Over the past few years, Missouri hog farmer Russ Kremer has kept some exclusive company, from high-toqued chefs to CEOs of publicly traded companies to the likes of vice-presidential also-ran Sarah Palin and President-elect Barack Obama.
A self-described evangelist for sustainable agriculture, Kremer logs 80,000 miles a year on the road behind the wheel of his reeking 1998 Chevrolet 2500 truck or the battered 1996 Oldsmobile he calls Blue, laptop and trio of Rolodexes close at hand, BlackBerry glued to his ear. He has taught Alaskan farmers the merits of cooperative agriculture, conducted tastings of pig entrails with a Chicago meat trader known as the Offal Queen and testified before Congress.
But with his "ain'ts" and his "cain'ts," his worn jeans and chestnut-colored curls peeking out from an omnipresent baseball cap, it's hard to take in the burly, bronzed Kremer and think anything but down-home country boy.
One time a pair of potential buyers from New York clambered into Blue wearing suits and shined shoes, absorbed Kremer's dust and disarray and quipped, "This is an act, isn't it?"
A visit to Kremer's farm reveals there's nothing this 51-year-old bachelor would rather be doing than taking the air with his pigs. "They're so curious and sociable," Kremer says with a glimmer in his eye. "I guess that's why I fell in love with them."
Kremer calls his herd "the fine swine from Frankenstein" in homage to his oak-shrouded hometown, population 30. His 160-acre spread hunkers down an emerald-green hill or two over from town, in unincorporated Osage County. "Twenty years ago Osage County had 550 farms with pigs," the farmer says. "Today there are less than 50. It's big industry that changed all that. The corporate meatpackers said we were too small and too inefficient, and, 'We want tractor-trailers coming in with thousands of pigs finished at once.' Basically they caused the creation of pig factories in which everything is 'systemized.' They made the pig a widget."
On a warm, sunny day, Kremer's pigs come scurrying to greet their keeper, oinking and snorting, jumping and cavorting. They aren't the pinkish caricatures you see in cartoons. These pigs are rendered in the earthy palette characteristic of heirloom breeds: the caramel-colored Duroc, the brandy-hued Tamworth, the peachy-cream Swedish Landrace, the ink-black Meishan. Some of the pigs hail from bloodlines that go back hundreds of years.
"The biggest thing here is space," says Kremer, with a wave toward the barns and pasture. "If the pigs get cramped and confined, they get irritated. They'll be panting, squealing, restless. There's a difference between restless and active. You want them to be active."
These being pigs, "active" is a relative term. Some are canoodling in the shade, others muck about in a mud wallow. A few jump and burrow in beds of hay. Several have their noses to the ground, chomping on nubs of grass and acorns. "It's like a mini-resort," says Kremer, and he has a point. Blue sky specked with perfectly fluffed clouds above, grain blowing in the breeze below — the scene seems to have sprung straight out of pastoral central casting.
As the modern American hog industry goes, the Kremer farmstead is extraordinary.
Whereas Kremer's pigs have the run of his place, most pork consumed these days comes from pigs that have been raised indoors in metal crates. Most pigs feast on diets containing antibiotics and animal byproducts. Kremer's drug-free hogs nosh on corn, soy and oats. Unlike indoor pigs, which relieve themselves through the slats beneath their cloven hooves, Kremer's hogs do their business in an area that's separate from where they play. His sows give birth on beds of straw, not on a metal floor.
And most of Kremer's hogs mate the old-fashioned way.
"The reason why I love sows is because they're such maternal animals," he says, cocking his head to watch a Tamworth-Landrace, ever so slowly in order not to crush her litter, belly down to the ground to feed her babies. "The more attention you give a pig, the more they're going to produce."
That's a notion that quit making economic sense three decades ago in the increasingly corporate world of agriculture — and one that Kremer is fighting to restore with a socialist-sounding economic model: the co-op.
In November 2001 he and 33 fellow farmers formed the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative and began processing pork under the label Heritage Acres, a name chosen to invoke the craftsmanship of a bygone era. As Kremer likes to say: "We're going back to the future." The co-op has since become something of a poster child for natural pork production and has endowed Kremer with what can only be called fame. These days, getting face time or even five minutes on the phone with the farmer is iffier than catching hold of the proverbial greased pig. His voicemail is perennially full. E-mails sent his way seem to swirl away into a vast cyber-void.
