Not long ago I found myself in a New York City hotel room reaching for slice after slice of leftover roast pork. I had brought it with me on the plane after a dinner at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, held in part to honor Laughing Stock Farm, where the meat had been produced. I had thought at the dinner that this was an exceptionally nice roast, but I'd been distracted by the sight of the turning spit in the kitchen and the many other dishes. Alone in my room, I concentrated fully on what seemed to be a new kind of meat. Its creamy texture and deep flavor were distantly familiar. I wondered which meat it tasted like as I kept eating, enjoying the fat as much as the lean. As the last piece disappeared, I remembered: pork—the kind I had first tasted in Italy, dispensed from roadside trailers in slices on bland, puffy rolls.
When last I wrote about pork, it was the very lean pork the industry had spent decades developing for consumers worried about fat. The cooks I talked to were almost uniformly in despair over "the other white meat." Bring back the old pork! they cried. After talking with scientists specializing in food safety, I had come up with the seemingly heretical notion of cooking pork pink—to an interior temperature of only about 160°, which keeps in as much flavor and tenderness as the lean meat allows.
Real, full-flavored pork doesn't need to be cooked pink. It can withstand the braising and long roasting that are all but impossible with the other white meat, which requires brines, bacon coats, and other tricks to become palatable. In recent years I have been impressed by the number of restaurants serving pork from Niman Ranch, a northern-California-based company that sells meat from animals raised under humane conditions on relatively small-scale farms in many parts of the country. It's good enough to win people back to pork, and even to risk cooking pork chops—a cut I had given up on. The flavor of Laughing Stock's pork, though, was something else again. I resolved to find out why it tasted so much better by traveling to the farm, in southern Oregon, and also to visit Iowa—historically pork territory, and home of the farmers who produced the first Niman Ranch pork.
Little of this pork is strictly organic, but it is raised by farmers who pay closer attention than does "Big Pig"—the pork industry—to the long-term well-being of land, water, air, and (though the industry would especially protest this) animals. This approach is loosely referred to as sustainable agriculture. Niman Ranch's farmers and the idealistic owner of Laughing Stock, Paul Atkinson, say that they follow sustainable practices. Their interpretations of what that means mesh but don't quite match.
"Sustainable" is the latest of the imprecise do-good terms, like "lowfat" and "natural," at risk of being cynically exploited to the point of irrelevance. Even the hard-won establishment of federal standards to define "organic" has had a not entirely happy result: the marketing of bland organic food grown by conglomerates on huge farms and trucked thousands of miles to chain supermarkets. Any definition of sustainable agriculture takes into account the current and future health of all the species affected by farming—especially the human beings doing it, whose economic as well as physical survival must be assured. Short-term reliance on, say, pesticides that break down naturally can be contemplated. Long-term reliance on fossil-fueled transport cannot.
On meat the "organic" label does guarantee that the animals were not fed animal meal—an important reassurance, given that at this writing no such enforceable prohibition applies to animals raised conventionally in the United States, despite the discovery of mad-cow disease within U.S. borders. But organic meat comes with few guarantees regarding the scale of farming or even animal welfare. My own priority is always fresh food carefully raised by people I can talk to about it.
Paul Atkinson recognizes that no one has defined just what sustainable agriculture is, but he has a clear idea of what it isn't: raising just one kind of animal or crop, trucking in feed from afar, and selling to distant markets that require yet more long-haul transport. Atkinson, a compact and trim man with an open, friendly demeanor, grew up on a farm where the goal was economic sustainability. In his parents' case it was unreachable, and his father worked at other jobs to subsidize the farm.
In an effort to realize a profit, Atkinson began making goat cheese from the dairy goats his father had always kept. Throwing out the whey went against his principles, so he bought pigs to feed with it. The animals suited him, he told me when I visited Laughing Stock in its storybook setting of rolling hills. He liked their intelligence and personality. Whey, he discovered, gave pork exceptional flavor—a unique, sweet roundness. (This will not surprise anyone who has tasted Parma hams, which became famous for the pigs' diet—high in whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese making.) Atkinson's pork drew the admiration of a traveling "forager" from Chez Panisse, who tasted it at a Eugene meat market and was soon ordering as much as the farm could produce. Pigs paid, cheese didn't.
Atkinson led me to his barns, where there were goats, a few cows, and two sows who had given birth just the night before to about a dozen piglets each. The farrowing sows had been moved to fenced-off enclosures with extra-deep straw and special light bulbs to keep them warm. They lumbered toward Atkinson, whom they clearly recognized, and nuzzled both of us. The enclosure smelled of warm straw and the wet loam of early spring. I expected to look up and find a web spelling out "Some Pig!"
This idyllic scene is possible because Atkinson keeps his operation on such a small scale. He buys his feed from grain growers as close to his farm as he can find, willingly paying a higher price in the knowledge that it will help his neighbors stay in business. Once he can ensure a steady supply of whey from the nearby Springfield Creamery (a large dairy that supplies Nancy's Yogurt, a brand of tart yogurt I seek out), he will enlist neighboring farmers to raise hogs following his advice, and sell them under the Laughing Stock name.
Raising pigs has always been a way to keep a farm sustainable, because they are woven into the entire farm system. Like chickens, they provide a profitable recycling method, eating many kinds of waste. As with all systems, problems come from imbalance; with hogs the notorious problems are pollution and odor. Atkinson begins composting pig manure with various kinds of straw on his barn floor, and spreads the compost on pastures that grow grain for cattle, not vegetables for his family. Industrial hog farmers spray raw manure directly onto fields; its high phosphorus and nitrogen content can burn land, leaving the soil infertile. And they dump huge "lagoons" of manure into tanks whose contents often leak into groundwater. Emulating careful farmers everywhere, Atkinson rotates pastures so that pigs graze on them one year out of five. This, of course, is not a realistic possibility for the pork industry.