Thursday, March 5, 2020. It’s the unsightliness of creating something from scratch that gets to me sometimes. My authorpreneur efforts, they’re so clumsy and spotty, crammed with false starts, backtracking, wild goose chases, putting the cart before the horse, all the clichéd mistakes of the amateur. The most painful example is going to all the effort and expense of getting my book published and watching it sit there, categorically ignored. Well, not exactly ignored, because, as I’ve said, I’m paying for sponsored advertising on Amazon which so far seems to amount to nothing more than so-called death by a thousand cuts. That is to say, it’s cheap enough per click but the clicks add up. Which might be good except I’m getting zero conversions, as they’re called. Zero sales in common parlance. My click-through rates for the various targeting keywords indicates that given the number of impressions, the click-through rates (CTR) aren’t terrible. It’s the conversions, the complete lack of buys that I can’t figure. The data, three weeks or so worth (I began advertising Feb. 17, I think), is there to be evaluated:
- USA: 71,870 impressions, 66 clicks.
- U.K.: 58,569 impressions, 41 clicks.
- France: 354 impressions, 0 clicks (this ad is probably less than a couple weeks old).
So, there are plenty of numbers except where it counts. 104 clicks – I ran the “Sponsored Products Search Term Report” for the USA and U.K. and you can see your customer search terms that resulted in a click and how they compare to your targeted keywords. The CTR and cost-per-click (CPC) data is there – it’s very informative and useful. One would think. Except that I don’t have a clue as to how to transform clicks into conversions. I’m trying so-called negative keywords, as I said, to evaluate whether most of my clicks are merely curiosity clicks by young adult readers perhaps enticed by the book cover – the artwork is compelling enough, if I do say so myself. One might say that, well, 104 clicks, that’s nothing and you can’t except conversions until your statistics bear out such results; in other words, get hundreds and thousands of clicks and only then can you expect to see tens and hundreds of conversions. I don’t know. I’m not a marketing expert and I don’t want to be. I never will be. I’m a writer. Yes, I’m an authorpreneur, but that’s only because there’s no other way. I should qualify that by admitting that I enjoy all this, crazily enough, despite my utter lack of success. It all makes sense to me, I can learn it and I don’t expect to be talented at every aspect of authorpreneurship; rather, I’m convinced that akin to any business, it’s merely the acquisition of a skill set to surround one’s core talent that results in a functional, sustainable business. Autonomy, complexity, commensurate reward, Malcolm Gladwell style, that’s what I’m seeking. The thing that scares the hell out of me, however, is the idea that I’m indeed receiving my commensurate reward. Zero sales. Is the book terrible? Is it really that bad of a description? Are the “Look Inside” pages revealing terrible, dull, boring, sh*tty writing? Isn’t anyone curious or just plain bored enough, with enough spare change burning a hole in their pocket to click, “buy” just once? Zero sales outside of my little circle of contributors, family (only my parents bought a copy) and Angie’s friends. I have no friends anymore, go figure; nobody to encourage to buy a book at least. I have acquaintances – Kripal, Tilo Schabert, some contacts at the indie bookstores now, but there’s not a soul I could appeal to for a supportive purchase. So be it, it wouldn’t matter anyway unless they’d take the trouble to write a review.
Is that the trouble, then, the lack of book reviews? It’s likely. Again, though, it seems strange to me that there isn’t at least one early adopter type, the kind of investigator of the new that I’ve always been with music listening. I was the record store employee that actually took time to at least skim through all the new releases, most of them at least, every week. I listened because I was interested in capturing the latest good stuff and then promoting it as best I could by playing it in-store and shouting it out to appropriate customers. I’m referring to my time at a little shop called Just CDs that briefly existed – a couple years at best – in Farmington Hills, Michigan, perhaps somebody out there remembers it. Probably not. Anyway, the owner was the absentee type, living in Lansing and stopping in a few time a month, if that, to check on things. Personally, whenever I see this type of behavior in a so-called entrepreneur, I sense doom. Sometimes it works, sometimes you can, as Ari Weinzweig suggests, work on your business instead of in your business (I think this idea appears in his second Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach books, viz., Being a Better Leader). But in general I’m skeptical, I don’t trust it. (Ari’s wisdom appears early on in the DOP because I was corresponding with him in 2010 and, well, you’ll read about it in due time via the “vintage” posts). And I ought to mention that, when Angie and I visited Zingerman’s Roadhouse after the New Year (for the first time in years), there was Ari on a Sunday night, as usual, checking things out, pouring water, chatting with folks and this time even delivering plates of food to the table. He delivered ours. Hey, restaurant help is hard to get. I saw one of the co-managing partners clearing tables. It’s all good if it keeps the ship afloat.
“On uniqueness: ‘From the get go, for me, for Paul, it was very important to only have one. I really like unique things. The folks at the Positive Organizational Scholarship section of the business school here have a little saying, which I love, which is, Excellence is a function of uniqueness. It’s true. It’s true in the food business, it’s true in art, it’s true in music. And I’ve never been into the sixth unit of the same place and thought like, Wow, that’s incredible… Pick any great restaurant that you’ve been to, and then show me the version that opened seven years later, and it’s fine but it never has that spirit and energy that you get in the original.’
“On the synergy of his businesses: ‘The idea of synergy comes not from some seventies buzzword but actually from Ruth Benedict, the anthropologist in the thirties who studied Native American tribes and found… that the most successful tribes were not the most competitive, but rather than most collaborative. And so synergy literally means if I help you, I’m inadvertently helping myself, and if I help myself, whether I intended to or not, I’m helping you.‘
“On growing for growth’s sake: ‘Going along with growth just because everybody else is growing or just because you could grow is not a great answer, in the same way that living your life the way your mother wanted you to may overlap with what you wanted, but if you’re just doing it because your mother wanted you to, you’re going to end up with a hollow life and a lot of internal angst and frustration.‘”
I’ve read Ruth Benedict by way of J. Campbell’s referencing her. Good stuff. And of course my interest was the mythological one. Otherwise, regarding Ari W., he’s all over the web; there exist plenty of interviews with him (the above is from 2018) and his blog posts are likewise ubiquitous in various outlets – he’s a guy with a platform cultivated over decades. I found the above nuggets here: https://www.eater.com/2018/10/19/17991578/zingermans-ari-weinzweig-interview.
As it’s difficult, nay, impossible, somehow, for whatever reason, for me to cut and paste these entries from my Word doc to WordPress and retain the indented block quotations format that is the proper Chicago Manual of Style method, I’m going to resort to bold text and see if it works. Hey, I’m no expert with this stuff and if it works for the purposes of the blog posts then perhaps it’s good enough and I can focus on the creativity.
Where am I? Oh, the book, as usual. And the zero sales. I hardly expected TC1 to be welcomed with open arms by the world-of-action but I’m profoundly baffled as to why I can’t seem to crack the nut of getting myself and this book properly across the finish line. It’s as if I accomplished something less than the return journey across the threshold (get used to the J. Campbell references, folks, because they permeate my writing from the very beginning). Did I trip up prior? Am I suspended in the liminal zone and don’t realize it? Or is it indeed that competitive and overpopulated a field of endeavor, this novelist gig, that I’m merely a typical example?
