that we live in a country where torture and brutal slaughter during "back-yard pig slaughter holidays," so-called "kolinje" in Croatia, is still an occasion for national joy and music, but we are unpleasantly surprised with the way the veterinary inspection ignores the manure, excrement, humidity, low temperatures, lack of light and lack of any kind of sociality for the pig, whose treatment is considered acceptable as long as the pig is vaccinated and marked on the ear, in other words, good for the slaughter and human consumption.
I try to imagine the kind of resistance that anti-meat person encounters in Croatia. It probably isn't as polite as Snakeman, one of our regular customers, who replies to a vegan:
"I choose to abstain from veganism. After you have tried jowl bacon from a free range, healthy and ornery Berkshire hog there is no going back! I say if it has a face, eat the face first and start with the cheeks!"
It sounds so bloodthirsty. But looking at is dispassionately, Snakeman's advice is correct. After an animal is dead, it is meat. Once it is a piece of meat, we naturally want to make sure we get the parts we really like. Snakeman and I favor the jowls, but others like the tenderloins.

[1] I explain why it doesn't taste as good (from a meat science perspective) here. From a business perspective, American meat processors don't think it makes good business sense to produce world-class products, even though it wouldn't require a return to traditional agriculture.

E.g. Handl Tyrol's products are made from factory-raised pigs shipped to Austria from the Netherlands, because they can't raise enough pigs in Austria to supply them. But those factory pigs eat better stuff than in America, so they taste a lot better. E.g. in America, folks feed the pigs soy and DDGS, which ruin the pig's fat, making it unsuitable for curing. Most people who cure meat in America (often using some sort of "Italian" techniques) don't understand this, despite people in Italy having standardized what pork is acceptable for curing. Try to talk to an American "artisinal" processor about fat composition - it will open your eyes.

Here's something I wrote about my wife and I doing a side-by-side comparison of some Mangalitsa salami with product from one of America's most respected "artisanal" processors. I later found out that the Mangalitsa salami I had was probably from a 3/4 hybrid fed on corn and wheat - by no means the best Mangalitsa (genetics or feed) you could use. Nevertheless, the results were far, far superior to some of America's best.

If American consumers demanded good meat, they'd get it at reasonable prices, as in Europe. Although most American producers don't know much about producing good meat, cheese, etc. it wouldn't take them a long time to acquire the skills if the market demanded it.

[2] Perfect vat-grown meat is probably the only thing that will get rid of animal exploitation. One complication, should we ever achieve this, is that we'll stop keeping farm animals. We'll lose our meat breeds, the same way we've lost the draft horse breeds.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Mangalitsas For the Bay Area

Wooly Pigs is looking for a pork producer in Northern California to raise Mangalitsa pigs. All the information is here.

If you know a potential pork producer in Northern California that might be interested in raising Mangalitsas, please refer them to the relevant information!

Raising Mangalitsa pigs in the Bay Area means your customers will include quality-sensitive customers like The French Laundry. Although it has been an honor to serve them, shipping lots of live piglets to California makes more sense than moving a few chilled carcasses.

What's very exciting for Wooly Pigs is that the California producer may be able to finish the pigs on mast (e.g. acorns and chestnuts) - producing pork better than most of Europe's iberico and Mangalitsa, which many consider to be the best in the world. How this can happen is described here.

Mangalitsa-Berkshire Piglets

Hans, a purebred Mangalitsa boar, has been working hard, so in the next few weeks, we hope to farrow many Mangalitsa-Berkshire piglets like the ones pictured above.

Loin of a Purebred Mangalitsa Sow

The crosses will have carcasses and growth rates somewhere between Berkshires and Mangalitsas, because carcass traits are highly heritable. If someone doesn't want to pay for the fat inherent in a Mangalitsa purchase (see above) or the high price of purebred Mangalitsa (due to their low profligacy), maybe he'll take a cross.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Clampdown on Home Slaughter

There is a story from Milford, MA about guys slaughtering a pig in an illegal rooming house.

