Monday, May 12, 2008

Acron Raised Pork

In my most recent issue of the The Practical Farmer, published by Practical Farmers of Iowa, there was a very short blurb about acorn fed, organic pigs. Along with the short article there is also a partial transcript of a story about acorn pork that was on Iowa Public Radio in November 2007. The interview includes quotes from Jude Becker (a farmer raising acorn pork) and Kathy and Herb Eckhouse who own La Quercia Artisan Cured Meats, located in Norwalk, Iowa. If you are interested in listening to the radio interview click here.

As a brief aside there was also a nice article by Kelli Miller of Sugar Creek Farm about farm blogging. Good stuff!

Acorn pork is a tradition that comes to Iowa from Italy and Spain (and that region) and according to what I have read produces some of the best hams out there. Others must agree because La Quercia has already taken a bunch of reservations for pork that won't be ready until 2009! Some of the chefs on the waiting list include the Iron Chef and Lydia Bastianich of public TV. That is some pretty crazy stuff!

But, the real key here is what the farmer is doing. Mr. Becker lives up in Northeast Iowa and has been raising organic hogs for the last 11 years. Right now he is raising and finishing 50 Chester-white and Berkshire-cross pigs now and is feeding them entirely organic feed. In the radio interview he said that the goal is to have 50% of their weight gain to come from the organic acorns (what is a non-organic acorn?). His pigs consume about 4 bushels of acorns a day, but it is also important to point out that organic acorns cost between $50 and $60 per bushel!

A couple of thoughts came to my mind after reading the article. First of all I thought ... man, those must be some expensive hams! This is definetly a niche market, but it also shows that there are many niche markets out there and there is probably a niche market available for many farmers if they look for it and help create it. But, the second thing that came to my mind is that although the pigs wouldn't get 50% of their gain from acorns they would receive a portion of it if they were pastured with access to the woods. For me that is just another reason, among many, to raise hogs outdoors in movable fencing.


Dave_Flora said...

Woah! Pricey Pigs indeed! That organic label can run into some expense. I mean, right now, labeling something as organic is a pretty huge market boost, but as that interview about organic acron-fed pigs shows, there can be a huge cost in production as well.
Fortunately, if you're selling through relationships, you can take the time to talk about how you raise your pigs, which is worth more than any label.


sugarcreekfarm said...

I don't have the article in front of me right now, but at the end it mentioned that one of these whole hogs would be over $3,000. I wonder if they meant to feed a pig out this way, or to buy a finished hog, or...??? Fascinating stuff.

Rich said...

"His pigs consume about 4 bushels of acorns a day"

That means that all 50 pigs eat 4 bushels a day doesn't it? So, it costs about $4 to $5 a day for each hog. From what I've read they need to be fed the acorns for between 30 and 90 days to have the desired effect from the acorns, so it would only cost an additional $150 to $450 to achieve an organic labeled Iberico-style pork product.

Anytime somebody is producing a specialty product like this, I think they tend to hold back some of the "secrets" to achieving the desired results.

From what I've seen, one of the first steps to producing Iberico-style pork is feeding barley and maize (grain sorghum?) to the weaned pigs before they are started on their acorn feed. If acorns are used as the final finishing feed, is the barley and sorghum also just as important to achieving the higher quality product?

Apparently, the high tannic acid levels in acorns are what change the taste of the fat and meat. With that in mind, some varieties of sorghum grain have higher tannic acid levels and could possibly be used to enhance or get a result similar to acorn feeding. It wouldn't technically be acorn finished, but it might still make a superior cured product.

Another thought is the oak leaves themselves. Oak leaves also have high levels of tannic acid, so are the leaf litter, leaf mold, and oak tree roots under oak trees just as important (or the true secret)?

It almost makes me want to experiment with three different diets (and environments) on a few pigs to see if I can get different meat characteristics.

Dave_Flora said...

Rich, as usual, you're a fount of knowledge! Wonderful theories you've got there.


Rich said...

Thanks Dave, but I think alot of the credit should go to Ethan for giving me somewhere to share my thoughts and allow me to "flesh out" some of my thinking by commenting on his blog posts.

Ethan Book said...

Kelli - I hadn't caught the $3,000 thing ... WOW!

Rich - Yes, it said they eat 4 bushels a day for the herd, so yep $5 or so per day, plus their organic ration (don't know how much that would cost). Experimenting is what I plan on doing this summer/fall and then going "whole hog" next year.

Steven said...

I finally got The SGF yesterday and my wife and I read this article to each other last night instead of watching American Idol! Haha We're getting pretty excited about pigs and didn't think we would be putting any in our little 3 acres of woods (because it's almost a mile from the barn, and across the highway) until Salatin made it sound so easy. We're probably going to be getting a few 3/4 Red Wattle hogs at the end of this month so I'll let you know how it goes. I've been adding corn, and just a little pecans to the bedding in the barn ever since you brought us the 3 Dexters so I hope these little red hogs like to dig. :-)

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