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.


paul said...

great piece, Heath. I'm with you on misconceptions about small, local- I think a lot of it is sentimental, and I also think flavor should be most important characteristic.

Two step said...

I think you have a few things wrong here. First of all, the low-fuel pattern for local food isn't to have everyone drive out to the farm, it is for many farmers to bring stuff to a market and people to walk/ride bikes/drive/whatever to the market. That can be a lot more efficient than putting strawberries on a plane and flying them to a warehouse, then driving them to my local supermarket.

Your argument about quality is bogus as well. There are plenty of high quality foods that don't travel well. Growing food for easy of travel is what got us nasty things like the red "delicious" apple. If you want to pick stuff when it is truly ripe, it is often soft and mushy and doesn't stay ripe for long. It isn't going to survive a cross-country truck ride. So you pick it before it is ripe, truck it to wherever, pump in gas to ripen it, and there you go.

The small vs. large producers argument you are right on, in theory. The problem is, for a large producer, there is very little incentive to care about an individual animal/plant. It is much more important to produce quantity, especially when the market doesn't reward quality. If size of operation doesn't matter, why are you so small? Why not raise 100,000 pigs and sell them in every store in the country? The answer is, your methods don't scale to that sort of industrial operation. You can't care about what exactly each pig eats when you have thousands of them. You can't give them acres of land to root in. You can't even tell when one of them gets sick right away.

The really strange thing about this rant for me is the source. You are a person who is trying to make a business of selling to the market that cares about all the stuff you poo-poo. It seems hyprocritical of you to complain about the movement that is putting food (literally) on your table.

Anonymous said...

Heath does spend a lot of time ranting about the quality of cured products.

He just doesn't offer any cured products.

So while it's interesting to hear about how good cured products are, it's a little off the mark. for the price that Heath charges for his raw product, you can actually get the real thing airfreighted from austria or hungary. Salami, speckt, whatever.

The one cured product he does offer he says is an inferior way to cure (wet cure vs dry cure or air cure). Which is a little odd. All the effort to produce a good pig, and then...

So heath, you tell us. why buy your product when we can get the real thing and it travels so well?

Snakeman said...

I tend to agree with most of what Heath has stated here.

I consider that expressing your observations accurately, even when doing so isn’t necessarily in your own best interests, represents a level of integrity that is rarely found and is commendable.

Hayden said...

heath, I wonder how long it's been since you've eaten supermarket food. I'm lucky enough to live in the SF Bay Area where theres lots of superior food available - lucky enough to have an upscale, excellent supermarket with a real butcher shop to turn to when I need it. Still, the veggies I buy at the farmers' market each week are MUCH better, last MUCH longer in my fridge than do the supermarket versions. For the last 2 years I've been buying all of my meat/poultry/eggs/milk from folks that provide organic, no-feedlot, pastured product. Not only is the flavor greatly superior, but it LASTS 2wce as long once thawed.

I have to believe that factory farmers aren't putting out the same product, and I have to believe that there's a long time between the producer and the purchase. Freshness, flavor and nutritional value are tightly linked. They all decline together.

I don't care how many critters someone is raising - I care how they're raising them and slaughtering.

natschultz said...

Wow, this must be one of the most illogical things I have ever read. Your argument is that all local food sucks, and that people should buy veggies loaded with pesticides from the other side of the country and meat from animals locked in cages and shot up with hormones, because this stuff has been “scientifically” proven to taste better. Honestly, I cannot believe that is what you actually intended to say, but that is in fact the premise of your article.

Based on your own business of breeding wooly pigs in Washington, I think that your real problem is being irked by the notion that Californians will not buy your pork because it is not “local.” Ok, I can understand being pissed about that, however, there are 2 problems here. One, unless there is a law prohibiting Washington pork being sold in California, I cannot believe that Californian pork eaters would truly disregard your product based solely on where it was raised. So, perhaps if you let them taste the product, then word of mouth would get you business.