There are a couple of odd things - are we to presume these guys really got a heavy pig home and up the stairs of their rooming house and then killed the pig?

That sounds impossible. How are you going to get a pig to go up the stairs? If it doesn't want to go, and if it is a big pig, it isn't going to go up the stairs. It will just knock down whoever is trying to get it to go up the stairs and run off.

And why go through all that work? Why not just slaughter it on the ground floor, then haul up the carcass for processing?

If you burst into a restaurant and saw this scene below, I don't see why you'd assume he just slaughtered it in the back.

I'm figuring the cops just got spooked when they saw the carcass, the illegal rooming house and the foreigners living in cramped conditions, and figured that the foreigners were their running an illegal slaughterhouse on the 2nd floor.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Request for Some Hungarian Assistance

There's something in Hungarian about us over here, and I can't read any of it.

Can a Hungarian-speaker please provide a rough idea of what it says?

Hungary Update

In Hungary, they recently had their first Budapest Mangalitsa festival. You can read about it here. It sounds like people went nuts for the tasty Mangalitsa flesh. The picture above shows some roasting Mangalitsa.

If this is the first time you've ever heard about Mangalitsa, here's more info.

Also, the Hungarians have finally taken notice of our operation. That's neat!

They mistakenly refer to the whipped Mangalitsa fat as an American phenomenon, when it is actually something we've only heard about in Austria.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Pigs Going to Slaughter

That's how humans look when they've got a trailer full of giant pigs heading to slaughter. As I mentioned before, there's feelings of relief and happiness: just a little more work and we are rid of the pigs.
That's one of the big pigs. He doesn't fear much. He's been the biggest pig on the farm for months. Everybody else needs to get out of his way. If you were near him with a feed bucket, he'd just rip it out of your hands and eat. He might also bite you if you entered his pasture.

I'm trying to communicate that there's little endearing or cute about a big hog. Contrary to what the anti-meat people think, the pigs are not the good guys. They are somewhat domesticated animals that we raise and slaughter (humanely!) so that we can eat their incredibly delicious flesh.

As I mentioned before, we are happy to see these monsters off. And like I mentioned, these pigs are dangerous. If they want to go somewhere, you need to get out of their way, or they will hurt you. You are weak and insignificant.

Well, to make it all more real, here's a video of a 525-lb pig. This is the pig that knocked the herdsman down a few times.

Of course, the reason we grow the pigs this big is that this is how big they need to taste great. They are Berkshire hogs, which taste better than normal hogs. We fed them great stuff, kept them outdoors. He's a fantastically healthy and fat hog. He's eaten more than a ton of barley in his long life. We are very happy to send him off to pig heaven. Just look at those jowls! He will make incredible jowl bacon.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Report from the Herdsman on Loading Heavy Pigs

Tomorrow are sending 10 of our biggest pigs to slaughter. Here's the report from the herdsman - a guy who is 60+ years old:
10 biggest pigs loaded. We did 4 passes to sort out the biggest.

I couldn't have done without my Grandson's help.. Its no fun
to be ran over by a 500+ lb pig in the pig shit mud!
Of course, if we were running pigs the modern way, with total confinement, there wouldn't be any mud, and the pigs wouldn't be able to run you over.

When you get run over by those pigs, it hurts. You might even get a permanent injury. And something about that "pig shit mud": once it gets on your skin it stinks for days. When you eat your meals, you smell it. If it gets on your boots, they seem to stink for good.

So when I eat my bacon, I really appreciate all the work that Gary does. Because I know that it is a very difficult and nasty job.

NPR on Iberian Ham

Free-ranging Iberian Swine
The "poster pig" for iberico - fat pig on range looking for acorns.

NPR recently had a story on Jamón ibérico, or as we say in English, Iberian ham.

Unfortunately, there are fundamental omissions in the article. For example, one might conclude that to produce the best ham in the world, one just needs to let pigs run around and eat acorns before turning their legs into hams. That is simply not true - which pigs get to run around and eat acorns, and how old those pigs are when they die are both crucial.

