By Tara Mahadevan
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Gut Check
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Gut Check Guides
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."
6307 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130
Region: Delmar/ The Loop
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."
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