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.
I hoped to get inside Big Pig and see for myself one of the "confinement buildings" that arouse the ire of neighbors, environmentalists, and animal-rights activists. The Iowa farmers who warned me it wouldn't happen were right. Too short notice, several large companies told me. Biosecurity, said another, asking if I had been on a farm in the past two weeks; pigs living so close together have stressed and often weakened immune systems, which require steady prophylactic doses of antibiotics. Industrial pig farming has been "so misreported," Bruce Rastetter, an owner of Heartland Pork, one of the two largest "integrators" (pork producers) in the state, told me when dismissing my request to visit. "We feel we haven't been treated fairly. I grew up on a small farm; I have no problem contrasting, knowing we produce a significantly healthier product than what we grew up on as kids."
I did drive through the "heart of pig," as Neil Hamilton, a professor in charge of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, and a fourth-generation Iowa farmer, calls a stretch of Highway 69 south of Mason City. In one square mile there are 24,000 pigs. It was evening, and the long aluminum-sided barns, their white roofs topped with runway-style amber lights, glowed eerily. I rolled down my windows but smelled only the normal odors of a pig farm—perhaps because the weather wasn't very warm, perhaps because the buildings were closed, with doors only at the ends. Near the ground on each side were three large white ventilator fans, looking like ship's fans. The green of the siding suggested a hospital. The overhead lights and muddy flats between the silent, windowless buildings suggested a concentration camp.
I was able to imagine, if remotely, that the guidelines of the Pork Board's Swine Welfare Assurance Program (in which participation is voluntary) were being followed to the letter inside; that the pigs got plenty of feed they liked (albeit laced with prophylactic drugs); that sick animals were noticed and either treated or removed and euthanized, as the Pork Board puts it; that the concrete floors over latrine canals, with open slits to allow drainage, left the pigs feeling dry and well tended. "We raised pigs on mud lots," Hamilton told me. "Hell, if you were a pig you might just as soon be inside lying on concrete than in mud up to your knees."
But I was not able to imagine that these big barns could do much good for the environment, not to mention the neighbors. Indeed, Hamilton explained to me over a bacon-and-mushroom omelet the next morning, communities have little say in whether a landowner can build big barns. "Right to farm" laws, designed to shield Iowa farmers from nuisance suits, effectively eliminate county review and approval of new farms. "The first way you might know that a hog operation is going up," he said, "is cement trucks pouring footings." Production on this scale is a recent arrival in Iowa, in contrast to, say, North Carolina, where high pork production was developed by an oligarchy.
In the past, Hamilton said, Iowa family farms raised pigs in sustainable ways without even trying. But in the past ten years they have had to choose between raising large numbers of pigs under contract or getting out of the pork business. The contracting companies might be headquartered in North Carolina or New York City, and have little economic loyalty to the state. They own the pigs, but the farmer builds the barns and assumes liability for any violation of environmental laws. In 1970 Iowa produced 20 million pigs, about a quarter of the country's annual production, on 91,000 farms. In 2002 the state produced 27 million pigs—on 10,000 farms.
Niman Ranch is providing an alternative in Iowa and elsewhere—one that puts economic sustainability for small farms first. It guarantees a minimum price per hog to farmers who meet its standards, usually 15 to 20 percent above the market average. The more than 300 farmers in twelve states who raise pigs sold by Niman agree to raise other kinds of animals and crops along with pigs, to rotate pastures, and to limit the amount of pig manure they put on fields. Although less than one percent of its farms are certified organic, Niman Ranch sells no animals that have been given antibiotics, and forbids the use of animal products in feed. It also mandates adherence to strict rules from the Animal Welfare Institute, which require time spent either in pastures or in straw-bedded pens. Niman does not dictate breeds, but practically by definition its farmers raise breeds different from the ones integrators use, which are too lean to survive outdoors. The increased body fat results in increased flavor, and in the general celebration of chefs.
