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Pig-happy in Pastures A Plenty

By Cindy Green

Photos by Rolf Hagberg

Clara City, Minn. — At the Java River cafe in Montevideo, Minn., proprietor Patrick Moore serves up “Happy Ham” sandwiches. He’s alluding to pigs frolicking in straw and sunshine, pork producers who have found high-value direct markets, and customers who enjoy Moore’s barbecue pork salad, pepper-bacon soup and Chicago-style “Java hot dogs.”

The “Pastures A Plenty Farm” pork served at Java River is supplied by Josh and Cindy VanDerPol, who moved to the Clara City family farm six years ago. They have helped Josh’s parents, Jim and LeeAnn, turn a conventional confinement operation into one where hogs are raised in open barns of straw, pasture-grazed in the summer, and never given antibiotics or hormones.

Converting from conventional to free-range opened up new markets for the VanDerPols. They now meet the production standards of upscale West Coast restaurants and are steadily increasing sales to specialty grocers, food cooperatives and catering services, as well as directly to customers.

Freedom from nitrites

Since more consumers are demanding all-natural products, AURI has been helping the VanDerPols develop nitrite-free, low-sodium ham and bacon under the guidance of meat scientist Darrell Bartholomew, meat technologist Brian Reuter and lab assistant Karen Fennern, who managed a meat plant in Albany, Minn.

“The biggest challenge has been getting the cured flavor and color that nitrites provide,” Reuter says. Through recipe and processing tests, they have replicated the red-pink color and taste in bacon “by smoking and adding certain natural extracts,” Reuter says. They also controlled sodium content “so it has a good bacon flavor, but it isn’t too salty,” Bartholomew says. The no-nitrite ham is still under development; it is trickier to get the color provided by natural seasonings to permeate the entire ham, Bartholomew says.

The VanDerPols say adapting their products to niche markets has been a better route than contracting with a major processor, which often requires raising thousands of hogs in confinement. Jim says his health deteriorated from 20 years of working in barns with potent ammonia gasses. “The environment in the new buildings and pasture is better for the animals and us,” Josh says. “The air quality is better when they’re not on concrete … no more ammonia smells and hydrogen sulfide.”

Hog heaven?

On a chilly January day, young pigs romp in a straw-filled barn on the VanDerPol farm. They sniff strangers curiously, then go about their daily play of digging in the straw and nudging each other. Only a faint hog smell is detectable. Straw “creates a natural compost with manure and breaks it down so it doesn’t have odors,” Josh says. When hogs are grazed, “the outside air is even better. Sunshine kills a lot of pathogens. And they keep busy out there. … In the buildings they chew on posts and walls to stay busy. Outside they can chew on clover.”

In another barn, adolescent pigs — about three to four months old — gang around Jim as he walks in their midst, pointing out various breeds such as the golden-brown, black-spotted Berkshire crossbreds, which he says is one of the best-tasting hogs on the market.

The VanDerPols switched to straw-raised, pasture-grazed hogs in the mid-’90s when their production facilities started wearing out. “Instead of making a new investment, they decided to try something different,” Josh says. When Josh joined the operation, “we were up to about 120 sows — producing about 1800 pigs a year. Then we shrank back in 1998 because hog prices were so low.” That’s when they went to direct marketing.

“We started selling to family, friends, neighbors,” marketing Pastures A Plenty as ‘a patch of green and great cuisine.’ Then “we started selling to other people, custom processing. We saw a lot of people didn’t want to buy big quantities — they’d rather buy 10 or 20 pounds at a time.”

Directly challenged

The owner of the Kadejan poultry processing plant in Glenwood, where the VanDerPols send their chickens, introduced them to natural food stores that needed pork. “We paired with a state -approved (equal to USDA) processor in Belgrade, and from there we got our food handlers’ license so we could sell individual pieces or smaller packages like 60 or 100 pounds at a time. That boosted the business quite a bit,” Josh says.

The VanDerPols started selling at the Willmar Farmers Market. Then “a church in the Twin Cities heard about us and wanted us to come and talk about our farming.” That entry into the Twin Cities led to supplying several food buying clubs, which order and pick up at distribution points like a church or Farmers Union. Besides a full line of pork, the VanDerPols sell beef, lamb, chickens and eggs, and market cheese from Cedar Summit Farm.

Another boost came from Niman Ranch in Iowa, which distributes their pork to four-star West Coast restaurants. “We have to fulfill their requirements on animal welfare,” Josh says. Since they don’t use antibiotics, in rare cases where an animal is sick, “we hand treat it and market it separately.”

Pastures A Plenty products are sold in five Twin Cities food co-ops and the VanDerPols expect to add more. Because they put more effort into marketing and direct sales, they produce less than before — about 700 to 800 hogs a year. Their 320-acre farm, which once grew grain for market, now supplies feed and pasture for their livestock.

The direct-to-market operation also involves “a lot more paperwork” than conventional farming, Cindy says. “There’s a lot of new stuff to learn and other challenges” — such as managing inventory when high-value cuts sell right away and they are left with unsold, lower-value meats. That prompted them to design such products as smoked bratwurst, wieners, and Polish and Italian sausages. While their products are coprocessed at plants in Belgrade and Hancock, “we’re considering a small sausage plant; we’re figuring out the financials,” Josh says.

“Research shows people are paying more for locally-grown meat, but that’s not what I go for — I care about how good it tastes,” Moore says as he serves up his restaurant’s last available order of barbecue pork. “I’ve had ham experts rave about the (ham) panini sandwiches; I’ve had sausage experts rave about the Polish and Java dogs. It’s a quality thing.”

For more information or to order Pastures A Plenty products, visit the Web site: www.prairiefare.comor call toll-free 1-866-290-2469.