Who cares? I’m not interested in being typical when it comes to failure. Keep your f*cking failure. I’m in it to win it. I don’t write to not be read, I’ll say it over and over again. And TIME CRIME kicks ass, I’ll repeat that ad infinitum as well. The book isn’t the best but I’m here to declare that it fits in with the worst of the best. Perhaps you think it’s the best of the worst? Or in the middle of the worst. If you think it’s the worst, period, or typical of the worst then we doj’t have anything to talk about because I’m going to set your opinion aside as uninformed. But, hey, argue with me. Please. Because that would mean you’ve at least read the f*cking book.
Abject failure and rejection – the world’s categorical refusal of your boon – is what makes us artist-craftsmen go crazy. Do I really suck that badly? Am I out of my league? Should I collect my crayons and go home? Is my fast and furious failure indicative of my proper place? Ought I to be doing something else? I’ve seen it: the wannabe, in anything, who flops so badly that it’s obvious he or she ought to be doing something else; that their talents lie elsewhere and it’s up to them to learn the lesson that the world is bestowing: find your true talent and turn it into a strength. We hobble along, sometimes for decades (look at me) trying to connect with ourselves, with what we’re best at, with what we’re here to do. And I have faith that there is indeed something in all of us that works in the world, that legitimizes our veritelically authentic personal mythology, our VAPM. It’s just that the timing so often isn’t there. Gladwell’s trinity for success, the talent, timing and drive that underpin the lives of those experiencing remarkable success, I believe he’s got it right. I’ve got the drive. I’m confident I have the talent (I’m waiting for the argument), but heaven help me I don’t have a clue as to how to influence the timing.
DOP1 Vintage Post – Pig Business (with Paul Willis Interview 2010):
The following appeared recently on a U.K. website that functions as a news and information resource for the swine industry:
Using sophisticated BLUP computer programmes and PICmarq™ tests for the ESR, together with other reproductive performance genes, the grandparent stock from which the Camborough 23 originates is selected to continually improve litter size at birth and total litter weaning weight, in addition to lean growth rate, feed efficiency, feet and leg soundness, and teat number. Consequently, Camborough 23 replacement gilts will always carry the latest improvements in prolificacy, carcass quality and feed conversion, giving PIC UK customers greater profit potential.
“Improving” genetics has always been part of farming livestock – if a farmer can consistently breed in the “desirable” or otherwise more profitable traits of an animal, and breed out the undesirable traits, then he’s apt to be more successful. As Wiseman says, “Right from the start, the prime objective of the “improvers,” apart from satisfying their own curiosity, was to breed out the slow-growing late-maturing characteristics of the Old English and replace it with a pig that would fatten much more rapidly: a more profitable feeder” (77). Indeed, if a farmer can get more “scientific” about it, instead of breeding using trial and error and trusting to luck, he can get more sellable pig per pound, faster, with less feeding costs and more pigs per litter. Of course we know that the goal of any industry is maximizing profit. This means that most industries are continually trying to get bigger. Much bigger.
The arguments against the industrialization of the food industry are becoming commonplace – books like Mike Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Meat, and films like Food Inc. are examples of the mainstreaming of the ideas which began in force back in the early 2000’s. In 2010, HBO released an award-winning film documenting the life of Temple Grandin, the renowned animal handling and humane slaughter expert, serving to fuel the growing global interest in farm animal welfare. As consumers, it’s easiest for us to notice, with our eyes and our taste buds, differences in food quality and price, but maybe not so easy to understand the global economics and politics. But we’re getting better at that too. It’s clear now that what is referred to as the “total cost” of food is something that’s critically important. (It doesn’t apply to just food, but to anything we humans produce). It’s generally referred to as “sustainability.” A truly sustainable business, planet, economy, or culture recognizes the contribution of each component in the system, assures that those components are not exploited (underpaid, contaminated, depleted, ignored, etc.). Like the human body, whose health depends upon a balanced system of inputs and outputs, both physical and “spiritual,” sustainable systems are the right size, located in the right place in the world and receive the appropriate return on their energy investments. In theory, such a system would be capable of carrying on indefinitely.
With food, the price you pay at the grocery store or the farmers market includes, hopefully, the full “cost” of doing business along with a reasonable margin for profit, which means the business flourishes, and hopefully so does the planet, the economy and the culture along with it. In the last decade, there have been more than enough books and movies produced that effectively explain a lot of the challenges involved in feeding the world – animal welfare, environmental impact, cultural, economic and political dynamics, sustainability, and I may have missed a few. Like flavor. Taste. The joy of eating. Pig farming is a good example of how these ideas collide and generate new ideas. Quantity versus quality? Affordable versus too expensive? Flavorful versus bland? Appealing versus unappealing? Extensive versus intensive?
PIC is the acronym for the Pig Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the U.K. biotechnology giant Genus plc, whose business is the “genetic improvement of pigs,” and who’s mission, as stated, is “to be the leading worldwide supplier of genetic improvement to pork chain customers through innovative and outstanding genetic technology, health and services.” Started in the 1960’s by a group of Oxfordshire pig farmers who were apparently “concerned that the reactionary purebred breeders were not producing the right pig for future markets,” it attempts to identify and intensively breed the most desirable traits for what it sees as a continually changing global market. Part of its business model is to supply the breeding stock requirements, sows, boars and semen, for the largest pig producers in the world, including “different pig lines” to suit local markets with their different production systems, meat preferences and climate conditions. The following “product” description for the PIC380 appears on their website:
The ultimate in swine genetics! Bred for maximum system throughput and profits, the PIC380 is a hybrid sireline designed to maximize system efficiency, while providing the high standard of carcass and meat quality for which PIC progeny are known. With selection based on PIC’s Crossbred Breeding Values (CBVs), the PIC380 progeny exhibit excellent daily gain and feed conversion rates, all the way to high slaughter weights.
Benefiting from the outstanding carcass and meat quality characteristics found in both the PIC280 and PIC337RG, the PIC380 progeny demonstrate excellent primal yields and optimal lean percentages. Fast growth and high feed efficiency inherited from those lines bring you the low cost of gain you have come to expect from PIC sires. In addition, the hybrid PIC380’s progeny can also be expected to have strong birth to market survivability, even to heavy market weights.
The sales hype is shameless. The exchange of euphemisms like “system throughput,” “feed conversion rates,” and “optimal lean percentages” for language that might instead refer to an animal’s life is intuitively disturbing, as if a pig can be reduced to a manufactured widget or even a corn cob. Farming is a business certainly, but it’s a business based on the care of living things and maximizing the distance between our humanity and the business of production has to be unwise. It’s called animal husbandry after all.
When he wrote Meat, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall compellingly decried the anemic quality of industrialized British pork, going as far – in 2004 at least – to advised simply avoiding it, unless you buy heritage breeds or raise them yourself (meat, 107). That the meat produced from pigs “bred for maximum system throughput” may in fact leave a lot to be desired in terms of flavor and enjoyable eating would seem obvious. That industrialized pig production may be also be in cold, clinical contrast to what most of us would consider, intuitively, to be proper animal husbandry and responsible, sustainable methods of farming also seems obvious.
