The Pope of Pork: In tiny towns across Missouri, old-school hog farming stages a comeback — and at tables across the nation, diners rejoice

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.

The co-op's sows, like this Tamworth/Swedish Landrace, give birth in spacious straw-filled pens.
Michelle Hudgins
The co-op's sows, like this Tamworth/Swedish Landrace, give birth in spacious straw-filled pens.
Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative founder Russ Kremer
Michelle Hudgins
Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative founder Russ Kremer

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?"

Nope.

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."

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1 comments
nickgover
nickgover

Wow, that's awesome.  I'm going to order my first product as soon as I can. I saw online that the bacon was out of stock so hopefully more will be available soon.

 
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