Now, your argument about what constitutes “local” does have merit – I agree that many cities are not near enough farms that produce every food product that consumers want; my personal definition of “local” is 200 miles (I live near NYC, so this is relative). However, my preference is for quality before location, and here your argument is flawed. You claim that most “local” produce is crap compared to the stuff shipped in that has magically “lasted” the long trip, yet people buy the local “inferior” stuff because that is the trendy thing to do. I completely disagree; you bring up economics in your article, but you have ignored one important equation: DEMAND! If I go to the farmers’ market and there are 10 people selling tomatoes, but 5 of them suck, within a few weeks those 5 sellers will be out of business because word of mouth will get out and no one will buy their tomatoes. The same is true with local vs. shipped in from a distance – if the local product truly sucks, and the foreign product tastes good, then people will not buy the local product. Your premise is that people are not using their taste buds; that is illogical.

Also, just because I prefer to purchase many things locally, there are some products that Americans just cannot make with the quality comparable to their European ancestors, and therefore I will deliberately spend more to purchase those products imported from Europe (Italian Rose, Polish black current juice, Swedish Lingonberry juice, German marzipan, as well as some French and Italian and Czech cheeses that cannot be mimicked). However, I would never buy cheese from California when the best cheese in the country comes from Vermont (5 hours away), and I REFUSE to buy apples from outside NY (the BIG APPLE). However, there are exceptions, such as New York Ice Wine, which is often on an equal par to the German Eiswein original, much cheaper, and I like that I am supporting local small wineries rather than having it shipped from Germany.

The key here is that local DOES have its place, but that does NOT mean that you must give up quality. Like I said, if it sucks there will be no demand, and there will be no incentive for those farmers to continue supplying the market.

As for pork, based on your type of pigs (and being a part- Polish person who actually knows what good pork and lard is), I believe that your greatest problem is that you are trying to sell wine to someone who wants grape juice. Over the past 50 years we have been brainwashed into believing that fat and salt – the things my grandparents and parents were raised on – is “bad for you.” So, many people are used to lean pork, because that is all they know, as well as just saying that you product has a greater fat content will scare the average American away. My mom’s parents slaughtered their own pigs and had a smoke room; she now eats wild salmon from Canada instead. Take raw milk, for instance – it is illegal here in NY, but that drives me crazy because I much prefer fresh, unadulterated milk from a local farm than the BGH injected crap that our government has forced upon us. The problem, I have learned by speaking to people, is that they “believe” (due to our education system) that they will “die” if they drink raw milk. This is, of course, absurd, as the Amish aren’t dead, and neither are Mainers (nor me, who drinks raw milk when in Maine).

Economies of scale – this is a problem – but it was caused by the government and Big Agribusiness – not the local farmers. Yes, locally produced goods are more expensive – they have to be for farmers to make a living – but the shipped in drugged up stuff sent to our supermarkets is only cheap because our government subsidizes Agribusiness and protects companies like Monsanto from litigation. If it wasn’t for our government – subsidizing Big Business and bankrupting all the small local farmers (yes – the government did bankrupt and destroy MILLIONS of family farms here in the Northeast over the past 50 years), then these local farmers would have a much larger share of the market, like they did 50 years ago, and they could truly employ economies of scale. The system as it is now is NOT a Free Market economy – it is a government “managed” distortion of capitalism.

One last note: Unwittingly your article is an open invitation to companies such as Monsanto to create a new drug that can be injected into any pig in a cage that they want in order to produce “Old World” lard-heavy pork. Maybe then demand for fatty pork will increase. Too bad they’ll have forced you out of business by then.

Heath Putnam said...

bruceki - I'm amazed at how wrong you manage to get things. I'll respond to you point by point:

bruceki: "Heath does spend a lot of time ranting about the quality of cured products. He just doesn't offer any cured products."

