As I was driving my 13-year old son to his soccer game in Charlotte yesterday, we passed a truck filled with hogs. My boy examined the truck, looked at me, and said, “Mmmm, pork.” I then began to tell him where those pigs were headed, and more significantly, where they likely came from. I explained to him that the pigs led a life in which they didn’t run around, were confined to a 6 square foot space of concrete floor, where the pigs’ feces are pumped to huge lagoons, fouling the air for miles around. I told him that this process makes the pork that he eats reasonably affordable, but at the expense of any semblance of humane treatment. I thought that he needed to know these things. He didn’t really respond, but he gazed at me with a perplexed look, and then said, “That’s not right.”
I am a hypocrite. I don’t really want to know first-hand how bad our food-animals have it. I don’t need to see the stockyards where cattle are raised, the hog farms where thousands of pigs are cramped together, how female chickens are pumped with antibiotics and raised in one-third of the time they used to take to get to market-size. If I saw those things, I might stop eating the wondrous flesh these animals provide.
However, I am able to make decisions when I shop, and particularly when it comes to pork, the finest of all meats, I’m a bit more aware of what I’m buying. A few years ago, I hosted a pig pickin’ for the eGullet Society (warning, long discussion at that link), and I obtained my hog from a local farmer, Mr. Wade Cole. Cole at the time was raising pigs for Niman Ranch. As I wrote back then:
A professor from North Carolina A&T in Greensboro wanted to help small farmers of North Carolina, particularly those who had lost their tobacco allotments. Using money from the Golden Leaf settlement and inspired by an article in Ed Behr’s “The Art of Eating”, this professor, Chuck Talbott, contacted a Niman Ranch official and initiated a pilot program for farmers to raise Niman Ranch hogs. In the 90s, NC pig farmers were receiving 10 cents a pound for their hogs. This means that I would have had to pay $20 for the 200 pound pig used in the pig pickin’. Niman Ranch, on the other hand, pays at least 40 cents a pound.
Mr. Wade Cole lives in rural North Carolina and had been raising soybeans, corn and other produce after he stopped growing tobacco. He previously raised hogs, but got out of that business when the market bottomed out. He received 12 Niman Ranch sows and 2 boars. He has plenty more, now. These animals are free range, fed a Niman Ranch-prescribed diet, and are treated humanely (they get to keep their tails)!
I went to the abbatoir to pick up this pig, and I saw it being slaughtered. I didn’t enjoy the experience, but Cole told me of how this pig had led a life running around the field, in the open air. As I took the pig home from the slaughterhouse, I felt some sort of connection with this animal that would be our meal the following day. I had cooked at least a dozen pigs before, but never had I developed any sort of link with a carcass. I thought I was losing it.
Well, I also learned that year that pigs raised in this more humane manner also taste a hell of a lot better. That hog, slow cooked over pecan wood, was absolutely the most divine-tasting pork I have ever eaten. Heck, the picture that I use on the top of this website is of that pig.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking into my neighborhood Whole Foods, when I caught a glimpse of a sign promoting the store’s ties with local farmers, and on that poster was Wade Cole himself. He no longer sells to Niman Ranch, but he is selling to local establishments. Boy, that makes it all the more enjoyable to buy my pork from Whole Foods. But a recent story in The Independent makes it clear that these farmers cannot survive solely by selling to the high-end grocers — they need to sell directly to consumers like you and me. I encourage you to read this great Indy article about local farmer, Mike Jones. You’ll get a glimpse of the right way to raise hogs. This sort of farming is taking off. And some hog farmers, such as Eliza MacLean at Cane Creek Farm, have gone a step further, raising specialty heirloom breeds.
Yes, I know that this pork is more expensive, but if you CAN afford it, you should support these farmers who raise better tasting meat in a much more humane manner. And if you want to buy a whole hog from Wade Cole, then drop me a note. I’ll get you in touch with the man responsible for some of the best pork to touch your fork.