There’s a long-running joke that Iowa is the “fly-over” state in the U.S. – nothing but a wash of cornfields and pork-producing confinement buildings that looks like a rectangular checkerboard from planes overhead. I’ve even heard the joke come from the mouths of Iowans themselves. But I saw and experienced something completely different on a recent trip to Des Moines, the heart of the pork-producing state.
I came up-close to a curious mother sow and her black-and-white speckled piglets; snacked on chorizo-green chile-stuffed tacos made with homemade corn tortillas; bought a hand-carved, hand-smoothed chunk of rusty-colored wood that now holds fruit on my dining table; tasted raw, juicy slices of 20 different kinds of heirloom tomatoes; trail-blazed through the tall, clover-spiked purple, yellow and green grasses of natural Midwestern prairie; savored every bite of 18-hour, slow-roasted whole pork immediately after “pulling” alongside pork belly, glistening with its hearty layer of fat cut-through by a meaty underside and crispy-caramel skin; and, most importantly, met some of thekindest farmers and ranchers who care deeply about their families, their animals, and the earth.
This was my trip to the pork “division” of Niman Ranch, and more specifically, to the birthplace and working farm of Paul Willis, founder of the Niman Ranch Pork Company who has been crowned by Alice Waters and other chefs, food-lovers and other as the “godfather of pork.”
Paul has weathered, tan skin and some wrinkling around the eyes – evidence of a life as a happy, constantly smiling and outdoor living farmer. Donned in his staple blue overalls, which he once refused to sell for a hefty price to an affluent visitor, Paul speaks softly but knowledgeable, being a living legend among chefs and culinarians. And, apparently Chipotle as well.
Niman Ranch is known as the answer for sustainable, humanely-raised meat that’s produced around the country, but distributed like local food. Niman’s business strategy differs from the big distribution companies that focus on grand-scale, cross-country trucking and commercial animal production, otherwise known as factory farms, as a way to meet those big demands. Instead, Niman’s program is the opposite: it’s a network of small farms that pool their resources and products as way to keep things small-scale and sustainable while meeting the needs of customers around the country. It’s a business philosophy that’s started the “slow food” concept of transforming this country’s food system completely – for the better.
When Bill Niman decided to get into the pork business, he first searched around his state of California for producers, but failed to find the right match. Through Alice Waters, he learned about Paul, who was one of the only pork producers in the country raising their pigs completely outdoors. Immediately, Niman loved Paul’s pork. “He told me to send him 30 more chops,” Paul said. “I had to figure out how was I going to get those to him? Do I put them on a plane? Or do I send the animals on a train and have them processed in California?” Paul ended up doing the latter and the rest was history.
During the eighties, Paul explained during the trip to his ranch, pork began being bred for a leaner product that could compete with the popularity of chicken breast. The pork board added further pressure in this regard, and many farmers found they didn’t have as much use for the fattier parts or lard byproduct as more consumers switched from lard to oil. The new breed of pork was a leaner one, and that meant the pigs couldn’t withstand the cold temperatures and harsh winters that of the Iowan, Midwestern climate without that important layer of fatback they once had. On top of that, pigs use that layer of fat like sweat glands since they don’t have any. This meant the hot, Midwestern summers were just as unbearable.
The solution for this was to move the pigs indoors. But Paul refused to do so. As a result, he became part of the less than 5 percent of pork producers that, to this day, still raise their animals completely in confinement operations. More often than not in these operations, pigs have little, if any, room to move around and very little care or attention, as many of the production companies have “outsourced” management of these facilities to poorly paid workers, including illegal workers, who literally come in to check temperatures and remove dead animals. This is also precisely why antibiotics became infused in feed and water as a way to prevent stress-induced illness before it happened.
Paul’s pigs are Berkshire, Duroc and Chester White, three of the types of pork that are known for their generous fat layer so they can remain outdoors, and juicy, tender meat. In fact, Paul’s breed standards are extraordinarily intense. Interested farmers must apply and ensure their raising and production processes are in line with the at least eight pages of standards outlined in the Niman Ranch application. They also have to go through a few rounds of farm visits, tasting and pH testing. During a demonstration of the difference between commodity and Niman pork chops, Niman’s field operations manager Lori Lyon explained that the company’s standards for pH is 5.7 or above. Most commodity pork, on the other hand, has a pH as low as 2 or 3, meaning these chops are highly acidic. And you can tell from looking at it, too. Ever seen a package of pork chops from the grocery store “swimming” in what looks like a pool of water? That’s actually the juices of the pork running out as it breaks down from its own acidity.
Lactic acid is the culprit, and that acid builds up if the animal is stressed just before slaughter. The most lactic-acid preventing and also humane slaughter method, used by Niman and increasing numbers of even commodity producers these days, is to group the animals together according to their age and “pack,” then gas the animals so they fall asleep. At that point they are killed and processed. This method has increasingly replaced the stunning method, during which workers can “miss” an animal and have to repeat the stunning, twice, even three times. Pigs are intelligent so when they see others of their kind in distress, it causes them to be distressed. The horror stories of the sounds and smells coming from those slaughter houses became too much for a lot of those workers, including one who spoke about his experiences during the Niman ranch trip.
On the farm, Paul’s pigs are happy. They run around, play, snort, root, sleep, eat and cuddle together. Contrary to the cartoons and sayings, pigs actually don’t enjoy sitting in their own you know what, though they do enjoy a cool mud patch from time to time. They also enjoy hanging with other pigs in general, but mostly those their age. Sows are kept separate with their black and white speckled piglets who curiously peer out from inside the small shed shelters scattered about the field. The “adolescents” look like a pack of deer running back and forth from a nearby predator, though they’re really just “exercising,” Paul said. Other curious potbellied creatures were braver to approach us and say hello. We smiled and said hello back.
Later that evening for dinner, our group gathered around an indoor-outdoor shed of sorts where the Willis family and friends had set up an enormous buffet of foods, from caprese salads with heirloom tomatoes, corn salsas, homemade bread and fresh churned butter, hot, crispy jalapeno poppers, and home-cured salamis paired with fresh cheeses and picked vegetables. But the star of the show was the whole hog, head, apple-stuffed mouth and all, that had been smoked for 18 hours in a massive smoker at the Niman specialty meats processing center nearby. The meat was a mixture of tender, pulled pork layered with fattier bits that barely needed the bread, let alone a sauce. And then the finale: huge pork belly chunks with all their layers perfectly intact: tender-braised meat on bottom, succulent fat in the middle, and a crisp, seared top. Just like the French make it. Just like a sustainable Iowa farmer makes it.
After dinner, a few of us got off an over-packed hay ride to walk with Paul through his prairie and wildlife preserve, a experimental project with the state of Iowa. As we walked through the tall, yellow and purple flower-spiked grasses, Paul ran his hands along the trunks of the stems, pointing out the different species and birds that flew in and out. Crickets purred softly. At one point, a hummingbird hummed by. Downhill, just beyond the little pond at the center of the field, the sun began to set and cast a purple hue across the sky. Though he doesn’t raise any pigs on this particular property, this is where Paul’s family lives, cooks, eats and gathers. He calls it “Dream Farm.” One can see why.