By Mabel Suen
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Joseph Hess
By Evan C. Jones
By Ian Froeb
By Mabel Suen
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Ian Froeb
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."
6307 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130
Region: Delmar/ The Loop
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."