Jokes Herb Eckhouse, an Iowa prosciutto maker who has used Ozark Mountain Pork since early 2007 but hadn't met Kremer in person until the farmer paid him a visit last month: "Waiting for him to visit is like waiting for the Pope."
Steve Ells, founder and CEO of the Chipotle Tex-Mex chain, puts a more contemporary spin on Kremer's celebrity status in the sustainable-food community.
Says Ells: "He's one of the farmer rock stars."
Ariane Daguin, proprietor of the New Jersey-based fancy food distributor D'Artagnan, distinctly remembers the photos from Missouri that came across her desk about four years back. "You had the pigs in alfalfa fields, the mommies with the little babies — a very rare thing to have this luxury of space," she says in her thick French accent. "What really attracted me the most was the fact that those pigs looked like the black pigs from southwest France where I'm from, and with which we do a lot of great things."
Daguin grew up in Gascony, making pâté from a young age in the Michelin-starred kitchen of her father's hotel. The pigs for the pâté came from a small circle of local farmers whose wives delivered the meat to the back door every week. "I learned from them that the meat is very good when the farmer respects the animals," Daguin says by phone from D'Artagnan's headquarters in Newark. "For some reason, when you raise them well, they come out good. And when you don't, it shows."
Almost 25 years ago Daguin imported that idea to the New York City food scene, where she has since become la reine of carnal delicacies to dozens of eminent chefs who depend on her weekly deliveries, not to mention gourmets all over the United States who place orders via phone and Internet. One of those gourmets became a consultant to Ozark Mountain Pork five years ago and promptly told Russ Kremer that he and Daguin needed to meet.
"I thought: New York City?" says Kremer. "I didn't really get it."
Kremer acquiesced, but his doubts deepened when he arrived at D'Artagnan's offices to do his sales pitch. The hog farmer carried with him a cooler containing various cuts of fresh pork, which were promptly whisked from his hands. He made his PowerPoint presentation, replaying those images of the French-looking pigs. Then the lights went on and, as Kremer recalls it, "Ariane said, 'Well, that's all very nice, but zee proof is in zee pudding. We must taste.'"
A chef appeared with pork from several producers in different preparations. Daguin handed out paper and pens for a blind tasting. Kremer felt sick to his stomach.
"He was sweating it," Daguin remembers.
When the panel arrived at the pink-fleshed pork on the plate labeled "D," the tasters began to "ooh" and "aah." Moister than most, the meat stood out for its depth of flavor.
Says Kremer: "I thought to myself, 'Oh, man, we're out of this. I have to get out of here.'"
Then the names of the producers were revealed. The panel had swooned over Ozark Mountain's meat.
"For us it was very evident," says Daguin. "There was no comparison. It was amazing."
Russ Kremer keeps the electricity running at his sparsely furnished bachelor pad, but when he's in town he often crashes at his parents' more comfortable white-clapboard homestead near Loose Creek. "Great day for a ride!" he calls to his mother as she sidles off a red riding lawnmower to greet him.
Farmers from Germany, the Kremer clan first settled in the area in the early 1900s, planting corn and soybeans for future generations to tend to. By the 1950s and '60s, however, Wilfred and Mary Ann Kremer were raising their seven children for other vocations, like art and academia. Russell, a middle child, was tapped for the priesthood.
When it came time for seminary, however, Kremer turned away the recruiting priest at the door.
"His grade-school teacher used to say, 'Russell was always right about pigs,'" recalls Wilfred, chuckling.
"His father ruined him by giving him a pig at age two," Mary Ann puts in.
Both parents agree it was the sow Wilfred gave Russell when he was eight that set him on this path. Remembers Wilfred: "Oh, gosh, I've never seen anybody so happy in my life."
Her name was Honeysuckle. She birthed fifteen piglets but had only twelve nipples. "I'd do feeding shifts," Kremer says. "I'd sit with her in the barn and monitor. I'd say, 'OK, you've had enough there, little guy, get out of here,' and help another one on. I kept close watch out for the boss hogs. And in the end I was able to save them all."
