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