By Tara Mahadevan
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It was marketing hurdles such as these that sent Kremer cold-calling businesses to the east and west, starting with Chipotle. The meat now goes into the chain's burritos nationwide. ("My little dream," confides Kremer, "is to get a franchise opened in Frankenstein.")
Next came D'Artagnan, a sales pitch Kremer says was a revelation.
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"Us Midwestern rural people are so used to having our pork at least medium-well done, but this pork of ours that the D'Artagnan chef fixed was almost rare," the farmer marvels. "It was tender, and juicy. The flavor just came right through. I said, 'Wow!' I really appreciate my Berkshire pigs even more than I did before."
In 2006 Kremer called on the Whole Foods location in Brentwood. He chose an auspicious moment: Journalist Michael Pollan had publicly called out the Austin, Texas-based chain in The Omnivore's Dilemma for not practicing what it preached, and following an open dialogue that played out on Pollan's blog and on the grocer's website, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey had vowed to make good on his commitment to purvey locally sourced products.
Rich Wolff, Whole Foods' Midwest meat buyer, says the co-op's centralized management structure was a linchpin. "For us to deal with fifteen individual farmers would be pretty complicated," Wolff explains. "And the only way one farm would be large enough to supply our whole region would be if it was a factory farm — which we try not to do."
Today Ozark Mountain Pork inhabits the meat case in Brentwood, as well as those in 29 other Whole Foods stores in the nation's midsection, and the grocer's compliance team visits all the co-op's farms at least once a year — an arrangement that impresses Ozark Mountain's members. "They really come out to the farms, get to know the farmers, know the product — trust us, really," says co-op member Bill Heffernan. "The personal ties really are there. They didn't just come to us because we were the cheapest producers of the product they wanted."
FreshDirect, an online grocer in New York City, came aboard, as did New York City's acclaimed restaurant Daniel and numerous other blue-chip eateries on both coasts. And several artisanal ham and salami makers, including Herb Eckhouse, owner of La Quercia in Norwalk, Iowa, whose prosciutto was dubbed "the best prosciutto imported or domestic you can get in America" by Vogue magazine food writer (and Iron Chef America celebrity judge) Jeffrey Steingarten.
Eckhouse credits the distinctive flavor of the co-op's meat to its heirloom breeds, the Tamworth and Berkshire. "The standard commercial breeds are Landrace and Large White," explains Eckhouse. "They're real lean, they have less intramuscular fat and they tend to have less marbling. That's not Heritage Acres. Heritage Acres has darker meat, more marbling and a heavier fat cap."
Kremer says he's conflicted about the distance the meat must travel. "Do I condone the food miles? No, I don't," he says. "But until somebody else steps up in certain areas, we'll provide it as sustainably as we can."
Meat produced for the co-op's first major St. Louis client is just beginning to appear on grocery shelves. That relationship took root four long years ago, when Lorenza Pasetti, CEO of the storied sausage maker Volpi Foods, Inc., decided to take a group of Japanese customers to tour the co-op after hearing about Kremer and his "special" pig farmers.
"It was kind of a gamble," Pasetti recalls during an interview at Volpi's headquarters on the Hill: Her clients had rigorous standards for quality, and she had no idea what they'd find. The trip, Pasetti says, was an eye opener. "Not only did I have a much better understanding of how to raise the animals, but I began to think about what it does to a pig to make it stand around in excrement for its whole life," she says. "You don't think that permeates into the animal's meat? I believe it does. I believe the absence of that can be tasted."
In 2006 Pasetti made the decision to switch to humanely raised pigs as much as possible. It would take several dozen calls over the course of two years to convince Ozark Mountain she meant business.
Explains Pasetti: "You have to prove yourself to a farmer."
Russ Kremer risked his reputation, his life savings and more in order to start the co-op. He cashed out his retirement account, he says, and he lives without health insurance. While all of his childhood friends are preparing to send their children off to college, Kremer still hasn't found a bride — a fact that troubles his parents to no end.
Yet the keeper of the fine swine from Frankenstein seems bemused that some fellow Catholics still approach him after church to say they wish he'd become a priest. "I'm sometimes hurt by that, because I feel that what I'm doing is completely unselfish, and that I've gone to the edge of martyrdom at times for this cause that I believe in. I think it is priestly! And I'm content with my life."
His fellow co-op members have faced no shortage of setbacks. Since its inception, Ozark Mountain has never succeeded in securing a bank loan. On four separate occasions the board has had to scrape together money on a moment's notice; some farmers literally had to call their spouses for approval to infuse more funds.
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