Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is Local Always Better????

The other day we were cutting a half hog during class and it was from small local processor. It weighed just about 100 lbs., making it a very average market style hog. This size is the most popular throughout the country and is what most large processors look for. The typical processor in Iowa is looking for a 6 month old, 265 lb white haired, grain fed hog. This pig, even though it was raised in upstate NY, fit that description perfectly.
  When we broke it into it's primal cuts the pork was pink, the fat was firm but there was very little marbling and the fat back was only about a 1/2 to 1 inch along the back. I know this pig was not fed any growth promotants or fed antibiotics preemptive but other than that, is it much different than the mass produced pork I can buy for almost half the price?
  When purchasing local, you need to consider a few things. First, just because it is local doesn't guarantee it will be much different than the commercially raised large farm pork. Second, local doesn't always mean "heirloom" breed and many farmers are raising hybrid, fast growing pigs that are easy to raise indoors. Third, the feed a pig gets will be reflected in the flavor so if a grower uses a basic pre-mixed bagged feed the pig will taste pretty much like a mass produced commercial pork.
 So why would you purchase this type of pork? You may decide not to. You may choose a unique heirloom breed that was fed some forage, diverse grains, kitchen scraps, crop farmers by-products and pasture. But these pigs are very expensive and some are extremely fatty. There are some really high quality pork producers out there that are growing pork that doesn't resemble the large commercial pork. It is often reddish in color and the taste is deeper. But be ready to pay for it, an heirloom pig can be anywhere from $3 to $9 per lb!!
 A lot of chefs and home cooks would balk at these prices but still want to be part of the "locally grown" scene. Should they buy the local product that looks like regular pork? Its a tough question to answer. Our white pig was about $1.70 per lb which was more than what large commercial producers charge. Hog market price as of this post date was about $.85 per lb!!!! That is so incredibly cheap that no small producer can match it, no matter what they are feeding. 
 But here a few more things to consider, buying local pork, no matter what style, means you are keeping a local farmer in business. Most local farmers I know are allowing their pigs outside at least in summer. The pigs have a more pig-like existence and allowed some fresh air. Also most small farmers don't use gestation crates, restraining sows and they often don't use antibiotics, unless there is some infection that is not treatable in any other way. They don't use Paylean, a beta-agonist feed additive that grows lean muscle faster from less feed. These are questions you should ask about your local pork.
  Also, the local pork will arrive fresh and not in a vacuum bag. If pork is stored in bags for any length of time ( over two weeks) it starts to purge out and gives the pork a watery feel and the fat will be soaked with purge. Ideally pork should be used fresh and wrapped in paper so the fat stays nice and white. A local pork will typically arrive as a half hog and it will be nice and dry. Purchasing a half hog means you have all sorts of creative fuel for many products. Skin for cracklins or gelatins, bones for roasted stocks, some fat for rendering and the ability to custom cut your meat to create unique dishes. Fresh unbagged pork will work better for dry cured products because the skin and fat will be dryer to start with. 
  So no matter whether you choose to buy an heirloom barley fed pig or a standard market style hog, buying local will have advantages for any chef looking to showcase unique products.