I could be accused of being a weak-minded, weak-stomached sentimentalist and even ignorant of the facts. Farming is not, nor has it ever been a pastoral and necessarily lucrative enterprise. Pigs eat better, live more safely and less stressfully on a farm than they ever would in the vicious realities of the wild where their every waking moment is consumed with threats of predators, bad weather, and absence of food. After all, it’s the market, the consumer, me, dictating the demands of intensive methods of farming because of my own instinctual need to survive and eat well. Industrialized farming is the Frankenstein creation of my own, ignorant and flabby desires. Unless I stop eating, I can’t have it any other way. It’s my own fault, right?
I think most of us, when presented with all the facts surrounding farming, can accurately decide whether something is good or bad, right or wrong. There’s a moral center that becomes obvious if we take the time to think it through. It doesn’t take an animal behavioralist, a scientist, a farmer, a philosopher, a psychologist, a priest, a yogi or a writer to verify (though it may help) that there’s more to a life – any life – than “throughput.” People are different yes, but they’re also the same, and the sameness manifests itself most clearly on the big issues. For example, I majored in Philosophy in college, so I read my share of stuff devoted to examining what ought to be and what ought not to be; what is and what isn’t; what matters and what doesn’t. I’m still engaged in digesting the concepts and trying to get some answers. The “how” to live part can get sticky, but the fact that there is life, and not just our own, can help keep things simple. In the end, respecting life seems like a pretty universal concept, one that gets distorted by the same old things we all know, within our hearts or souls or minds, to be wrong: greed, selfishness and fear.
I don’t think it’s necessary to philosophize at length about why agribusiness, in its biggest, most heartless and most destructive manifestations, is a bad thing. The information is out there, and more is available every day, to support the arguments calling for change in the food chain, and if you read and listen and think and feel, then I for one get on board with trying to do things differently. Even if we started out with good intentions by ramping up “through-put” of the PIC380 – quality of human life and economic growth aren’t intrinsically bad – we’ve obviously gotten carried away, or somehow lost track of what a pig’s life should be and what pork should taste like, and that a small-scale farmer should be able to make a good living without “selling out” to a handful of industrial giants at the expense of what we all know to be good. The world can be fed, it just doesn’t need to be fed by only a handful of folks – let’s be creative and focus on the good things about life – one of which involves eating good food.
Raising pigs humanely isn’t difficult, but making money at it is. It doesn’t yield big profits because the economics of raising the animals and selling the meat make it challenging. Farming is tough to make money at no matter what you’re growing, but isn’t that the case with most mature businesses? It’s competitive, but getting dramatically less so. But is vertical integration of pork production a result of natural market dynamics, or is there something more insidious at work within the industry? If several huge producers are capable of owning the farming, transportation, slaughter, processing (butchering), rendering, waste management, distribution and marketing of pork – the definition of vertical and horizontal integration – then it smells like trouble to me, and economists start calling the situation “no longer competitive.” What happens then? Well, it’s what’s happening NOW.
Over the years, and prior to that day at the market with Allen, I thought I was doing pretty well by having moved away, as often as I could, from ever buying pork products at the big supermarket chains; no vacuum packed, pale, wet, overly-lean, intensively farmed, and tasteless meat for me. I went out of my way – WAY out of my way – to literally drive past the big chains selling industrialized product and go to Whole Foods, (unfortunately it’s become another big chain but one that focuses on organic, local and humanely raised meat).
But I’m not making any purchasing assumptions even there – I’m asking the questions the food writers write about. When I see my grocery’s meat case filled with pork labeled “from Canada,” I ask the guys behind the counter “Why don’t you guys have any local pork?” I email the store’s management asking that same question and also, “Is your pork, beef and chicken humanely raised?” “Do you utilize any animal welfare standards?” The responses can be inspiring – Whole Foods has rolled out a new animal welfare standard that applies to all its meat and poultry and they publish information on each of the local ranchers that provide beef to the stores. I contact those guys too, with more questions about where they slaughter their cattle. They tell me. In Texas, where I lived for a few years (2008-2010), sustainably-raised, local beef was pretty easy to get, if you’re willing, like me, to pay the up-charge. But humanely-raised local pork? Not so easy my friend, at least in the Texas gulf coast in those years and it’s not so easy now in Ann Arbor either.
Why? First you have to have local pig farmers using small-scale pasturing techniques. Then you have to have regional (if not local) abattoirs (slaughterhouses) that are themselves small-scale, to service those farmers. You can’t expect a small local pig farmer that raises ten or twenty hogs a year to be able to transport his pigs a thousand miles to the nearest gigantic processing plant and try to arrange for his hogs to be singled out, handled and slaughtered humanely and butchered selectively.
There’s an informative article “Where’s the Local Beef?” by a non-profit consumer organization called Food and Water Watch, that focuses on the need to rebuild the small-scale meat processing, a.k.a. slaughter, infrastructure, and does well to talk about the effects of consolidation within the entire meat and poultry industry. The article points out that in Iowa, according to USDA statistics, the total number of hog operations declined by three quarters between 1993 and 2007 while, incongruously, the number of hogs being raised increased from 13.8 million to 19.4 million over the same period. You and me get intensively farmed pork to eat which is, without question, too lean, too tasteless, too ethically questionable for the pigs the planet and the people, and ultimately too cheap. That’s right – too cheap.
Paul Willis is a man who can speak to these issues from a unique perspective. He has a lifetime of experience as a pig farmer who has always raised his pigs, despite decades of market pressures, “extensively,” i.e. in an outdoor or pastured system, as opposed to an “intensive,” or confinement system. He also helped Bill Niman create the Niman Ranch Pork Program, an expanding network of over 500 family-owned farms that adhere to the Niman Pork Protocol which specifies strict husbandry, animal welfare and meat quality standards. Bill Niman himself has moved on to other things and is no longer associated with Niman Ranch, but Paul has remained and is currently enjoying his very popular role as the Pork Program’s Manager – he’s become an in-demand representative of extensive versus intensive farming and the full-flavored fatty pork that is produced from such well-managed pigs. As perhaps the nation’s most high-profile champion of quality pork, he also tirelessly promotes our country’s need, as he sees it, for more small-scale farmers in general. There are an estimated 600,000 full-time farmers in the U.S., a number considered roughly one percent of the population. As Paul told Ed Behr, the well-respected publisher of The Art of Eating, “One percent farmers is not enough – not nearly enough to produce decent food.”
Paul brings a seasoned and thoughtful perspective to the business of sustainable farming and all that the term “sustainable” really signifies, including the care of the environment, care of the pigs, the quality of the pork, the quality of the farmer’s lives, and the fair, full cost that needs to be paid by the consumer. He sees sustainable farming as capable of outperforming any type of intensive, industrial system in every way and, thankfully, he’s well-supported in this viewpoint. Food chain “heavy-hitters” like Ari Weinzweig (ZCoB), Ed Mackey (Whole Foods), Ed Behr (The Art of Eating), and Steve Ells (Chipotle Mexican Grill) have embraced Niman methods and products. Dr. Temple Grandin has visited the Willis farm and publicly supports the Niman protocols. And an expanding fan-base of restaurants, grocers and home cooks have been buying up Niman pork since the program’s beginnings in 1998.