That's not true. We've got cured products from our Berkshire hogs. People really like these products! If you read the March 2008 issue of "Saveur", p. 20, our "incredible bacon" is listed as one of the ten tastes of Washington.

We make several excellent cured products - that includes bacon, ham, jowl bacon, shoulder butt bacon. Next week we should have some cured, smoked sausages. Saying that we don't offer cured products is wrong.

As soon as the Mangalitsa pigs are old enough, I intend to make cured products from them. I don't want to cure any pigs before their time. The only reason our pork and pork products are so good is that we stick to our Austrian guidelines - hence, no cured products from young pigs.

bruceki: "So while it's interesting to hear about how good cured products are, it's a little off the mark. for the price that Heath charges for his raw product, you can actually get the real thing airfreighted from austria or hungary. Salami, speckt, whatever."

Is anything you can legally import made from Mangalitsa? Last I checked, it wasn't possible to legally import any Mangalitsa products.

Please show me one Mangalitsa product produced in a USDA-inspected plant that I can legally import!

If one can legally import some Mangalitsa products - as you say - it would greatly aid me in marketing the pigs to processors.

bruceki: "The one cured product he does offer he says is an inferior way to cure (wet cure vs dry cure or air cure). Which is a little odd. All the effort to produce a good pig, and then... So heath, you tell us. why buy your product when we can get the real thing and it travels so well?"

You seem to be implying that the only cured products that count are the ones made in some specific way.

I think ridiculous.

E.g. in Austria, the typical Mangalitsa porduct is wet-cured, cold-smoked meat. That's what these guys produce. Their product (pictured at the top), despite its "inferior" wet-cured processing, is superior to the dry-cured stuff made from lower quality pork. All you have to do is give people a free choice of both products and see which one they finish first.

Similarly, I've had people tell me that our jowl bacon is superior to the guanciale made by one of the newer "artisinal" processors. That doesn't surprise me; I know that our pork's quality is superior, and that for most people, meat quality trumps processing.

Heath Putnam said...

josh and hayden - Some people would like to imagine that small farms are: more fuel efficient, produce higher quality stuff and are better for the environment. Others would like to believe that their local producer is the best.

My point is that that isn't necessarily all true. I get the sense, based on your responses, that you somehow think I'm saying something I'm not - e.g. that the commodity food tastes as good as the best that you get at a farmers' market.

You should figure your farmer is burning up lots of gas to bring you the things you buy - especially if you live in the sprawling Bay Area, where farmers have to travel a long ways to get to the market. Check this out to see what I mean.

If your farmer lives far out where there's no garbage service, you can bet he's got an illegal dump, and burns up a lot of gas going to from town for supplies and feed. If you really love the environment, you might want to mitigate that.

I'm simply not convinced that small farming is more fuel-efficient. Having spent a lot of time around cold storage facilities, I'm simply astounded at the efficiency of the American food distribution system - even if that food is stuff I avoid.

If I spent time at an air cargo terminal, I might be able to show that strawberries flown in strawberries from Chile have a smaller carbon footprint than the local stuff that gets hauled around in retail amounts. In any case, the carbon footprint is orthogonal to the quality of the food. And in an economic sense (completely ignoring pollution), it is cheaper to fly in strawberries and cut flowers - or it wouldn't be happening.

I'm not saying that all food travels well - but a lot of it does. If nothing else, you friendly American farmer is probably hauling that food 60+ miles to the farmers' market - a very long distance in Continental Europe. In places like Africa that don't have good roads, I doubt people travel anywhere near that to sell a few hundred pounds of vegetables - it wouldn't pay.

Heath Putnam said...

natschultz - I'm not saying people should buy veggies loaded with pesticides from far away.

If you read my comments above, you'll see that I'm arguing that if you choose your providers based just on what's local, you'll - in some cases - give up on quality, fuel-efficiency (aka "carbon footprint") and so on. Some people like to pretend that by buying local they get the best quality, lowest carbon footprint, etc. -- all rolled into one.