Those were the old days. When Kremer graduated from University of Missouri in the early 1980s, a supermodern method of pig production was taking hold. Farmers were erecting large metal barns called confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in which hundreds, even thousands, of pigs are confined in individual seven-by-two-foot metal crates.
The benefits were significant: The crates prevented deaths due to severe weather, parasites, fighting and sows crushing their babies. The improvements allowed farmers to increase scale and, consequently, profits.
"My two brothers and I were able to raise our families in an agricultural setting and our wives were able to stay at home to raise the kids," says 54-year-old Kenny Brinker, who has owned a 2,800-hog CAFO in the central Missouri town of Auxvasse since 1994. "Most farmers don't have the ability to put together a family structure like that."
Like most Osage County families, the Kremers had always kept a few dozen hogs — known as "mortgage lifters" — in the barns. Russ Kremer jumped at the chance in the early 1980s to increase production. He says he got a mortgage for his CAFO with no money down. He bought the recommended breeds known for their easy hair removal — a cost-saving factor at slaughter time — and stocked up on antibiotics to keep the pigs healthy in the crowded environment.
You might say Kremer went whole hog. He taught livestock courses at an area high school and from 1986 till 1988 served as president of the Missouri Pork Producers' Association, the state's primary pork lobby.
But after six or seven years, Kremer says, he began to feel like he was leading "a bummer of a life." He began to question certain industry practices, like killing sows for pork sausage after they've given birth to only two litters. One year a storm knocked out power in the CAFO. When the fans quit whirring, the ammonia buildup in the manure pit beneath the pigs suffocated the animals. Kremer and his dad lost the entire herd.
And then there was the constant sickness. The tight quarters hastened the spread of disease. Kremer remembers spending entire days injecting antibiotics, trying to get his hogs healthy enough for market. "I got to the point where I hated going into the barn, because I had this syringe on my hip," he says.
One afternoon in March 1989, Kremer was attempting to breed a particularly feisty boar with a sow when the boar gored him. "He got jealous of another boar and basically swung around real hard," Kremer recalls. "His tusk caught me in the kneecap."
Kremer cleaned up and carried on, but two weeks later his leg had ballooned to twice its size. His doctor prescribed six different antibiotics; none worked.
"Nothing fazed the thing," Kremer remembers.
In the end the farmer checked in to St. Mary's Hospital in Jefferson City with a mysterious infection. Doctors told his family he might not live.
"Pigs definitely like humans, and they like humans that are nice to them," says Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, one of the world's foremost experts in the field of animal science, whose 2006 book Animals in Translation explored the similarities between the ways in which animals and autistic people see the world. "They know the difference between people who are nice and people who are bad to them."
Pigs also have personalities and emotions. "No question about it," says Grandin, who has written a book on that very subject that's scheduled for publication next year. "Some are shy. Some are bold. Some are better foragers. Some are better mamas." A happy pig is a pig that has fellow pigs and things to play with, Grandin says. "Straw, cornstalks — they like to chew up things and root around. They like to be with their buddies."
A happy pig is also a pig in heat, a pig having sex, a pig nurturing its young. And as Russ Kremer likes to say, a happy pig — contrary to the old saying — is not a pig in shit. "Pigs are very clean animals," Kremer maintains, adding, "I think that saying got popularized only since CAFOs have been around."
At St. Mary's Hospital, Kremer underwent surgery to remove a cluster of infected cells in his leg. When the lab results came back, they showed that a superbug was having a field day in his bloodstream. Having identified the critter, doctors were able to counter with an intravenous antibiotic. Later, when Kremer phoned the Kansas breeder who'd sold him the boar, he learned that the pig had received penicillin continuously since weaning. His physicians theorized that the pig had passed along to Kremer a particularly virulent and drug-resistant form of strep.
"At first I wanted to quit everything," Kremer says. "We'd been taught that antibiotics meant more production, which meant more money. But what I decided finally was to go cold turkey and try to do things more naturally."
Kremer threw out his syringe, destroyed his CAFO barns and began to phase the treated animals out of his herd. He bought drug-free breeding stock and began mixing his own antibiotic-free feed.