I spoke with Paul Willis in October 2010, and he graciously answered my questions. Note that Carnegie Olson is my pen name only since the publication of TIME CRIME, in late January this year (2020). Hence, if you asked Paul Willis about me, he’d remember me (hopefully) as Keith Ewing:
Keith: “In the Spring 2010 Issue of The Art of Eating, you spelled out the basic economics of pig farming, saying that a person managing 600-800 hogs would need to make $50 per hog to generate an annual income of $30,000 – $40,000. Do you have any thoughts on how to get more family pig farmers established?”
Paul: “Well Keith, that’s a question that we ask ourselves all the time because we’re looking for more supply – more Niman farmers, and if in fact, farmers were making that fifty dollars a head, that’s just not always the case, but it needs to be at that level…it comes all down to paying the farmer enough to make some money. In most cases, for almost all our farmers, the hog enterprise is one activity on the farm – there are very few people who are just doing this [pig farming] – some people have other jobs, so I guess the answer is to make sure that the farmer is making that kind of money, and we’ve tried to do that by one, having a floor [price] in our market for our farmers so you’re paying so much over commodity, but if the market tanks, our farmers can’t afford to raise pigs for a loss for any period of time, and some of these big integrators have pretty deep pockets – we just went through twenty-five months of unprofitable hog production, and the Smithfield’s and all those – they’re still around. But some of our farmers, even though we had a floor, reflecting back a ‘couple years ago when we had six to seven-dollar-a-bushel corn, and basically the price of a barrel of oil went up, which raised the price of ethanol, which raised the corn price – in a commodity trade there’s an overcompensation in the upside and the downside.”
Keith: “Is pig-farming then destined to be a life-style business – is that its future?”
Paul: “I don’t see anybody getting wealthy at this – a life-style business is maybe the way to put it – there’s people who like to raise livestock and they need to be paid a fair price. It has to be sustainable economically, environmentally and socially, and provided that the farmer is getting paid, it can be those things.”
Keith: “I suppose it helps to have another career going.”
Paul: “Well, that’s the way farming is these days. People are doing other things, at least in the case where they’re family members, and there’s one or even both spouses working away from the farm. Sometimes it’s for health insurance which has been a big issue – farmers have had to buy their own insurance – you could be spending half your income on just that.
Keith: “When you talk about 600-800 hogs, how much land, how many acres are required to manage them well?”
Paul: “You could have a pasture system like that on ten acres, easily, five or ten acres. But let me just tell you Keith, it depends on what your soil types are and what kind of land you have too, because we’d like to see vegetative cover, and that [acreage] is usually in conjunction with some other type of farm buildings. My hog pasture here is about twenty acres and I used to maybe have fifteen hundred hogs out there and still maintain the grass cover pretty well – that’s in north-central Iowa. If you get more than the 600-1000 hogs, you’re usually going to need hired help – even with 600 pigs, every once in awhile you’ll need somebody to help you load hogs or round ‘em up, but the day-to-day stuff, one person can do.
Keith: “What makes a skilled pig farmer, what’s involved?”
Paul: “First of all, you have to like pigs. You have to like animals and you have to like to raise animals. And then you have to understand the behavior of the animal – what they do and why they do it – what stresses them, what doesn’t stress pigs so you can maintain a comfortable living condition where they exhibit their natural behaviors. We have a lot of farmers that have been raising pigs for thirty, forty years, or even more, and these guys can walk out into the field and in ten minutes they know if the pigs are healthy and if they’re doing well just by looking at them. There’s a skill set that you can learn and it’s passed on from one generation to another – that’s the difference between that and the factory-raising of livestock – anybody can go in, bring out the dead pigs and see if the feeder system is working, and if something’s wrong call the veterinarian, when you have livestock in a more natural system, and they’re farrowing naturally, if you see something wrong, you’d know it right away from experience. The older people teach the younger people those skills and what you need to look for.
Keith: “We’re going to have a big problem, aren’t we, passing that kind of information down, because we don’t have as many farmers and as many generations farming, right?”
Paul: “It’s potentially a big problem – it’s kind of like people knowing how to make a real pie crust with lard, you know it works best if your great aunt or somebody just shows you. But because of Niman Ranch, even Iowa State University has courses about pasture-raised pigs, and I’ve got veterinarian students – a senior class coming here, and I’ve had the Holistic Vet Club – these are all the younger people that will be veterinarians who are at least being exposed to this type of thing. The other problem is I’ve had classes of kids out here, you know the eighteen or twenty-year-old-kids, farm kids, from the local agricultural community college, and I was shocked to find that many of them have never seen a pig outdoors.”
Keith: “That’s amazing.”
Paul: “Well, it’s tragic, actually. And we have a number of farmers around here that have outdoor pigs, in this area. It’s not as commonplace as it was in the fifties, sixties and seventies – everybody knew how to raise pigs like that at that time.”
Keith: “I’m researching the history of pig farming, including within Europe, and it seems like it’s a back-to-the-future situation now where the future is the past.”
Paul: “I was in Poland because Smithfield was moving into Poland and we’re trying to create an alternative for the farmers, and they had small farms with certain fields that they called the “pig fields,” but there were no people that could remember at any time that there were pigs in the field, and yet they had been. Historically there were people raising pigs in the fields probably eighty years ago – there was a culture that did this. Even in northern Greece, there’s a pig tribe – they have their own breed – it’s a heritage breed unique to that area.”
Keith: “I’ve been doing research on heritage breeds and it’s kind of fun to look into that.”
Paul: “It is. There’s a Hungarian pig, a long-haired pig that they’re raising and there’s some in this country now – the Mangalitza.”
Keith: “Yes, I found that breed interesting – I guess they have a special kind of fat.”
Paul: “Well, I don’t know for sure if that’s true, but they are kind of a fat breed – it carries quite a little back fat, and they probably resemble a large Ossabaw pig. The Ossabaw pig was dropped off by Cortez onto an island off Georgia – Ossabaw Island – that island is kind of like a Galapagos for pigs, and no genetics have been introduced there for the past four hundred years, and so the genetic lines are still there. They’re a small feral pig that has been used for research because they have the ability to put on a tremendous amount of fat very quickly, and they’ve actually used the pigs to study diabetes, because pigs can get diabetes, and they’re marketed to the restaurant trade a little bit, and I have friends that have been raising them.”
Keith: “I live in the Houston area – are there any Niman network farms in Texas?”
Paul: “No Niman pigs in Texas, though we’d like some if you could find them.”
Keith: “I visited a very small-scale pastured pig farm here near Houston, but he was not involved with Niman.”
Paul: “I can tell you why – you need a critical mass, enough to put together a semi-trailer load to be able to go to the packing plant. All of our hogs right now go to Siouxpreme in northwest Iowa and it’s a long distance, which is a major part of the reason.”
Keith: “Regarding the slaughter facility – is the stunning method electrical or CO2?”
Keith: “Do you think that’s the best way?”