I'm bothered that Californians with their "buy local" bias turn up their noses at my pigs. Those who care about quality - e.g. the French Laundry - will buy my pigs - but a lot of people are trendy and do what's popular instead of buying the best-tasting stuff.

I think your definition of local (200 miles) is typically American. Where my wife comes from, you'd cross a few countries if you went 200 miles in the right direction.

Although there's plenty of produce that doesn't ship well, there's a lot of it that does. E.g. sea food, Iraqi dates and Spanish almonds. In some cases there are no substitutes - e.g. we don't have a local lobster or alligator producer in Washington. If someone did produce them - e.g. in a climate-controlled facility (like in a zoo) - they'd probably be lower quality and in any case, prohibitively expensive.

The Spanish send frozen Iberico to Japan. That blows my mind: they lose on the pork's water retention and the pork costs a lot per pound - but it still pays.

Your preference for German marzipan example is telling: the Germans import all their almonds. They import the Mediterranean varieties (the ones that California doesn't grow) - because those make the best marzipan. Like pork products, producing the best marzipan requires the best raw material; the processing is not decisive.

The reason that you and I buy German marzipan is that they've optimized for quality, not what they can produce from local ingredients.

Many European food products (e.g. marzipan and dairy) are produced industrially - and it it still better than what I get in the USA, from providers big or small. It think it is great they produce that stuff so efficiently - consumers get to eat better products at lower prices.

If you read March's "Saveur" magazine - the one that talks about our fantastic bacon - you'll see that a lot of industrially produced European butters are some of their favorites. As someone who lived over there, it is odd to see the run-of-the-mill stuff being trumpeted as really great stuff. If I went to South America and saw people fawning over our butter, I'd figure their food system must have fundamental problems preventing them from producing good versions of the basics. It's odd when you see America, the only superpower, unable to economically produce decent butter.

einmaleins said...

the marzipan/butter insight is brilliant!
I do hope that we figure it out here sometime soon.

Snakeman said...

A few important distinctions that I would make about buying “local” would have to do with freshness, taste, availability and how well the product travels.

Here in Seattle in the Wedgewood neighborhood, every year Spooner Farms opens a berry stand during the peak of the season. I always look forward to purchasing their strawberries. The berries are picked at dawn and brought by van from Puyallup up to the stand. They usually sell out by the afternoon. These berries do not travel well at all. They are picked at their ripest, they are delicate, their sugars are unstable and refrigeration definitely changes the taste. They are only at their peak for about a day and will quickly turn to compost thereafter. All you can really do is gorge yourself during the short season and pine for those berries for the rest of the year. After you had the best of the local strawberries the California imports taste like little red Nerf balls marinated in simple syrup.

Now Remlinger Farms has “local” frozen strawberries available year-round at some of the high-end supermarkets in these parts. These frozen berries are quite durable while remaining frozen and when thawed they will still beat fresh California berries, no contest. However, there is no compare to the fresh local berries I've purchased over the years from the Spooner Farms stand.

You may call me irresponsible if you wish, for when I taste the best local strawberries, that in and of itself constitutes a thoroughly convincing argument. Trash disposal, sustainability, carbon footprints and labor issues etc. seem like some sort of Puritanical post pleasure stress disorder, a guilty after the fact reaction in response to the gratification of the mouth orgasm you have just enjoyed.

Another thing I'm thinking about here is what might constitute “local” when it comes to the bottom-line price. The following is based on a true experience I have had. I wanted to buy a backpack manufactured by JanSport. JanSport is certainly a local company, (even though it sells worldwide), it was founded in Seattle and their largest manufacturing plant is in Everett. So I figured out which backpack I wanted and now my bottom line is who has this item at the best price. As it turns out the best deal is from a vendor located in New York State. Even with shipping from Washington State to New York and back, I get a better price from a point-of-sale in New York then I could get from any local vendor. I suspect this is due to the differences in our B&O tax structures. But the question I would like to ask is when I'm buying a locally produced product as a local consumer from a faraway reseller; am I still buying locally? I think the lines get little muddled here.