Some regarded his strategy as lunacy: "People around here kind of knew I thought outside the box, but there were still some naysayers who said, 'That won't last but a few minutes. A fly will come in from another operation and your pigs will die.' I said, 'Well, I'll see.' I was a little skeptical myself."
Adds Kremer: "In the first year alone, I saved $16,000 in vet bills."
"Pigs like the natural environment," observes Yuzhi Li, a swine scientist at the University of Minnesota. "They like the freedom of movement instead of being confined. But they also need more intensive care."
Says Li's colleague, swine scientist Lee Johnston: "It takes a different type of person to run the alternative production."
At the time, pork from antibiotic-free hogs raised on straw and pasture was an ultra-niche product, marketed mainly by Niman Ranch, a California company Kremer had never heard of. He simply continued to sell his hogs on the commodities market, which became less and less profitable as the pork industry underwent consolidation, driving down prices. In December 1998 the price of commodity pork — which typically had ranged from 40 to 50 cents per pound and sometimes climbed as high as 64 cents — bottomed out at 7 cents a pound.
One night Kremer walked into a watering hole in the nearby town of Linn and heard a friend give him a whistle. "How much'll you take for a hog?"
Kremer shrugged. "What it's worth: about a case of Miller Lite," he replied. "When I got up from my meal, there was my case of beer sitting on the end of the bar. Next day the guy came down for his 250-pound hog."
He laughs. "I guess we both got what we needed."
In 1999 Steve Ells, founder of the then-fledgling Chipotle Tex-Mex franchise, read about Niman Ranch and its naturally raised pork in the erudite food journal The Art of Eating. Ells decided to give the meat a try in Chipotle's burritos and tacos. "I liked it so much better, I said, 'Man, this is what we have to have,'" the CEO says in a telephone interview.
A former chef who had toiled in some of northern California's marquee kitchens, Ells had a palate trained to discern high-quality ingredients. But in all his years cooking, he had never actually ventured to see where the food came from. The Chipotle founder decided to fly to Iowa for a look at some of the 50 farms that were raising pigs for Niman at the time. After that he toured several CAFOs.
He calls the latter experience "horrific."
"It was very moving for me, not only because the animals were suffering," Ells explains, "but because in the middle of this beautiful farmland you've got this warehouse, which looks so out of place, and outside are these lagoons filled with waste and concentrated toxins. There was exploitation on so many levels — of the animals, the workers, the communities who had to endure the stench of these places, and the environment. I knew I didn't want Chipotle's success to be based on that kind of exploitation."
Chipotle and Niman Ranch proceeded to create a partnership that would grow the pork firm's network to some 600 farmers over the next nine years, Ells says.
Meantime, a frustrated Kremer traveled to the Old World in search of a time-tested method of making natural production profitable for Missouri farmers. "People were very critical," he recalls, describing how he'd sought the help of the agriculture faculty at the University of Missouri. "We did a seminar, and at the end two of them said, 'Well, we'll help you, but we really believe that what you're doing is hurting the industry.'"
Kremer got a totally different reception from the university's Rural Sociology Department, whose faculty studies small communities with an eye to improving quality of life.
"Corporate and really small farmers were doing well. It was the farms in the middle — what we've thought of as the family farms of the past — which were shrinking in number, and we were trying to figure out a system to help them," explains professor emeritus Bill Heffernan, who would later put his money where his mouth was and join the co-op. "Russ really was the one who looked out and asked: 'What's possible? How might we do this?' He was the visionary."
Overseas, Kremer looked into highly regarded heritage breeds in England and followed a pig from farm to prosciutto maker in the famed Parma region of Italy. But it was in Osnabrück, a small farming community not far from Hamburg, whose undulating pastures reminded him of Osage County and whose 100 farms belonged to a cooperative jointly owned by local pig farmers and butchers, that he found what he was looking for.
On each farm the women took care of the pigs, raising them without antibiotics, half outdoors and half in straw-bedded barns.
"The business model looked ideal to me, but the thing that struck me about it all was the cleanliness," Kremer says now. "The Germans had brick courtyards in their barns! Their pig houses were attached to the farmers' homes! We'd be eating rolls and drinking tea in a kitchen, and all of a sudden you went to the next room and there were one hundred sows living there. You couldn't smell a thing in the house."