In 1994 Paul and Phyllis Willis, both from multi-generational Iowa farming families, volunteered to be Niman Ranch's first pork-producing partners. When I visited the genial, welcoming Willises in Thornton, a small town near Mason City, a few hundred pigs surrounded the square brick farmhouse they have turned into their company headquarters. About a dozen sows had just farrowed, and they snuggled with their piglets in little Quonset huts. Even if the endless-horizon scenery on the Willis farm was less enchanting than Laughing Stock's emerald rolling hills, the scene was nearly as idyllic.
Criteria for joining Niman Ranch center mainly on feed and humane living conditions. But taste is high on the list too, as a freshly used broiler pan attested when I entered the office through the kitchen. Farmers must pass the pork-chop test: the Willises and an associate in charge of product quality cook and taste a sample chop, deeming it either sufficiently juicy and tender or not quite ready for the Niman label. Restaurants around the country list Niman Ranch pork like a badge of honor. Demand is now twice the available supply, Paul Willis told me, and growth is limited mostly by the dwindling number of family farms.
Hamilton compares Niman Ranch to Fair Trade—an umbrella group that makes sure farmers get their full share of selling prices and encourages consumers to pay a premium for responsibly raised food. While sustainability awaits a firm (and no doubt exploitable) definition, Niman Ranch is offering a model that is responsible to farmers, the environment, and diners—a sustainable model of sustainability.
Even with the addition of whey-sweetened and acorn-finished pigs from neighboring farms, Laughing Stock Farm's pork will remain reserved for Oregonians and visitors to Chez Panisse. However grateful he is to the restaurant for putting him on the map, Atkinson is frustrated by selling exclusively to a place that's 400 miles away, because it goes against many of his principles. Niman Ranch pork is available by mail order (nimanranch.com), so you can conveniently taste the difference between it and typical pork. Bacon is always the easy way to go, and Niman Ranch bacon is particularly good. The surest test, though, is a cut that ought to do well with long low cooking (but seldom does), such as shoulder—the kind of cut still popular in Europe, where pigs at slaughter are nearly twice the weight they are here, and have that much more fat and flavor.
Marcella Hazan, who has done much to awaken American palates to simple and true flavors, offers a recipe in her new Marcella Says … for pork shoulder braised with tomatoes, onions, and black-eyed peas. (In All About Braising, another new book, Molly Stevens devotes a whole chapter to pork.) The cooking time—at least two hours—requires meat high in collagen, with well-exercised muscle and an agreeably strong flavor. Niman Ranch pork should meet the challenge.
To serve four people, buy two pounds of pork shoulder with the bone in, and cut the meat into two-inch cubes. Cover one and a half cups of dried black-eyed peas with abundant warm water and soak them for two to three hours. Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a low saucepan over high heat. Brown the meat on one side, putting in only as many pieces at a time as will fit easily. Turn the pieces to brown the other side, and then transfer them to a bowl using tongs or a slotted spoon. In the same pan put two and a half cups of onion, sliced very thin, and a sprinkling of salt. Lower the heat and cook the onions until they are very soft, about thirty minutes, turning occasionally. Return the meat and any juices to the pan. Add chopped dried Italian red chili pepper and salt to taste, two thirds of a cup of dry white wine, two garlic cloves peeled and sliced very thin, and one cup of chopped tomatoes with their juice or the same amount of canned imported San Marzano tomatoes. Cover the pan and cook over very low heat for at least two hours. Turn the meat from time to time, and add a few tablespoons of water if the juices seem to be running low.
While the meat is cooking, drain and rinse the peas and put them into another saucepan with water to cover by about two inches. Add a teaspoon of salt and two teaspoons of olive oil and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a very gentle simmer and cover the pan. Cook until completely tender, about forty-five minutes. When the peas are done, drain them and add them to the stew, stirring once or twice. Continue to cook at low heat for at least fifteen minutes, or until the meat feels very tender when tested with a knife or fork. Serve at once on a warm platter. The meat should be chewy yet tender, with an authoritative flavor that rises beyond even the tomato and chili—the round, forgotten flavor of pork.