Paul: “It’s the best way – it’s far superior to the electrical. We used to work with a couple different plants, and in some cases you would get blood-spotting in the meat – you’d get too much voltage – it was primitive at best. It’s probably fine if you have someone who is really skilled using the right electrical stunner, paying attention to the voltage and hooking up properly to the sides of the animals, and it’s a very wide-spread method. But the CO2 method, Keith, seems to be without much stress because you have four to six animals that go into this gondola at a time and they are just submerged in the CO2 bath and they fall asleep and that’s it. Whereas if you go with these other stunning methods, and they run one pig at a time – you know pigs don’t like to be by themselves, they like to be with their friends, and as soon as you separate them and run them single file then they’re stressed. And stress will cause them to release lactic acid and that breaks down the muscle structure; it changes the pH and the quality of the pork.”
Keith: “I want to ask about pH – it sounds like a key component to flavorful meat?”
Paul: “Well, it’s a real strong indicator – I think ours run about 5.85 or above – it’s an indicator like I said of lactic acid released in the muscle. So the acid would lower the pH reading. As far as I know, we’re the only company in this country that does pork quality testing and pays a premium based on pork quality, and what we mean is eating quality of the pork. Is it flavorful? Is it juicy? Is it tender? To achieve that you have to take into account anything that would stress the animal, then the genetics, feeding – all the things that go into it, but pH is one of the indicators, the meat color, the marbling, the sheer factor, there are about four measurements that we do and we pull samples from a number of farmers each week. There’s a point system that we’ve developed that indicates how good the pork is, really.
Keith: “I have another question about the slaughter facility – how did Niman select that place, why do you use that particular facility, and is this choice impacted by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be enough small-scale slaughter facilities around?
Paul: “Well this is really a medium-sized facility – they can kill two or three-thousand head a day. Smithfield is a thirty-two-thousand head a day operation, o.k.? Typically a lot of these plants are sixteen-thousand head a day. Now, when I started Niman Pork, working with Bill Niman, I didn’t know anything about this, I just knew of SiouxPreme Packing Co. that was a more medium-sized plant, and our local guy happened to be buying some pigs for them, I was looking for somebody to custom-kill my hogs and I thought well, it’s good place to start. They were very cooperative – they helped me understand how this works, what happens – how do you get a live hog from Thornton, Iowa to San Francisco as meat, and get them there Monday morning at five-thirty? So they explained how that works – I just started with them. At one time, we left Siouxpreme and we were working with another plant in Des Moines, and they were basically a sow-kill, but this whole thing could’ve evolved – we were using both plants – and Siouxpreme upgraded their equipment and what they were doing and we went back to their facility. So they’ve become real partners with this, and I’ll tell you what, when I started this, Keith, I never imagined that I would be the largest customer of the packing plant, and I am their largest customer.
Keith: “Is the meat frozen, then?”
Paul: “Ordinarily, the meat is all fresh. But there are some things that are done, there are certain seasons where you’re going to have extra pork legs that you’re going to want to process into hams, so we do freeze some things that are used for processing.
Keith: “Is the surplus of hogs on the market in winter simply an historical tendency, based on the typical fall fattening period, or can pigs be raised economically for availability in the summer, to balance shortages?”
Paul: “We have pigs all the time, Keith. We have incentives for our farmers to try to get them to winter farrow. The most natural thing for baby animals is to be born in the spring, and typically a hog is butchered at six or seven months of age. So for example I sold twenty-six pigs this morning that were born in April. So there is a natural cycle and time when baby animals are born and so fall – October, November, even into early December – is when you’re going to have the most supply. Then a lot of times you can rebreed in the fall and you’ll have a pretty good supply in the spring, and it’s the summer and winter where you have shortages. Mostly in the summer, because you’re looking at the pigs born in the dead of winter. We’re in the upper mid-west, which is one of the reasons we’ve looked in Missouri – southern Missouri, where you can have pigs born outside in the winter, it’s just not that severe.
Keith: “Or Texas.”
Paul: “Texas, exactly. It’d probably be best [to be born in the winter there] better than in the hottest time there.”
Keith: “Do you have any thoughts on hog transport and how to minimize stress – could you be doing it better than you are?”
Paul: “Well, the industry has Trucker Quality Assurance (TQA) and we kind of follow this, but there’s no advantage to not do the best you can when you’re transporting your animals. Now, we have situations where at times we have to mix pigs from two different farms, because each farm might only have ten pigs for example, and the truck itself is divided into compartments that hold usually twenty to thirty head per compartment. If you put two groups [of pigs] together, there are ways of doing that – you put equal numbers from each farm together – you wouldn’t want to put nineteen from one farm and only one from another. Then of course we use water if it’s hot to cool them. The semi-trailers are slotted on the side and there’s fillers you put in cold weather. I would say in most cases, it’s pretty well done. In hot weather, these trucks have sprinkling systems. In cold weather they have straw.
Keith: “I didn’t know they did that, that’s great.”
Paul: “They do a pretty good job. If you’re really interested in this, you might want to look at what the standards of the European Union might be – they might even go a little farther.”
Keith: “I read in your protocol that Temple Grandin was involved in certifying your Niman farm or business in some way – can you explain that?”
Paul: “Well, we’ve worked a lot with Temple Grandin and she’s a huge fan of what we do. However, Temple Grandin works with all phases of the industry. She goes to packing plants and she works with the industrial [facilities] and tries to improve the welfare of the animals there as well, so we were going to have maybe a Temple Grandin
but, to be honest, Keith, I think, you know, she works for Colorado State University – any of these land grant colleges you have to know where their money comes from. And so we backed off of that. She supports the Niman Ranch system, and she’s reviewed our protocol, and she’s talked about us and how auditable our system is, and she’s been out to the farms, and she’s been to my place, and other farms, so we’ve worked very closely with her, and our standards have all been reviewed, I would say, by Temple Grandin – she approves of all of them – so that’s where we are, but as far as putting “Temple Grandin Approved” [in our protocol], I think she had to back off on that because of the other so-called interests from the University perhaps.”
Keith: “I thought she may have actually gone as far as to start marketing her certification, but obviously it’s stalled out.”
Paul: “She has done a tremendous job for what it is she does. She’s really good on systems and reducing stress for animals, and we’ve provided a lot of that information to our farmers, but now, we’re audited by Global Animal Partnership [GAP]. So we have our own standards and they’re audited and approved by places like Whole Foods who is a big customer of ours. That’s kind of where we are now.”
Keith: “What’s your opinion on the proliferation of animal welfare certifications and standards available now to farmers?”
Paul: “My first question is, what is the cost and who pays for it? And what’s the benefit to the farmer? How is this going to help more people raise livestock in this manner? Those questions have to be in the back of everybody’s mind when they’re thinking about this – it can’t be just another organization trying to farm the farmer.”
Keith: “Yes, it has to provide some sort of marketing advantage, or educational advantage you would think. I don’t know how it’s going to play out – it seems like the marketplace itself would really eliminate a lot of these options.”
Paul: “There can be some advantages because there’s a number of [producers] out there that are charlatans if you will – they want to skim under the bar with the very, very minimum of anything, and they want to call their system natural on farmland owned by Smithfield raising confinement [system] pigs and they’re touting family farmers and their naturally-raised pork. Well, if you consider confinement buildings natural, then I guess you’re fine. But that was kind of the point of the third-party audits and standards – to weed those types of businesses out, but it can be cumbersome, it can be expensive.”