A retired German veterinarian who specialized in homeopathic remedies served as Kremer's guide through the co-op. "He didn't speak a lick of English," Kremer remembers. "But we really related. You could see the sparkle in his eye, knowing somebody was interested. His wife spoke English, and one of the things I'll never forget her translating was that the urine of a sow should look like a fine white wine."
Back home, Kremer headed up an effort to launch a co-op. His first attempt failed, owing to insufficient capital and a lack of consensus, but Kremer kept at it, and by November 2001 he had convinced 33 farmers to pool $790,000, form Ozark Mountain Pork and purchase a processing plant in the town of Mountain View.
"We were told by some that we needed to expand by a certain percentage every year to survive," recalls Danny Lewis, a 58-year-old farmer in Curryville. "Well, when does this expansion end? I don't believe in row-crop farmers who farm eight to ten thousand acres. That's not my philosophy. I believe in diversification in farms. And ten years ago it was pretty difficult to be a diversified farmer without a market for your hogs."
Lewis bought into the co-op, but not without trepidation. "Nobody was really able to make anything like this successful, so we were in uncharted waters — or unplowed fields," he says. "There was a lot of risk."
Kremer found most of the co-op owners by tapping into the Missouri Farmers Union, a lobby for independent, family-owned farms that he organized in 1999 and of which he has served as president for eight of the past nine years. Many of the co-op members — all are family farmers whose wives and children often help with chores — had previously owned CAFOs. They all run diversified operations that include cattle and crops, and all grow most of their own feed. The average member raises 1,000 pigs a year; the manure is recycled and used on the rest of the farm.
As a group the members meet annually; a board of directors and full-time manager keep the business functioning day to day. The co-op also employs a dozen or so non-farmers to look after sales and to process meat in Mountain View.
"Russ is terribly charismatic," observes his friend Mary Hendrickson, a professor of rural sociology at University of Missouri who has helped the co-op to secure roughly $1 million in grants and tax credits from the Missouri Department of Agriculture. "He's a translator for people between the farm and the city. But it's not all about him. This is an incredible group of people who are in this because they want their kids to be able to farm, and because they want farming revenues to flow back into their rural communities, not to some corporation on Wall Street or overseas."
It took more than two years for Ozark Mountain Pork to secure its first major consumer, Chipotle. Kremer made two cold calls to the chain's Boulder, Colorado, headquarters in the first half of 2004; Ells journeyed to Frankenstein to ink a deal later that year.
"It's sort of infectious, hearing him talk about sustainable farming, humanely raising the animals and bringing a new generation into farming the right way," says the Chipotle chief. "You can't help but want to jump on the bandwagon; you can't help but to want to buy his pork."
Matt Boatright, deputy director of the state's agriculture department, echoes the applause for Kremer's marketing prowess. Still, Boatright doesn't foresee the natural-pork niche effecting drastic changes in Missouri's agriculture industry anytime soon. "If the question is, 'How do I feed the most people quickly?' you pick a CAFO," says Boatright. "If the question is, 'How do I want to feed a few of my friends — the heck with the rest of the people in the world?' — you'd see these outdoor hogs are wonderful."
Adds University of Minnesota scientist Yuzhi Li: "Alternative producers say, 'We are good operations,' and CAFOs say, 'We are good operations.' It all depends on management, I think. The CAFO producers are still the mainstream of the industry — they provide probably 95 percent of the pork we eat. They are more efficient and cheaper, maybe, though consumers do want different kinds of products. I think they are both good. I eat both of them."
To which Kremer responds: "Why cain't we redirect our food system and feed the whole world with these pigs?"
At about 9 a.m. every Wednesday at the Sioux-Preme slaughterhouse in Sioux Center, Iowa, Ozark Mountain's pigs get in line for killing. Sioux-Preme is a small facility that specializes in harvesting for niche meats and one that's used by several other natural pork producers. About 4,000 head go through a day, compared to 25,000 or more in some of the larger plants around the U.S.