One of the most important differences between Iberian hams and other hams is that Iberian ham is produced from pigs with special genetics. A few breeds are considered "Iberian", and the pigs used to produce Iberian ham must have 3/4 or more of their ancestry from those special Iberian breeds[1].

Mangalitsa Pork from a 5-month Pig
marbled and fatty due to the genetics

The Iberian breeds are fundamentally different from the common pigs of the world - they are lard-type. Their marbling, fatty acid composition and percentage lean are all different from normal pigs - they are fat-prone pigs, and their fat tastes much better than normal fat.

As this study shows, you can feed the Iberians less monounsaturated fats (e.g. less acorns) and they'll still have more monounsaturated fatty acids in their tissue. If you really want to produce the best pork, you need the right genetics. Due to the importance of genetics, the best pigs, fed worse food, can still outperform lesser pigs fed a better diet.

Another key difference is that the Iberian pigs used to make the hams are much older than most other pigs - e.g. 15-24 months. Older pigs make better cured products. That's roughly 3 times as old as normal pigs.

My company, Wooly Pigs, prides itself on the quality of its bacon and other cured products, raises its pigs extra heavy. For example, our Berkshires are killed at one year - twice the typical age - because that's how old they need to be to make much better cured products. In keeping with this, I won't produce any cured Mangalitsa products until I get pigs at least 9-months old - and I'd be happier if none of the people who buy pigs from me cured young pigs. I afraid that Americans will get the wrong idea of what cured Mangalitsa tastes like; if they eat a bunch of inferior stuff, they won't know that cured Mangalitsa is some of the best there is.

Of course, an older pig costs a lot more to raise than a younger pig. The cheap growth happens when they are young. As they get older and fatter, pigs eat a lot more without gaining weight, and with their massive bulk, they are more of a "management problem." Big pigs break stuff, and they can do a lot more harm to humans.

Heavy Berkshire Hogs In the Trailer Heading to Slaughter
Thank goodness they can't get out!

It really feels good to send big fat pigs to the slaughterhouse. When I look at their fat jowls and think about all the feed they've consumed, how they've knocked people down, stampeded, broken fences and generally been a nuisance, it is fun to see them in that trailer on the way to slaughter. And when I look at their fat jowls, I can't help but imagine how the bacon will taste.

In America, a country where most people just want cheap meat, most pigs are killed at 5.5-6 months - ensuring that our bacon, ham and other cured products will taste lousy. In contrast, Spanish producers manage the genetics, feed, age and other factors to produce the best pork - and they do it on a huge scale, industrial in some cases. E.g. the Spanish are willing to feed penned pigs special diets designed to replicate the free-range diet. Not everything is traditional, free-range and feel-good in Spain as one might assume from the NPR story; they run confinement operations just like us - they just use better genetics, feed and so on to make much better pork.

Penned Iberian Swine (likely 3/4 crosses)
Delicious, cheaper, not free range, probably not fed acorns.
still iberico, still very superior.

Finally, NPR fails to mention that there are 3 categories of Iberico. The category is determined by the finishing diet of the pig. That's crucial - finishing diet substantially determines quality. The most free-range meat costs the most, because it tastes the best and requires the most resources to produce. Some of the pigs, like the one pictured above, are just kept penned. Not as heartwarming as the free-ranging Iberian pigs under the trees - but you can produce a lot more of that pork than the really great stuff, and it still tastes fantastic.[2]

When one understands the determinants of meat quality, it is easy to understand why the Iberian hams taste better than the Mangalitsa products coming out of Hungary and why Iberian tastes better than most Italian cured products - and why American products taste the worst of all.

3/4 Mangalitsa Pigs in Hungary
not purebred, not free-range and not acorn-fattened
still affordable, tasty and superior
said to be fraudulently sold as iberico.

The Hungarians use the right breed - but they can't feed acorns like the Spanish, nor let them roam and get so old. The Italians just use normal pigs - but unlike most American producers, they kill them at 9 or more months of age and strictly control the fatty acids in the feed. American producers routinely use pigs that Italians would reject for having too much PUFA. Essentially, in America, there are no standards - you can get away with anything, call your lousy product something misleading - hopefully with a foreign-sounding, ethnic name - and if people buy it, great!

