SHUSHAN, N.Y. —
Turn down the road to Flying Pigs Farm, and two or three of Michael Yezzi’s pigs are probably standing in the middle of it.
“They’re the welcoming committee,” Yezzi said.
These particular pigs, three Gloucestershire Old Spots that could easily find work in Hollywood, had exploited a fault in the electrically wired fence and gone exploring. “I’m sure you’ve heard that pigs are very smart,” said Yezzi, a lawyer turned farmer. His farm is about 20 miles east of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
For the last four or five decades, spotting lone pigs in a field was almost as rare as finding a hen’s tooth. But Yezzi is one of an increasing number of farmers raising pigs on hoof, in contrast to the barns and confinement stalls used in large-scale industrial settings.
He sells from 900 to 1,000 pigs for meat a year from his own herd and those of other farmers in the area, and says he could name his price because demand is so strong. “Though I’m in a constant state of panic about whether I’ll have too much or not enough to supply what people want,” he said.
Neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture nor the National Pork Producers Council has data on the number of pastured pigs, though in 2006, research done at Iowa State University estimated that the drift, as a group of pigs is known, numbered from 500,000 to 750,000.
Several factors are driving the appetite for pasture-raised pork, grocers and chefs say. Consumers are increasingly aware of and concerned about the conditions under which livestock is raised, and somewhat more willing to pay higher prices for meat certified to have come from animals that were humanely raised.
Big food businesses from McDonald’s to Oscar Mayer and Safeway have promised to stop selling pork from pigs raised in crates over the next decade. Smithfield Farms, one of the country’s largest pork processors, announced this month that it was encouraging all contractors raising hogs on its behalf to move to the use of group pens, which have to be big enough for several pigs to live in comfortably, with space to walk around and bed down.
The restaurant chain Chipotle and some prominent chefs like Dan Barber and Bill Telepan, both of whom have restaurants in Manhattan, have begun using meats from animals that were humanely raised. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s do a brisk business in such meat.
But selling the whole hog is still a tough market for farmers raising pastured pigs. Mass pork producers ship hard-to-sell parts like hooves, kidneys and livers to China and other countries where cuisines are more accommodating, but small farmers don’t have access to such markets.
Even Smithfield struggled with pastured pork it sold under the label Pure Foods. “At that time, the difficulty was identifying enough customers willing to pay a sufficient premium for differentiated pork, while escalating corn prices pushed costs higher and an overabundance of available commodity pork pulled meat prices lower,” Keira Lombardo, a spokeswoman for Smithfield Foods, the parent company of Smithfield Farms, wrote in an email.
As much as consumers say they want their meat to come from humanely raised animals, they still resist paying higher prices for pasture-raised pork. “You have to have a customer or business in mind when you go into this,” said Andrew Gunther, program director at Animal Welfare Approved, which certifies pigs and other animals that are raised under specific welfare standards. “You can’t just grow pigs and think people will flock to buy them — the missing link from the farmer’s perspective is ‘How do I reach you as a customer?’”
Another obstacle is the scarcity of independent slaughterhouses for pigs. Such facilities traditionally have handled cattle slaughter and perhaps some lamb and goat, but pork slaughter is handled almost exclusively by large, vertically integrated meat companies like Smithfield and Tyson.
“The question is how to scale beyond farmers markets to capitalize on what is a growing demand for this kind of meat,” said Jennifer Curtis, co-chief executive of Firsthand Foods of North Carolina.
She and her fellow chief executive, Tina Prevatte, work with local groceries and institutions in North Carolina to coordinate the demand and supply from farmers. “You can’t be a small-scale farmer raising pigs and be able to supply the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with even a smattering of the pork they need on a regular basis,” Curtis said.
The university has a contract with Firsthand to supply all of the pork it needs for one day each week. “We work all month to get enough — and then we have to find a home for every other part of those pigs, too,” Curtis said.
More pig farmers are moving toward what might be called the Niman Ranch model. Paul Willis, the founder of Niman’s pork business, recruits farmers across the country who agree to raise pigs according to its standards. Niman, in Northern California, then slaughters and sells pork from about 500 farmers under its brand name.
Willis estimated that as many as half of the pastured pigs raised today are in the Niman system, which supplies Chipotle restaurants and others. “We could sell 20 percent more than what we have in no time,” Willis said. “This way of raising pigs is still a very small part of the business — 400,000 hogs are killed each day and we can supply only 3,000 pigs a week.”
Jeremiah Jones used to sell his hogs to Niman but now heads the North Carolina Natural Hog Growers Association, which represents about 30 farm operations selling 80 to 100 pasture-raised pigs a week.
“We’re trying to educate the buyers and the farmers about each other,” Jones said. “Buyers need to understand that we aren’t Wal-Mart with a bunch of ribs just sitting here waiting for them, and my farmers need to understand that we need a steady, consistent supply of hogs.”
The big pork producers raise several concerns about the growing number of pastured pigs, including potential health problems from exposure to the elements and the increased risk of diseases like trichinosis.
Farmers raising pastured pigs acknowledge that pigs raised outdoors have a higher risk of coming into contact with rodents and other animals that carry the pathogen for trichinosis (one of Wilbur’s closest friends in “Charlotte’s Web” was Templeton the rat).
That said, the number of cases of trichinosis in the United States has plummeted as the number of pastured pigs has increased, with most cases attributable to consumption of meat from other wild animals like bears. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 10 cases of trichinosis attributed to pork products from 2002 to 2007, seven were linked to commercially raised pigs and two to “wild boar meat.” The centers could not link one case to either commercial or pastured pigs.
Pork from pastured pigs must go through the same inspection protocols set by the Agriculture Department as commercially raised pork. The department notes that cooking any pork to 160 degrees will kill trichinosis and other pathogens.
Craig Meili, who operates a family farm in Amenia, N.Y., concedes that caring for pigs out of doors requires more management, noting that he had been up at 2 a.m. a few weeks earlier to help Spotty, one of his sows, deliver 10 piglets. On a cold day in December, as a reporter watched, Spotty emerged from her hut and broke the ice covering her water bowl with her snout while her piglets scampered outside.
Meili said he has had to administer antibiotics to his animals only once or twice for illness. His 14 sows, which produced about 160 piglets last year, occasionally roll over onto a newborn piglet, killing it, but he gets 10 to 12 piglets per birth, a rate not too much less than industrial pork growers.
He had long raised cattle but got into the pig business about seven years ago after meeting the woman who is now his wife, Sophie, on Match.com . They started with four sows and a boar named Boris. They started selling the meat through farmers markets in the area, and then they got a call about two years ago from Harlem Shambles, a butcher shop in New York City selling antibiotic- and hormone-free, grass-fed meats.
The business took off, and Meili said he now hoped to double his production. To that end, he is cultivating three gilts, as virgin female pigs are known, to add to his drift.