Kremer likes to visit often. He thinks of the slaughter as his pigs' final "ceremonial rite," and he comes to reassure himself that they make it through without suffering.
"People always ask: 'Isn't it hard to slaughter them?' I think it was really hard for me the first time. Then you realize: Well, we did our jobs. And when we eat that pig, we are celebrating its life," Kremer says. "We were great stewards; we treated it with respect, and it provided us with a function of our own life."
Slaughterhouse workers used to kill pigs with a slit across the throat, until the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 required that meatpackers stun livestock before draining them of blood. Now most pigs are stunned either with an electrical bolt or with carbon dioxide. According to animal scientist Temple Grandin, who designs slaughterhouse facilities, both systems involve a tradeoff.
"Electrical stunning is absolutely instantaneous," Grandin explains. "The pigs don't feel a thing. But the handling has to be done correctly. With CO2 there is some discomfort going into the gas, but the handling of the pigs beforehand is much calmer and there's less room for human error. Either one can be done with a really good level of animal welfare. The system has to be managed right and done correctly."
Animal welfare is far from the meat industry's sole concern at slaughter time. Many believe that a stressed or frightened pig produces inferior pork. Sioux-Preme installed its carbon-dioxide system in January 2007. "It's made a huge improvement," explains CEO Gary Malenke, whose office is adorned with pig-themed wallpaper and chachkas. "There's a lot less movement from the animals, which we used to have when we stunned electrically. The pigs also have a higher pH at the end of the process, and that allows the carcasses to hold their moisture. There's much less [of the] 'bleeding' you sometimes see in meat packages."
The 500 Ozark Mountain pigs to be slaughtered on this October day arrived 24 hours ago. They spent the interim resting and frolicking in the Sioux-Preme barn in order to reduce the stress of their 500-mile journey from southern Missouri. A little before nine o'clock, the hogs herd up in twos and threes, heading for an enclosed walkway that leads to the Butina, a six-carriage carbon-dioxide "elevator" that rotates underground like a Ferris wheel.
But for the shutting of the elevator doors, the room is silent. The pigs scurry into the contraption in groups of five and six, per Temple Grandin's specifications, then flop onto a conveyor belt, limp as dishrags, 45 seconds later. "They're essentially anesthetized," assures Malenke. "They're dead."
A worker hooks one hind leg to a conveyor, another slices a five-inch gash across the pig's throat with a long, thin-bladed knife. A gallon of blood pours forth in a crimson sheet, slowing to trickle after about half a minute.
The corpse moves along to the scalding chamber, where 139-degree water rids the pig of most of its hair. A wall of flame singes off the remaining bristles, after which comes a series of water jets akin to those at a car wash. In the next room, workers wear earplugs to blunt the screech of power saws and the clank of churning conveyors as they gut and behead the animals while inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitor the process.
At the end of the 40-minute ride, the decapitated carcasses are chilled overnight before being loaded onto trucks bound for Sioux-Preme's butchering facility. Some of the meat is ultimately destined for Ozark Mountain's plant in Mountain View, where it will be processed into hot dogs and bacon.
Silent throughout the tour, Kremer speaks only when his hogs scurry into the Butina. "These are my guys," he says, eyeing the line, his hands held low and clasped together.
"If you're still a farmer in this day and age, it's because you're one stubborn son of a bitch, no doubt about it," observes Andy Ayers. "Now, the idea that you'd be a farmer and a member of a cooperative that has to all get along with each other — it's amazing!"
The former chef/owner of Riddle's Penultimate Café & Wine Bar in the Delmar Loop, Ayers enjoys the distinction of having been the first local purveyor of Ozark Mountain pork. He had long been a believer in sourcing his ingredients locally, but he'd had trouble finding reliable suppliers of meat. Pork was his first and lasting success, touted on the restaurant's menu as "the happy pigs from Ozark Mountain Pork." "You'd be amazed how many times I'd walk through the dining room and hear people chuckling about that. They'd be saying, 'Wow, he really knows these people!'"
The restaurateur (who has since passed Riddle's into the hands of his daughter, K.T. Ayers, and turned his attention to a company that supplies local foods to area establishments, called Eat Here St. Louis) was exactly the sort of customer the co-op's farmer-owners had in mind when they incorporated. "We wanted to build a truly local food system," Kremer explains. "We thought it would go to school cafeterias and local markets and groceries. The idea was to feed Missouri."