Keith: “What are the feds [USDA] doing for you? Is the USIS getting in the way or are they trying to help out with the smaller farmers?”
Paul: “Well, I think the administration and [USDA Secretary of Agriculture] Tom Vilsack – I think they’ve got the message out that we need more farmers and the goal is not to make things tough so that you put a bunch more farmers out of business. So I think they have the attitude that we need to try to work with our small farmers . The thinking anyway, is pretty good. Now I don’t deal with USIS – we have people at Niman Ranch who do that, and I think they’re [USIS] o.k. All this stuff’s a little bit of a work in progress.”
Keith: “I wanted to ask you about another guy who was in the spotlight in that AOE article that you were featured in – his name is Jude Becker. He said that pasture is a place for a pig to live and express instincts, but that nutrition comes from grain. What’s your opinion on that?”
Paul: “That’s right. A pig is not a cow – they’re not a bovine – even in the pasture pigs are fed a corn and soy mix which is not any different than if they were in a confinement building, but they do get supplemental nutrition from grazing however. I think it’s particularly good when you have sows that are nursing – they’ll go out, if you have a good alfalfa mix or something, they’ll spend quite a lot of time out there grazing. The exercise is good for them, but the nutrition they’re getting is probably best for the lactating sows.”
Keith: “So we’re never going to get to a point where we’re pasturing pigs for fattening?”
Paul: “I don’t think so. Have you seen the pigs in Mexico that run around the streets?”
Paul: “A pig is very adaptable, and you’ve heard and you know that they’re intelligent. Because they have to know about a lot of things to know how to make-a-living – how to find roots, how to find insects, how to find whatever it is out there – it’s not like a cow, that’s just a big thing that runs around with its cohorts eating grass. A cow’s protection [from predators] is just being big. Cows basically wander about and eat grass – they don’t have to be too smart to do that. So anyway, a pig traditionally, or if you look at the European wild boar, a wart hog, or anything in that family, they do a lot of things to find their nutrition. Pigs are not really vegetarians, you know.”
Keith: “They’re omnivores, right?”
Paul: “Absolutely. They’d eat a snake in a minute.”
Keith: “So if you’re a pig farmer, you’re going to be feeding them some type of grain. What about corn? Is the price a deal breaker for some farmers – do they have to find another way to feed their pigs?”
Paul: “It’s the cheapest thing there is, for the most part. Now some of our farmers in the west may be feeding them some barely, but that’s why there’s so many pigs – there’s ten million pigs in Iowa, because that’s the heart of the corn belt. [Corn] is the feed of choice, if you will, for the money. You know it really doesn’t make a lot of sense in North Carolina – I mean there’s some corn raised there, but for the most part it’s all imported from the Midwest – so you have to add about a dollar a bushel on your feed price in North Carolina compared to here.”
Keith: “So Iowa’s the place to be as far as cost-effective pig farming?”
Paul: “Yeah. If you look at the history, Iowa from the get-go has been the largest hog-producing state in this country. And corn too, although corn production crosses over into places like Illinois, but the corn belt is pretty much where our Niman farmers are.”
Keith: “But Niman has expanded into places like Michigan and elsewhere too, right?”
Paul: “We have some farmers in Michigan.”
Keith: “That’s interesting there’s nothing going on in Texas – it’s such a big state, but obviously a beef state.”
Paul: “John Maglone, is in Texas. I think he teaches, and it was a pretty big outdoor pig operation, but whether it’s been abandoned, I don’t know.”
Keith: “Now I know that you’re not big into these large intensive operations, with these waste lagoons, are you?”
Paul: “Well no, we don’t allow any of that in our program, you can’t have that. You can’t have dual systems, you can’t have some confinement and some biological or natural system. Basically, we’re pasture and/or bedded pens. Hoop houses are acceptable, but none of these buildings with the slotted floors with the liquid manure [collected underneath].”
Keith: “You can look up a lot of videos online to see this intensive-type of process – it just seems so industrial I guess is the word for it – it’s too bad, it was really a wake-up call for me to see that stuff.”
Paul: “Well I’ll tell you Keith, Iowa couldn’t have thought of anything worse for the state – we have 8500 confinement operations. Nobody knows for sure – that’s just a number that I heard, anyway – these are these buildings or sites that have a couple thousand pigs, usually in one or two buildings that are 2500 capacity each.”
Keith: “I want to ask you some questions on pig behavior. One involves nose-ringing, I think Niman allows this for pastured pigs, right?”
Keith: “And you’re obviously behind that for a reason, why?”
Paul: “Well if you don’t ring the sows, in a lot of cases you’ll have no grass because they’ll dig it all up. If you look at the design of the pig, they’re like a plow in the front, and they’re really strong. Especially in the spring, when the ground is soft, if you put some sows out on the soft ground like that, they’ll just uproot all of it – they don’t just root a little bit, they plow, they like the roots. Then, you’ve got no grass cover, you’ve got an erosion problem, and you’ve got no grazing. So it’s a bit of a trade-off. You minimize the number of rings – it may be two disc rings, or one main ring, and they can still do a little bit of rooting and those rings will kind of harden off in their nose – they’re probably more tender when you first put them in. The other thing that people don’t think about quite as much – working with these sows in pasture like this – is when you have to get the piglets out of their houses, the sows seem to have more respect for you when they have a ring, as far as trying to push you around or go after you or something like this. With the ring, they become a little bit more cautious about bumping that ring if you will. Without it, it’s a little bit of a farmer safety thing.”
Keith: “When do you put the ring in?”
Paul: “When they’re an adult animal. If I have them in the barnyard, and I’m getting ready to move them to the field, then they get a ring before they go out there. Now, I don’t even ring all that much. Sometimes in the spring, but other times of the year the ground has become a lot more packed and it’s harder for them to root up. If you farmed in sandy areas or hilly areas, it would be bad not to ring because you’d have severe erosion – you don’t want that – you want to maintain your land. Temple Grandin will agree with me on all of those counts.”
Keith: “Yes, I read that she agrees with the need to ring to prevent pigs from destroying pasture. What about clipping teeth?”
Paul: “We don’t clip teeth, we don’t cut tails.”
Keith: “Yes, I just remembered that those things are
in the Niman policy.”
Paul: “I don’t even know how that practice started. When I was growing up we raised pigs, and I think we clipped teeth – I’m not even sure, but nobody questioned why we were doing this. Obviously if a pig is born in the wild, nobody clips their teeth.”
Keith: “Right, and their mothers don’t die of blood loss because they’ve been suckling with pointed teeth.”
Paul: “Exactly, exactly. Now sometimes when you have a really large litter, they’ll kind of fight each other and cut each other’s nose up a little bit, and when you have that, we allow a filing – you take a little flat hand file and just take the tips off. The teeth cutting would tend to crush the tooth, and create an area where you could get a staff infection or something. That was one of the things we adopted a few years ago and we found a lot of objection from our farmers because everybody had been doing it forever.”
Keith: “You’d think they’d at least look at it as an opportunity to do less work.”
