Heritage Breed Pigs
A Brand Worth Saving
Every kid dreams of growing up to do something to change the world. Some want to be doctors, while others want to run for the office of the president of the United States. And, until recently, few believed they could change the world by becoming A CHEF OR FARMER.
Due to the tireless efforts of people like Cochon555 founder Brady Lowe, Midwest farmer Kim Snyder, Houston meat master Felix Florez and countless others in the culinary industry, the next generation may be able to fix the United States’ broken food system.
It’s a system that’s been terribly plagued by corporate interference to get the most out of the natural order of food by cutting corners, says Felix Florez, who started ranching full time in 2010 with his Houston-based company, Black Hill Meats. He says corporations are trying to make as much money as they possibly can as the world’s population continues to swell.
“They’re trying to pump out as many animals as they possibly can because there are seven billion humans on this planet and seven billion humans have to get fed,” explains Florez, who is also a partner at Ritual Restaurant in Houston. “Our populations continue to increase, and as the population grows, they will continue to find shortcuts to feed more and more and more people until the food that we are eating becomes unrecognizable.”
Florez maintains one of many, but certainly not enough, small family farms striving to go up against the big boys, the major corporate farms. With Black Hill Meats, he raises heritage breed pigs, famous globally for their gastronomic attributes and raised with no antibiotics, using traditional farming methods. That includes feeding them better diets, raising them humanely and even slaughtering them in humane fashion. Florez says treating his pigs in this manner results in superior meat.
“The reason why that makes a difference is because the more stressed out you are as livestock, the higher your metabolism is. You burn fat at a faster rate and the intramuscular fat stores inside the muscle of the animal starts being used as fuel. A calm animal raised with trees and a serene setting and treated well will burn fat at a slower rate. Therefore, when you get their meat on your plate, it will be juicier and more flavorful.”
To ensure his livestock is in peak condition, he personally builds shelters and provides a daily diet of barley, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, oats, rice and cracked corn. That is in sharp contrast to what corporate farmers typically feed their pigs, he says, which includes corn, water and antibiotics.
“That’s why my role will continue to be important,” Florez continues, “because there will always be a group of people who will say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to eat this stuff. I want to eat food that my grandparents ate, that my great-grandparents ate.’ Aside from that, it just tastes much, much better.”
Florez started working with Cochon555 around the same time he launched Black Hill Meats. The nonprofit organization, founded by hospitality industry veteran Brady Lowe, is a nose-to-tail culinary tour dedicated to supporting family farmers and educating chefs and diners about the agricultural importance of utilizing heritage breed pigs.
Cochon555 has only been traveling to Houston for a few years, but it’s been touring the country in cities like Atlanta, Chicago, New York and San Francisco since 2008. For the 2017 season, the event traveled to 15 cities across the country. Lowe says he created the event to educate and entertain the masses about the importance of heritage breed pigs.
"I wanted to do something for the industry that I would buy a ticket for and I wanted it to be something that speaks to me, so it was a selfish act,” admits Lowe. “If I am going to spend my money, give me an event I want to go to! Give me producers, vendors, chefs and wineries who are happy to be there because if they’re happy, then their experience with the guests will be happy. Those are our two biggest challenges: how to keep it cool and educational — something I believe is very important.”
His interest in heritage breed pigs’ preservation stemmed from working in the wine and artisan cheese industry and he observed how well farmers took care of the livestock that produced the cheese. “They were parenting the animals like they were their own kids because they wanted the best outcome for the milk,” he says. “(The same thing) wasn’t happening in the hog industry.”
That’s when he decided to self-educate himself about heritage breed pigs. Along the way, he talked to small family farmers and listened to their challenges about raising these pigs with little to no support from the culinary community. No one really knew about their existence, he says. At that time, he adds, there were few websites and conservancy boards dedicated to them. That’s when he decided to start a food revolution with the Cochon555 culinary tour. He’s seen a big difference in awareness since those early days.
“Today, if you Google heritage breed pigs, you can tell that we’ve made an impact,” he says. “When we started in 2008, there were a few conservancies and one or two people online selling them. There was only a handful of chefs who knew what heritage breed pigs were. Today we directly work with 2,000 chefs a year. Indirectly, 6,000 chefs come to the events, and experience them. And I don’t even know the number of chefs who hear about (my events). If we work with 100 farmers every year and talk to 500 farmers every year, then the demand is out there and people are learning about heritage breeds.”
A long-time Cochon555 advocate and participant, Kim Snyder started her 32-acre farm 13 years ago 10 miles west of Kankakee in Bonfield, Ill. She likens Faith’s Farm, which is named after her daughter, to Old McDonald’s because she breeds all sorts of livestock, including cattle, chickens, ducks, sheep, turkeys and, of course, heritage breed pigs.
Specifically, Snyder raises Berkshire and Gloucestershire pigs, which are two of the most highly sought-after breeds. She insists, however, that it’s impossible to tell the difference between the two breeds when they’re born on her farm because they live and eat in the same manner. What is most important, she says, is that piglets are not separated from their mothers.
Her pigs have the luxury of nursing on their mothers’ milk until they’re ready to nourish themselves with other food. That can last up to 18 weeks. Corporate farmers, however, ween them off their mothers within a couple of weeks, Snyder says.
“That changes their nutrition, changes their flavor,” she explains, adding that her pork is very rich and buttery. “Pigs are one of the species that takes on what it eats. Their environment is very important. My chefs always tell me that I have the cleanest smelling and tasting pork because they eat so well.”
Though there is more awareness than ever of heritage breed pigs, they remain on the endangered list. Snyder says that it costs more money to raise these animals humanely and thoughtfully, which is why there are not that many in the marketplace. Increased human consumption will save these animals, she insists.
“When people consume and buy more of the product, they’re saving the breed,” she explains. “We need more restaurants willing to buy and feature them on their menus.”