It didn't pan out that way.
Ozark Mountain Pork farmers must adhere to fifteen pages' worth of self-imposed standards that regulate everything from feed to pigpen size to systems for identification. Metal crates and antibiotics are forbidden, as are herding practices such as poking hogs with electric prods or wooden clubs. Similar tenets have become priorities for many consumers following the publication of books like Fast Food Nation, an exposé of the modern American meat industry by Eric Schlosser; and The Omnivore's Dilemma, an exhaustive study of the state of modern agriculture by Michael Pollan.
In the wider universe of hog farming, CAFO crates have been banned in parts of Europe, and Smithfield Foods, a major U.S. pork producer, announced last year that it will phase out crates for gestating pigs by 2017.
"I'm really pleased about that development," Temple Grandin says of Smithfield's plan. "Farrowing stalls, where sows have their babies, are a little more understandable. But putting a pregnant animal where it can't turn around is horrible, and two-thirds of the public says so. I've heard people say, 'I wouldn't put my dog in there!'"
Six years ago it was a different story — in the Midwest, anyway. Kremer tells one story of lining up a deal with a regional grocery chain, only to be asked at the last minute if the "natural, antibiotic-free" label could be removed because it appeared to lessen the value of the grocer's other pork products. The co-op found it difficult to command the higher asking price necessary to sustain its more labor-intensive, hands-on style of farming. (CAFOs come in many sizes, typically ranging from about 1,500 to tens of thousands of pigs, while the co-op's herds range from 500 to 4,000 each. These days a CAFO hog will bring in $110 on the commodities market, while a natural hog from the co-op commands a price of $165.)
It was marketing hurdles such as these that sent Kremer cold-calling businesses to the east and west, starting with Chipotle. The meat now goes into the chain's burritos nationwide. ("My little dream," confides Kremer, "is to get a franchise opened in Frankenstein.")
Next came D'Artagnan, a sales pitch Kremer says was a revelation.
"Us Midwestern rural people are so used to having our pork at least medium-well done, but this pork of ours that the D'Artagnan chef fixed was almost rare," the farmer marvels. "It was tender, and juicy. The flavor just came right through. I said, 'Wow!' I really appreciate my Berkshire pigs even more than I did before."
In 2006 Kremer called on the Whole Foods location in Brentwood. He chose an auspicious moment: Journalist Michael Pollan had publicly called out the Austin, Texas-based chain in The Omnivore's Dilemma for not practicing what it preached, and following an open dialogue that played out on Pollan's blog and on the grocer's website, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey had vowed to make good on his commitment to purvey locally sourced products.
Rich Wolff, Whole Foods' Midwest meat buyer, says the co-op's centralized management structure was a linchpin. "For us to deal with fifteen individual farmers would be pretty complicated," Wolff explains. "And the only way one farm would be large enough to supply our whole region would be if it was a factory farm — which we try not to do."
Today Ozark Mountain Pork inhabits the meat case in Brentwood, as well as those in 29 other Whole Foods stores in the nation's midsection, and the grocer's compliance team visits all the co-op's farms at least once a year — an arrangement that impresses Ozark Mountain's members. "They really come out to the farms, get to know the farmers, know the product — trust us, really," says co-op member Bill Heffernan. "The personal ties really are there. They didn't just come to us because we were the cheapest producers of the product they wanted."
FreshDirect, an online grocer in New York City, came aboard, as did New York City's acclaimed restaurant Daniel and numerous other blue-chip eateries on both coasts. And several artisanal ham and salami makers, including Herb Eckhouse, owner of La Quercia in Norwalk, Iowa, whose prosciutto was dubbed "the best prosciutto imported or domestic you can get in America" by Vogue magazine food writer (and Iron Chef America celebrity judge) Jeffrey Steingarten.
Eckhouse credits the distinctive flavor of the co-op's meat to its heirloom breeds, the Tamworth and Berkshire. "The standard commercial breeds are Landrace and Large White," explains Eckhouse. "They're real lean, they have less intramuscular fat and they tend to have less marbling. That's not Heritage Acres. Heritage Acres has darker meat, more marbling and a heavier fat cap."