There's also the matter of regional “branding”. Hawaii produces some very good coffee in limited quantities. It fetches a premium price. Costa Rica produces some very good coffee and there are large quantities of it. Compared to Hawaiian coffee it is a bargain. Quite a number of years ago there was a scandal in Kona. A coffee plantation was importing raw beans from Costa Rica, roasting them and selling them as a Hawaiian grown. This went on for years, before imploding and no one could tell the difference!

I would like to think that some of the ultimate olfactory experiences defy and transcend politics, nationalism, taxes, trade agreements, embargoes, laws and even basal morality.

Among cigar aficionados nothing can measure up to a good Cuban. The United States has a long-standing trade embargo forbidding the importation of products from this neighboring country. Violation of this embargo is contrary to US law. Yet even some United States Presidents have engaged in this particular illicit pleasure. I don't consider that any rationale to justify such hedonism should be necessary, however, “I am burning their crops”, is as good a retort as any.

Heath Putnam said...

Snakeman - When I look at my own food choices, I just go for maximum flavor (within my budget). I don't pay much attention to the trash disposal, carbon footprint or fuel burned to get me the food.

Your remark, "I would like to think that some of the ultimate olfactory experiences defy and transcend politics, nationalism, taxes, trade agreements, embargoes, laws and even basal morality," reminds me of the fact that people relate to certain foods the way they do drugs.

I remember some guys asking me to sell them some particularly great (and illegal) sausages made from European Wild Boar (which tastes like Mangalitsa). They ate some bits I gave them and simply demanded the rest of my very limited supply. They told me that if I ever got my hands on more, they'd buy it all.

So when I ate my first Mangalitsa scraps (on soggy rice no less), I recognized that same addictive quality. I figured if we could just produce fresh meat as good as the Wiesners, we'd have American fans.

Snakeman said...

“Reminds me of the fact that people relate to certain foods the way they do drugs.”

There is a recent movie release called No Reservations, I recall a scene in this movie where a truffle “dealer” is eager to flee from the restaurant after the police have been summoned, (for an entirely different matter).

There seem to be people who just seem compelled to feel guilty about the pleasures they experience, even if those pleasures are healthy ones.

Snakeman said...

Almost on-topic, here is a portion of an e-mail that I wrote to a “local” artisanal small farm. While Woolypigs has the best cuts of pig meat I have ever tasted, these guys sell my favorite pork sausage. I have masked portions of this e-mail that might identify the farm in question as it is not my intention to endorse for your competitors on your own blogspot.

To be fair, I will rave first about the two products exclusively from Woolypigs I have found that are incomparable, Mangalista meat and jowl bacon from Berkshire hogs. In a sense any case you may state about “inferior” products becomes doubtful if your jowl bacon is added into the equation. Almost anything that is wrapped jowl bacon before being cooked will most likely taste fantastic!

I'm a recent convert to your products having discovered your stand at the XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX farmers market about a month ago. I must say, YOU BASTARDS!

I started purchasing "real milk" at Whole Foods several months ago. After trying un-pasteurized and un-homogenized milk I was convinced, that is until I tried YOUR milk. Now I am completely tainted. This is grossly unfair; I am 50 years old and finished being weaned a long time ago. Your milk is vastly superior to anything available in any store, but it is not available in "any" store! Milk should not be one of the major food groups for adults, the majority of adults do just fine without it. Offering milk of the caliber that you provide could change this should your secrets propagate. Am I the only one who sees this as wrong?

I will proclaim that your meat and bone broth is incomparable. Unfortunately you had but one quart left last Saturday so we purchased a jar of your demi-glace, this in itself was a mistake. Your demi-glace has no warning on its label about its concentrated goodness and addictive potential. Also your duck eggs are phenomenal and your pâté is delicious, yet the only "hook up" is at the Farmer's markets.