Paul: “Well, there were some practices that were established a long time ago, that’s the way everybody else did it, that’s the way your dad did it. You know putting antibiotics in starter feed was the standard, and you have to wonder, feed without antibiotics was actually higher priced. Now today, that’s not the case because there’s other natural systems and so on where there’s no antibiotics ever, and you can get feed without antibiotics from lots of feed companies.”
Keith: “Another question on handling, Paul. I was reading some of Temple Grandin’s graduate work, and she worked with pigs, as you probably know, and she mentioned that there’s an optimum level of human interaction for pigs that allows for efficient handling. If you handle them too much, if you’re too close to them and they become too much like pets, then it’s more difficult to move them when you’re trying to get them to slaughter, on and off trucks, etc. but if you don’t give them enough attention, then they become kind of neurotic. What’s your opinion? How much attention do you give your pigs?”
Paul: “Pigs out in field, we might only be out there a few minutes a day, or even some days, like today, I haven’t been out to the hog field at all today, there’s been no people out there. They should be used to people. I can’t go out there and spend hours with them, but I never minded if the people who worked for me just stood there and looked at them – there’s something that you can learn – why does a pig do this, what is their behavior, why do they run away when you arrive and then they’re curious and turn around and come back to see you. You know I never read that part about what Temple Grandin said about her pigs. The only time we have maybe too much problem moving them is if they’re in heat, then they’ll stand, and they won’t move. But for the most part, especially with these little rattle paddles, they move pretty good. I was just at the buying station this morning and we don’t have a lot of yelling and hollering or anything like that – you open the door and they go off pretty good. Once in awhile, if it’s a windy day or something like that, if the pigs are scared, they’ll pile up in a corner – they won’t want to move, that can happen. Our pigs know things, just because they live in an environment where they see a lot of things, experience a lot of things, so things like getting on the trailer – it’s not like it’s a big deal to them. I think the confinement pig, you know that’s lived in a pen their whole life, they’ve never been out of that, and they drive them out of the alley and then force them down the alley and into the truck, you know those pigs, when they get to the plant, they tend to be more prone to stress just because they’re not used to things.”
Keith: “I have a question or two about pork and offal. Has the interest in nose-to-tail, or whole-hog eating, which seems to be more than just a trend, affected Niman’s offerings? Instead of just shoulders, ribs, bacon, loins, hams, etc. are you seeing an increased market for liver, heads, trotters, and hearts, that type of stuff? Because I cook with that stuff myself – I make my own headcheese, faggots with heart and liver – do you see an increased interest or market for that?”
Paul: “There’s a growing interest in some of those types of things and Niman Ranch has worked over the years to market the entire carcass. We’ve had companies that make pate, for example, they get the get the livers and this type of thing because they want a product that’s never had antibiotics. Recently we had a Niman Ranch farmer-appreciation dinner where we these chefs come in from different parts of the country and each prepare a course, and a couple guys from Animal in Los Angeles served pig tails, and either people were completely turned off or they were really excited about it, there was a lot of talk about it, and they were delicious, by the way.”
Keith: “What about lard? I like to use leaf lard for especially, but it’s still not that easy to find.”
Paul: “There’s leaf lard, then of course back fat – there’s cured back fat – I don’t know if we’re actually rendering lard, but I think Niman Ranch sells leaf lard.”
Keith: “I’ll have to look into that because like I said I use lard – it’s good for cooking.”
Paul: “Here, ourselves, we grind the back fat and render it out – we use it for pie crusts and things like that – it’s fabulous. But you know the thing is, if you’re not getting lard like that, commercial lard probably has a preservative in it….”
Keith: “Yes, I made the mistake of buying a big tub of commercially-produced lard at a large grocery and it is not the same product
[as leaf lard]
and I had to read about it to find out just what you’re saying.”
Paul: “And it probably has that confinement smell.”
Keith: “Right, it just smells funky, it’s just not right.”
Paul: “What’s your history with Zingerman’s? How do you know Ari?”
Keith: “I’ve been a long-time customer of Zingerman’s – I lived in Ann Arbor for thirteen years and Zingerman’s was just a part of our lives. I’d never actually met Ari. They organized what they called Camp Bacon in Ann Arbor, this past June, where you pay a fee and you get to hang out in their section of an industrial park where they had folks like Herb Eckhouse [from La Quercia], and a lot of different producers there, and a lot of tastings of different types of bacon – it was all driven towards bacon, not other pork – but my wife and I drove all the way up from Texas just to go to this camp bacon because we were so inspired, and we actually got to meet Ari finally. The few weeks previous I had been emailing Ari and his camp director [Pete Sickman-Garner] regarding how much information they were going to have on pig welfare, pig-farming, and animal welfare, in addition to discussions on bacon, and it turns out that it really wasn’t a big component of the camp – it might be next year. But that’s how I got to know Ari, just picking his brain so to say through emails. He’s obviously a great, just tremendous resource for not only artisanal food, but he’s just a great guy, a great person – he’s coming out with all of these great books that he’s been publishing – it’s a great relationship, I think, that I’ve developed with him ever since this Camp Bacon back in June. Also, I’d had a bake class at Zingerman’s, and they recommended using leaf lard for pie crust and showed us how to use it, and now I use lard for that and other stuff like pates.”
Paul: “That’s great. I did a dinner there – they [Zingerman’s] did an Iowa dinner – they do these specialty dinners there every now and then. We did the #59 Dinner – there’s a big poster in my office here, it must have been a year ago last spring. Alex Young did all kinds of Iowa things and pork was one of them – I think that was the last time I was in Ann Arbor.”
Keith: “You still do your own farming – how many pigs do you have?”
Paul: “Right now, I probably have three or four-hundred on the farm here.”
Keith: “What do you like most about that life, the pig-farming life?”
Paul: “Well, I enjoy the farrowing part. Especially in the spring. You go out in the morning – we usually start in the field in April – and some of the bird migration is going on, and you just can’t beat what it’s like, and there isn’t hardly any thing more fun really, and you go out and see how many new litters of pigs you have that particular day, and you know I enjoy that part of it. The pigs themselves are entertaining and they’re just an interesting animal to be around.”
Keith: “That’s fantastic. I’m intuitively interested in pigs myself, though I’ve never been a farmer – there’s just something about a pig that fascinates me.”
Paul: “They’re really an interesting animal. I told you about the chef dinner, well everybody comes up to the farm on Friday, we have a bunch of customers, and there could be somebody from Zingerman’s for that matter – you know that kind of thing, but a lot of the people are very urban. And they walk out into the field, and unless you’re right there and these animals are around you, you just don’t know what to expect, right? You can just see it on people’s faces that they’re really kind of enthralled with the whole experience. We must have had about a hundred and fifty people in the field the other day, and the pigs are running up to the people, and they’re three feet away – you’d think they [the people] were in the Serengeti.”
Keith: “That’s great.”
