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
The 500 Ozark Mountain pigs to be slaughtered on this October day arrived 24 hours ago. They spent the interim resting and frolicking in the Sioux-Preme barn in order to reduce the stress of their 500-mile journey from southern Missouri. A little before nine o'clock, the hogs herd up in twos and threes, heading for an enclosed walkway that leads to the Butina, a six-carriage carbon-dioxide "elevator" that rotates underground like a Ferris wheel.
But for the shutting of the elevator doors, the room is silent. The pigs scurry into the contraption in groups of five and six, per Temple Grandin's specifications, then flop onto a conveyor belt, limp as dishrags, 45 seconds later. "They're essentially anesthetized," assures Malenke. "They're dead."
6307 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130
Region: Delmar/ The Loop
A worker hooks one hind leg to a conveyor, another slices a five-inch gash across the pig's throat with a long, thin-bladed knife. A gallon of blood pours forth in a crimson sheet, slowing to trickle after about half a minute.
The corpse moves along to the scalding chamber, where 139-degree water rids the pig of most of its hair. A wall of flame singes off the remaining bristles, after which comes a series of water jets akin to those at a car wash. In the next room, workers wear earplugs to blunt the screech of power saws and the clank of churning conveyors as they gut and behead the animals while inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitor the process.
At the end of the 40-minute ride, the decapitated carcasses are chilled overnight before being loaded onto trucks bound for Sioux-Preme's butchering facility. Some of the meat is ultimately destined for Ozark Mountain's plant in Mountain View, where it will be processed into hot dogs and bacon.
Silent throughout the tour, Kremer speaks only when his hogs scurry into the Butina. "These are my guys," he says, eyeing the line, his hands held low and clasped together.
"If you're still a farmer in this day and age, it's because you're one stubborn son of a bitch, no doubt about it," observes Andy Ayers. "Now, the idea that you'd be a farmer and a member of a cooperative that has to all get along with each other — it's amazing!"
The former chef/owner of Riddle's Penultimate Café & Wine Bar in the Delmar Loop, Ayers enjoys the distinction of having been the first local purveyor of Ozark Mountain pork. He had long been a believer in sourcing his ingredients locally, but he'd had trouble finding reliable suppliers of meat. Pork was his first and lasting success, touted on the restaurant's menu as "the happy pigs from Ozark Mountain Pork." "You'd be amazed how many times I'd walk through the dining room and hear people chuckling about that. They'd be saying, 'Wow, he really knows these people!'"
The restaurateur (who has since passed Riddle's into the hands of his daughter, K.T. Ayers, and turned his attention to a company that supplies local foods to area establishments, called Eat Here St. Louis) was exactly the sort of customer the co-op's farmer-owners had in mind when they incorporated. "We wanted to build a truly local food system," Kremer explains. "We thought it would go to school cafeterias and local markets and groceries. The idea was to feed Missouri."
It didn't pan out that way.
Ozark Mountain Pork farmers must adhere to fifteen pages' worth of self-imposed standards that regulate everything from feed to pigpen size to systems for identification. Metal crates and antibiotics are forbidden, as are herding practices such as poking hogs with electric prods or wooden clubs. Similar tenets have become priorities for many consumers following the publication of books like Fast Food Nation, an exposé of the modern American meat industry by Eric Schlosser; and The Omnivore's Dilemma, an exhaustive study of the state of modern agriculture by Michael Pollan.
In the wider universe of hog farming, CAFO crates have been banned in parts of Europe, and Smithfield Foods, a major U.S. pork producer, announced last year that it will phase out crates for gestating pigs by 2017.
"I'm really pleased about that development," Temple Grandin says of Smithfield's plan. "Farrowing stalls, where sows have their babies, are a little more understandable. But putting a pregnant animal where it can't turn around is horrible, and two-thirds of the public says so. I've heard people say, 'I wouldn't put my dog in there!'"
Six years ago it was a different story — in the Midwest, anyway. Kremer tells one story of lining up a deal with a regional grocery chain, only to be asked at the last minute if the "natural, antibiotic-free" label could be removed because it appeared to lessen the value of the grocer's other pork products. The co-op found it difficult to command the higher asking price necessary to sustain its more labor-intensive, hands-on style of farming. (CAFOs come in many sizes, typically ranging from about 1,500 to tens of thousands of pigs, while the co-op's herds range from 500 to 4,000 each. These days a CAFO hog will bring in $110 on the commodities market, while a natural hog from the co-op commands a price of $165.)
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