However the worst is yet to come: for the first time tonight I tried your pork sausage from whey fed, forest ranging pigs. This was beyond a transcendental experience; we are talking about a life-changing epiphany in an intestinal casing. Now there is no going back for me. Any pretense I may have had about becoming vegetarian or vegan is now an entirely moot point. I have sampled the omnivore's Holy Grail and can never again be the same.

Lastly I will mention the wine from XXXXXXXXXXXXX, these are very good wines, paired with your products the combination is sinfully irresistible. You have captured my soul through my palate I am both grateful and resentful. Thank you and damn you to hell.

With my recalcitrant appreciation,


paul said...

I also agree about port- the stuff across the pond tastes much better than the albeit limited selection of Washington port we've tried.

teflaime said...

"My biggest problem with the "buy local" mentality is that it is anti-quality concept that can't work in America."

Okay, I agree with the idea that quality is important, but anti-quality is not an anti-American concept.

It's a core concept in the way America is functioning right now. Wal-Mart is anti-quality and they are the largest retailer in American (and the world). In fact, all big box stores operate on the "Price is more important than quality" equation that dominates American business thought (and is spilling into our private lives, unfortunately).

If I,as an individual consumer, could obtain high quality pork, I would (eveything in Il is essentially CAFO pork). So, in that case, you go local because of the price point.

Walter Jeffries said...

What a funny post. Wrong, but funny. If our pastured pork, hams, bacon, hot dogs and such were inferior as you claim then our meat would not be winning such acclaim from local chefs at high restaurants and the culinary institute. Not only do they find our pork superior but they love that it is local, pasture raised with whey, free-ranging outdoors and Certified Naturally Grown.

We deliver, fresh, weekly on a regular route to restaurants, institutions, stores, coops and individuals which keeps those food miles down. Our pigs are not highly traveled.

As to economies of scale, we're more efficient than CAFOs by far. They're lucky to make, or often lose, $5 per hundred weight. We do orders of magnitude better than them on the economics. Their costs are too high. Their labor is too high. Their foot print is way too big. Food shipped in from long distances even it came from a small farm similarly has major foot print issues due to the fuel and time in transit. Once again, local small farms can do better.

People care about issues like food miles, supporting their local economy, small farms, etc but that doesn't mean they have to sacrifice quality in the slightest. There is nothing anti-quality about it - we produce a superior pork and it is local. By being local we can provide fresh meat that has not travelled far and is top quality.

Of course, all that is moot if people can't afford the prices...

Heath Putnam said...

Walter Jeffries - I think you misunderstood me.

It sounds like your pork are a much better value than other pork in your area - for the same money, people get much better stuff. That's great.

And it sounds like you've found a way to market your pork without sending it hundreds of miles away from where you produce it. You are very lucky to live in an area where you can do that.

That doesn't change the fact that if someone wants some of the best pork in the world, he's going to have to import something from somewhere like Spain (or from someone with similar genetics and system).

As good as the pork from your meat-type pigs is, there are some people who will strongly prefer to eat lard-type pork. Just as there are people who will eat lamb instead of pork, or Wagyu instead of Angus.

If someone in California wants the very best meat, he's going to get that meat from wherever it comes. That will necessarily mean ignoring local, inferior sources.

That's why I saw the buy-local bias is anti-quality: if someone is locked in to buying local, he's probably missing out.

It can get ridiculous: should I buy from the more local provider? E.g. one guy is 10 miles from me, the other 10.5 miles. Do I buy from the 10 mile guy? What if the 10 mile guy feeds his pigs slop, while the 10.5 mile guy feeds his pigs whey and hay?

Just look at it from the point of view of the guy in Iowa who wants to eat a good ham. So he imports one from Spain. Do you really fault him for doing that? Or are you going to say he should "buy local"? Even if the pig doesn't come from a CAFO, it just won't taste as good as some of the very best.