Kremer says he's conflicted about the distance the meat must travel. "Do I condone the food miles? No, I don't," he says. "But until somebody else steps up in certain areas, we'll provide it as sustainably as we can."
Meat produced for the co-op's first major St. Louis client is just beginning to appear on grocery shelves. That relationship took root four long years ago, when Lorenza Pasetti, CEO of the storied sausage maker Volpi Foods, Inc., decided to take a group of Japanese customers to tour the co-op after hearing about Kremer and his "special" pig farmers.
"It was kind of a gamble," Pasetti recalls during an interview at Volpi's headquarters on the Hill: Her clients had rigorous standards for quality, and she had no idea what they'd find. The trip, Pasetti says, was an eye opener. "Not only did I have a much better understanding of how to raise the animals, but I began to think about what it does to a pig to make it stand around in excrement for its whole life," she says. "You don't think that permeates into the animal's meat? I believe it does. I believe the absence of that can be tasted."
In 2006 Pasetti made the decision to switch to humanely raised pigs as much as possible. It would take several dozen calls over the course of two years to convince Ozark Mountain she meant business.
Explains Pasetti: "You have to prove yourself to a farmer."
Russ Kremer risked his reputation, his life savings and more in order to start the co-op. He cashed out his retirement account, he says, and he lives without health insurance. While all of his childhood friends are preparing to send their children off to college, Kremer still hasn't found a bride — a fact that troubles his parents to no end.
Yet the keeper of the fine swine from Frankenstein seems bemused that some fellow Catholics still approach him after church to say they wish he'd become a priest. "I'm sometimes hurt by that, because I feel that what I'm doing is completely unselfish, and that I've gone to the edge of martyrdom at times for this cause that I believe in. I think it is priestly! And I'm content with my life."
His fellow co-op members have faced no shortage of setbacks. Since its inception, Ozark Mountain has never succeeded in securing a bank loan. On four separate occasions the board has had to scrape together money on a moment's notice; some farmers literally had to call their spouses for approval to infuse more funds.
More than once when a delivery threatened to fall through, Kremer personally crisscrossed Missouri to collect the hogs and transport them to the slaughterhouse rather than lose a valuable customer. To this day he ruefully recalls a deal to supply hot dogs to the luxury suites at Busch Stadium that fell through when a manager the co-op had hired screwed up a delivery. ("I was devastated," says Kremer. "But I've vowed to get us back in there.")
Management was a perennial problem; the co-op shuffled through seven hired managers before finally concluding that one of their farmer-owners, someone financially vested in the organization, had to take the day-to-day reins.
As member Danny Lewis sums up, "It's pretty much a minor miracle that the co-op has survived to this point and has a chance of being successful."
But in the age-old practice of agriculture, in which cooperatives are nothing new, Ozark Mountain is an innovator. One of dozens of efforts to organize hog farmers after the market crash of 1998, the group comprising Kremer and his partners is one of only two pork co-ops that remain in operation ten years later. (The other, Meadowbrook Farms, headquartered in Belleville, Illinois, does not concentrate on sustainable production.)
Today the co-op's farmers say the future has never looked better. Membership has swelled from 34 to 52 members, with new inquiries coming in weekly. In 2007 the group recorded its first profit ever — a humble $1,000. The co-op has increased its gains each month so far this year. "It's an achievement to finally break even," says Kremer. "For six whole years, we were wondering whether we'd be able to keep the doors open. Now we know we can."
And the pork is finally for sale at a number of outlets in Missouri, including the Sappington Farmers' Market on Watson Road in south St. Louis County, an old grocery store acquired this year by a group of Missouri farmers led by Kremer who aim to get more of the state's rural bounty into the city.
"We're back knocking on doors at Schnucks and such," adds co-op member Bill Heffernan.
Kremer says he foresees the day when Missouri grocers will scan Heritage Acres meat and customers will see a photo of the family that raised the pig that produced that very cut. "There would even be a little invitation from the family," he says. "Like, 'Come down to our farm and see what we're all about.'"