Paul: “The fun part for me I guess, is that, of course, Niman Ranch has expanded and really made what I do vastly more interesting, because there’s so many aspects of it – from the environmental part, the policy part, the animal welfare part, the chef part, the Whole Foods scene – all of those things, and I think the center of the hub is really at the farm. All of these things radiate from there. Before starting Niman Ranch Pork Company, I never knew where any of the pigs went after they left the farm – you’d sell them to Morel or Hormel or Farmland or something and they just sort of disappeared into that vast, whatever it was out there, food chain. But with Niman Ranch, you started to know, like Zingerman’s for example, people who actually used [the product], even like yourself, who appreciates the leaf lard – everybody kind of likes to have feed back and to know about what it is they’re doing, whether somebody appreciates it – it’s not all about the money you know.”
Keith: “You’ve probably got the opportunity now to less and less farming, and to do more and more Niman work, so to say.”
Paul: “I don’t raise the number of pigs that I used to, and I have somebody else that’s doing the grain farming here, plus I’m getting older and physically can’t do all the stuff I did at one time, when I was twenty-nine years old. But I am the manager of Niman Ranch Pork Company, and I do a lot of events – I was in New York last week, a wine and food festival cooking pork in lower Manhattan with Tom Colicchio.”
Keith: “Do you like Manhattan?”
Paul: “Yeah, it’s great.”
Keith: “It’s great you’re getting out and about, you’re really becoming a guru of sorts.”
Paul: “I’m been doing that, and my next thing will be in Chicago, and that’s something a little different entirely, it’s with Pew about their antibiotics working, it’s kind of a panel, and we’ll do some stuff with some restaurants and things in Chicago in a couple weeks.”
Keith: “What would you change, Paul, right now? If you had to improve something, whether in it’s within your own farm, with Niman, or the pig business in general, what’s a concern for you?”
Paul: “Well, if it was up to me, I would outlaw confinement of all kinds, but that’s probably not gonna happen.”
Keith: “Just put an end to it.”
Paul: “Yeah. Or, if you were to enforce the laws that are on the books, for clean air, clean water, in these types of systems and they had to pay their way for the environmental damage that they do – if they had to pay up front – they wouldn’t be able to compete with natural systems. But they get by on a lot of this stuff. Now, one of the other things about Niman, if we could put a surtax that could be paid to the farmers and passed on to the customers and consumers, I would do that, and we try to do that, we try to educate the buyers, whether it’s a food service or retail – why does this cost more – why do they have to pay more, but the idea of it is to get more of it
to the farmers so we have more supply. There’s a lot of demand.”
Keith: “Yes, it seems like the demand is just growing and growing. I shop at Whole Foods here in Houston, but it’s always troubled me that there’s no local Texas pork in this area – Whole Foods pork in Houston is from Canada, they told me they can’t get the quality they need in this area.”
Paul: “There just isn’t any. Whole Foods seems to be open to try to purchase locally – they’re doing that in North Carolina – we used to have Niman Farmers in North Carolina, but we had to discontinue that, but some of the farmers continue to raise pigs, and have gone directly with Whole Foods. But you have the whole question of processing, and will Whole Foods buy the whole animal, things like that.”
Keith: “And you have the issues of where’s the slaughterhouse nearby?”
Paul: “And what kind of work do they do? We had a plant in North Carolina and they couldn’t get the carcasses chilled properly. It wasn’t the pigs’ fault, it wasn’t the farmers’ fault – we just couldn’t get the product to come out of the packing plant that was presentable. And you raised the question earlier about processing facilities nationwide and it is a problem. It’s probably fine where the main stream supply is, but when you get on the fringe, then you run into lack of adequate processing facilities.”
Keith: “Right, you’re either waiting in line at a small facility that’s too far away, or you have to deal with these big facilities.”
Paul: “Or there isn’t any facility. Glennwood Center of Sustainable Agriculture is in Cold Spring, New York, and they have put in place a mobile slaughter unit, so we’re kinda watching that to see how viable that might be.”
Keith: “The mobile slaughter concept is a very interesting topic – like you implied, I don’t think anybody knows if that’s going to be viable, right?”
Paul: “Well, right. Mobile is a little bit of a stretch. This unit can kill twenty beef in a day. But you have to have some way to dispose of the waste water, blood, things like that. So you have to have a docking site that has those kinds of hook-ups. You just can’t go out on the farm and dump it on the ground – it doesn’t work like that. Do you see what I’m saying? The docking sites become a challenge – you could probably spend a couple hundred thousand dollars upgrading a docking site.”
Keith: “I know the rendering business itself has been impacted by the downsizing of the number of pig farms and slaughterhouses. Where does the Niman slaughter facility send their unusable bits and pieces?”
Paul: “You know I don’t know – last year they upgraded their waste disposal system for a couple million dollars, but I’m not the right person to answer that question. But they have to live up to whatever their requirements are as far as that goes, whatever is required by the city they’re in. I’m not sure, but they do have markets for almost everything. The rendering thing, I don’t know where the rendering plants are anymore – there used to be one here in Belmont, Iowa, National Byproducts was the name of the company. But there has to be a rendering plant someplace because all these confinement buildings around here, they’ve got tons of dead hogs all the time, and there’s a rendering truck that picks up dead hogs around here all the time – you see them go by frequently.”
Keith: “Back to mobile slaughter – for cattle you can do the captive-bolt stunning, but for pigs?”
Paul: “They’re not doing any hogs there, they’re only doing cattle and maybe goat and lamb at this time. The animal is killed there, and gutted and I think out of there just goes a hanging carcass. So you go in there, and you pay a fee, and that happens and then you take it someplace to a butcher for cut and pack.”
Keith: “They’re not going to set up a CO2 chamber for a mobile unit – they’re going to have to do electrical or something.”
Paul: “It’s probably the captive-bolt. It looks like a move set – three trailers, if you can imagine that.”
Keith: “So they’re separate processing trailers?”
Paul: “Three semi-trailers. One is where the animal comes in and is actually killed, then there’s a couple of them where the carcasses go to be refrigerated.”
Keith: “Is mobile slaughter something that Niman would consider getting into the business of doing?”
Paul: “No, absolutely not. You know Keith, those mobile slaughter units are good for somebody who’s raising a few animals and maybe you’re going to direct market or something like that, but it’s still expensive relative to these larger plants who used to say they could put a pig in a box for eleven bucks. I don’t think it’s that cheap, but the local locker plant that I went to this morning with three pigs – they slaughter the pig, butcher it, cut and wrap, and you go there and pick up frozen packages of meat, and you know to process a pig is probably a hundred and fifty bucks.”
Keith: “You did that with your pigs?”
Paul: “Yeah, I took three of them in today for our own use, or my daughters, and the neighbor wanted some pork.”
Keith: “So that’s a State-inspected facility vs. Federal?”
Paul: “Yes, but they don’t have the license where I can take my pork and sell it at a farmers market – I can only use it for my own consumption.”
Keith: “I think it’s probably under the custom slaughter exemption that doesn’t require inspection.”
Paul: “I’m not sure what the terminology is, but to sell it as meat, it has to be State or Federally inspected.”
Keith: “Paul, I know I’ve kept you for over an hour, which I appreciate – I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had talking to you.”
Paul: “Well I enjoyed it too.”
 For a great discussion on sustainable business practices, read “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leadership,” by Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of the successful Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor.
 Behr, Edward, “The State of Pork,” The Art of Eating, Spring 2010, Number 84, p.12.
 Telephone interview between Paul Willis and Keith Ewing, October 18th, 2010.