Walter Jeffries said...

"If someone wants the best pork in the world they have to import it from somewhere like Spain."

That's a false statement for a number of reasons, Heath. First of all, "Best" is highly opinionated. What one person feels is best is not the same as another. The pork from Spain might be well marketed, high priced and very hyped but that doesn't actually mean it is best. Lastly, I have Chef customers who have tasted the Spanish pork you refer to and have tasted ours and say ours is better. Again, it's an opinion but that demonstrates the mentality that you must import is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

I've linked to this post at Thanks for stirring the pot.

Anonymous said...

You mention in several posts how you are the 'producer', yet when you look at the pictures on your website there is an older man with white hair who looks to be the actual farmer. Are you just the middleman making all the money off this hardworking farmer? With a background in finance I imagine you know how to make lots of money off the backs of others.

Secondly, quality food can only come from those producers who can spend the time caring and observing each animal or field. Just as fast-food can never cook quality food, industrial agriculture can never get the quality right no matter how much they try to copy the small, artisinal growers. Additionally, if you don't protect the local producers you get subdivisions and outlet malls in their place- is that what you prefer?

Heath Putnam said...

Rebecca - most farms are complex enterprises featuring specialization of labor.

To produce my pork, I pay feed companies, trucking companies, cold storage companies, contract laborers, landlords, meat processors, etc.

So you see one old white-haired guy and figure that I'm exploiting him. Am I exploiting the cold storage, trucking and feed employees too? I likewise pay them to do things that I need done in order to get my pork produced.

Why do you only focus on the guy who feeds the pigs? How about the guy who kills them, or makes them into delicious cured products?

Have you considered that perhaps the people I pay for services are exploiting me? How would you ever decide who is exploiting whom?

Finally, that old, white-haired guy hires farmhands to do the labor. Because he can't do it all. Does that make him an exploiter -- just because he hires someone to do a nasty job? When you pay someone to wash your car, are you exploiting them?

So you might say that I exploit him, and he exploits the farmhands that work for him. Alternatively, you might say that we have a free labor market, and people do what they want to do.

Repsonding to your comment, "Secondly, quality food can only come from those producers who can spend the time caring and observing each animal or field. Just as fast-food can never cook quality food, industrial agriculture can never get the quality right no matter how much they try to copy the small, artisinal growers."

That's simply ridiculous.

Go to Europe and you'll see some farms where people don't spend time caring and observing each animal. Yet they produce some of the best food on the planet (aka "quality food"). I wrote about that here.

It may sound unsentimental, but a lot of food production is about technique and chemistry. If you get the right molecules in the right configuration, it tastes good.

Just look at foie gras. Are those animals given individual attention? In any case, their livers sure taste great - as you'd say, that's real "quality food." But I don't see how you'd say that the birds are given caring and individual attention. They are force fed on a mass scale to produce fatty livers.

Another thing - I don't care how much care and observation you give your pig, compared to ours, who roam around unmolested - if yours is an inferior meat-type breed, it will never have the marbling of Mangalitsa. Because due to your pigs genes, it will have inferior lipogenesis.

So your food, which is more "quality" than mine, won't taste as good.

Luke said...

Whether or not you're correct, the jaw-dropping arrogance on display in this post and poor organization of your argument (if you're going to be a rhetorical primadonna, at least make the premises stack up) makes me never want to read this blog again.

Much less seek out your wooly pigs.

Just a thought: if you intend this blog to be some kind of buzz-driving apparatus, getting people excited about your product, don't be such a smug dick.

Heath Putnam said...

Luke -- what have I written that is particularly arrogant? Can you please quote something? Have I written something that you think is inaccurate?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately misinformed. You do show interest, maybe some quality reading would help. I recommend Michael Pollan's in Defense of Food.

The math isn't as simple as you're laying it out. I think anyone that actually understands food production could tell you that much.

Anonymous said...





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