By Des Keller
Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
Carl Blake is holding a tiny nugget of wiggling, squealing, culinary gold in his massive hands. Either black or brown, the piglets he scoops out of a pen on his northeast Iowa farm will dine on hydroponically grown barley and oat seedlings, sweet molasses, whole milk, as well as some grain for seven months. Blake tosses rectangular mats of green barley shoots and their tangled root mass into the pen where pigs scramble for the meal.
"Right there is the future of everything I've done for several years," says Blake, holding out a piglet that nips his finger. "It feels like I'm on the right track."
At the end of seven months, a list of chefs at high-end restaurants will clamor to buy Blake's pigs at nearly 4½ times the price paid for most of the pork you'll find in the grocery store. This breed of Blake's, known as the Iowa Swabian Hall, is special.
Dozens of the animals, from piglets to those nearing finished weight, now populate several old pens and shelters ringing his Rustik Rooster Farms. The chefs and other individuals from coast to coast who buy Blake's hogs swear by them.
"This is my favorite pig on Earth," says Kevin Nashan, the executive chef at Sidney Street Cafe in St. Louis, Mo. "His is the best pork I've ever had." Nashan takes delivery of one of Blake's Iowa Swabian Halls about every two weeks, paying up to $4.25 per pound for a 175-pound animal, complete with head and often the skin.
Nashan first met Blake more than two years ago at a Cochon 555 event he was judging in Chicago. Cochon 555 competitions are held around the country and feature noted chefs cooking a variety of so-called heritage pigs.
It was at such an event in 2010 in San Francisco that the Iowa Swabian Hall came out of nowhere to take top honors. The win put Blake on the "foodie" map. He won the competition again in 2011 and 2012.
The notoriety landed Blake on Andrew Zimmern's "Bizarre Foods America" show on the Travel Channel. Earlier this year, he appeared in a story on the front page of the The New York Times. Then Blake visited Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," where host Stephen Colbert ate prosciutto made from Blake's pigs, nuzzled an Iowa Swabian Hall piglet and cooed: "You are delicious."
The National Geographic Channel has already completed segments of a reality show featuring Blake tentatively called "Little Pig Man." The show, a kind of "Duck Dynasty" for hog farmers, has not yet debuted.
This adds up to a pleasant enough tale of one man's niche market. But it's nowhere near the end of the story as far as Blake is concerned. He has set about trying to transform the commercial pork market by breeding back real flavor with desirable levels of fat in pork that anyone can afford.
He hasn't always gone about his mission diplomatically. "U.S. pigs suck," says Blake, who, with his 6-foot-2-inch frame and ponytail, and weighing somewhere north of 300 pounds, makes an impression in more ways than one. "'The other white meat' campaign is one of the worst things that ever happened to our pork industry," he says. "This is a red meat."
Ironically, Blake has used a group of Chinese Meishan pigs he acquired from Iowa State University (ISU) as the basis for most of his breeding work.
Relatively small and fatty, with loose wrinkly skin, the Meishans are prized for regular litters numbering 14 to 16 piglets. In fact, genetic work on the Meishans at ISU contributed to the overall increase in the size of litters of U.S. commercial pigs.
Blake claims the school (and the industry) failed to capitalize on the fat and flavor characteristics the Meishans had to offer. Why increase the litter size of commercial pigs, Blake wondered, if the meat itself was becoming increasingly pale, dry and flavorless?
QUALITY OR QUANTITY?
"We do research for pork production that will feed the 99% of the people, not the 1%," says Max Rothschild, ISU animal scientist. "I would congratulate [Blake] him on serving the white linen restaurant trade, but most people are looking to get what is commodity pork. The Meishans were not going be effective in that commercial production."
Not so, according to Blake. The Meishans have provided half the genetics for the Iowa Swabian Hall as well as for another breed he's developed, known as the Iowa Black Beauty. While neither of them can grow competitively at the rate of commercial pigs—a third breed he has developed that is one-fourth Meishan does.
Most commercial pigs take just under six months to reach a market weight of 270 pounds. By comparison, Iowa Swabian Halls are marketed at about 200 pounds after seven months. The additional time needed to grow a smaller pig is costly. And Blake's pigs are raised naturally, which means they require more space. The pig is a newer version of a renowned 19th-century German breed, the Swabian Hall. That pig was a cross between Chinese Meishan pigs and Russian wild boars.
A long-time computer network consultant, Blake began trying to breed a new, old-style pig in 2007 in an effort to make a living from agriculture. He raised pigs as a boy in 4-H.
To some extent, industry experts concede the pendulum may have swung too far toward lean. "The lean-to-fat content in a modern commercial pig is about 74%," says Chris Hostetler, an animal scientist with the National Pork Board. Fifty years ago, it was about 60%. The ideal range may more ideally be in the "upper 60s."
The pork industry was responding to consumer desires by trimming the fat for years, Hostetler explains.
"A chef may want more marbling, and a health-conscious consumer is looking for the leaner protein," he says.
Near his farm, in the town of Tripoli, Blake has purchased the century-old Opera House. A venue for wedding receptions and community dances, Blake has plans to eventually open it as a full-time restaurant. More immediately, he coveted its commercial kitchen to cook, cater, taste-test and perfect his pork products.
Blake realizes his over-sized look and personality is a big part of his brand. He almost always wears denim overalls with one suspender undone. A Rustik Rooster logo has been sewn onto the overalls.
"I'd be doing myself a disservice by not putting my homely face out there," Blake laughs. "I never go into a restaurant to visit a buyer in a suit and tie. I walk right in the front door with the bibs on and a pig in my arms. The chef can say to his customers, 'Did you see the farmer delivered the pig himself?'"
By 2014, Blake wants to raise 1,500 head of Iowa Swabian Halls and 5,000 annually three to five years from now. His plan involves getting like-minded farmers (he already has several) to contract to grow them under his natural, nonconfinement system.
In the Opera House kitchen, Blake offers to heat up some of the pulled pork from a pig he roasted the evening before. We won't, however, be snacking on one of his famed Iowa Swabian Halls. Those pigs are in demand and out the door as soon as they reach weight.
"I haven't eaten my own bacon in a year-and-a-half," Blake laughs at his own exaggeration. "I haven't seen a damn pork chop in two years."
Instead, he offers a sandwich of pulled pork from an Iowa Black Beauty, another cross between Meishans and a second breed he won't disclose. "It's only a little different than the Iowa Swabian Hall," Blake says.
He grows the Iowa Black Beauty to a heavier weight than the Iowa Swabian Halls -- to about 230 pounds -- and it's firm fat characteristics make it an excellent source of charcuterie, such as salami, prosciutto and soppressata.
In Blake's huge hands, a single pork sandwich looks like finger food. I'm waiting for him to offer me something like barbecue sauce. He says the pig was roasted with garlic salt of his own making but little else.
I take a bite and begin to chew. No sauce is necessary. This may be the best pork I've ever tasted, and it's from Blake's second-string breed? He smiles at my reaction.
"I never tell people mine is the best pork," Blake says. "I say, 'You need to try this for yourself.'" He's obviously got me. "This is what my super pig will do for everyone, provide affordable flavor from red meat with fat and succulence."
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