Demand Is Growing For Hogs That Are Raised Humanely Outdoors

Categories: On The Farm

Turn down the road to Flying Pigs Farm here, and two or three of Michael Yezzi’s pigs are probably standing in the middle of it.

“They’re the welcoming committee,” Mr. Yezzi explained recently.

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 United States 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.

“No chef that opens a restaurant nowadays can do so without first seriously considering where his products are coming from, whether vegetables or little piggies,” said Nick Anderer, executive chef at Maialino, an restaurant in the Union Square Hospitality Group.

Maialino is devoted to selling all of the baby pig — and all means all. Its menu may feature things like a half a pig’s head salad and sausages made with the trim and offal.

Mr. Anderer said the restaurant started out disguising the meat from a pig’s head into a terrine. “If someone asked what was in it, we’d tell them, but otherwise the meat source went unmentioned,” he said. “But we got tired of obfuscating, and so now we brine the head, slow cook it and serve half of it on a salad.”

The dish has sold more than the terrine ever did, he said, “perhaps because of the shock value.”

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?’ ”

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