Hence, Americans will probably get duped. E.g. someone will finish some normal pigs on acorns, probably much younger than 15 months, and then marketers will tell people that it is as good as "Iberico". If someone is smart, he'll call it "American Iberico" or perhaps "Americo" or "Iowaberco" - just like Snake River calls their watered-down Wagyu crosses "American Kobe." Consumers who've never eaten Iberico will then go around parroting that "Americo" is as good as Iberico, and as long as it tastes better than what they otherwise get, they'll be happy.

Mangalitsa pigs in Eastern Washington
free range, not acorn-fattened
still very superior

Of course, I have a personal interest in all of this. As the only person in the Americas who owns a herd of European lard-type pigs (if only they were Iberico, I'd probably be getting some PR right now) I stand to benefit if Americans learn that lard-type pigs taste better. But mostly I'm bothered at people getting duped.

Also, I'm hoping that someone out there, with acorns, will decide to buy some pigs from me, raise them the way the Spanish do - and thereby produce fantastic pork -- in the Americas. That will be a historic event.

[1] The 3/4 requirement allows the Spanish to produce a lot more product, because the 3/4 crosses are more efficient to produce - more piglets per litter, faster growing pigs, etc. The meat and particularly the fat is not as good - but the average consumer probably can't afford the purebred stuff anyway.

It is the same with Wagyu: Wagyu crosses are more economic. Big producers normally have enough clout that they can legally market crosses to the public as the "real deal." Here is a nice blog post with some photos that show how the purebred Wagyu differs from the crosses.

[2] Tip for foodies: if you want the best grade, make sure it is bellota. The other grades are recebo (less good) and pienso (the lowest). Given that Austria and Hungary are so short on acorns and space, their best Mangalitsa is typically like pienso. If they had acorns, they could produce pork very similar to bellota, due to the Mangalitsa and Iberians being so similar.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Jess Thompson on Our Bacon, No Wasted Pigs

I just noticed that food writer Jess Thompson wrote about our bacon.

"Thankfully, it was worth it, every last penny. Bacon this good deserves an altar. And as we savored it, piece by glistening piece, I developed a fantasy about actually saving the earth by eating pork so rich that you only really need a piece or so..."

That really made my evening!

As a pork producer, I feel we have a moral obligation to produce the best meat we possibly can. If someone is going to take their time to cook and eat some of our pork, it had better be worth it - where "it" means our work, the life and death of the animal, the customer's money and time spent selecting, buying and cooking the meat and the diner's eating of the meat.

Although we have in English the term "wasted meal", I have yet to hear of the term"wasted pig" - that is, a pig whose life is, due to humans raising them badly, essentially wasted. The goal of Wooly Pigs is to avoid ever producing a wasted pig.

It is very easy to make mistakes and ruin a pig with a little bad feed, a bit of pre-slaughter stress, bad slaughter, bad ripening, etc. This isn't commonly known in America - but is understood by producers who aim for the highest quality. For example, from this article about Spanish producers:
... His business proposal was straightforward: Transport the 350- to 400-pound pigs to Denmark, where they could be slaughtered in a USDA approved facility.

But the companies scoffed at the suggestion. "They said the hogs would get stressed-out and thirsty, and that would be bad for the ham," Tim Harris says.

Both Spanish companies say a long truck ride would cause the pigs' adrenaline levels to surge, which could affect the flavor of the meat...
One thing we noticed in Austria, when dealing with farmers who raise, slaughter and process their Mangalitsa at home is that they really know what not to do. If you talk to them, they'll tell you bitterly about how they killed a pig they'd been fattening, only to discover that they'd blown it by breaking the rules. E.g. they open up the pig and instead of finding white fat, they've got yellowish, soft runny fat unsuitable for curing.

Such mistakes hurt so much that the producers refuse to do things that they know will ruin the meat - like those Spanish producers refusing to make some easy money by ruining their pigs on the last day of their long lives.