Ionia, IA – From California's Silicon Valley to the cornfields of Iowa, former computer engineer and now pig farmer, Carl Blake is reinventing the way that Americans eat their pork. Through his technology-based approach and good ol’ fashioned farming, he says he has bred the perfect tasting American pig.
"We're raising our pigs differently because we're raising them how grandma and grandpa used to raise them,” said Blake, owner of Rustik Rooster Farms.
"This is an American pig that I developed in America and I developed it here in Iowa."
Blake breeds Swabian Hall pigs. Originally a German pig from the 1800s, the Swabian Hall is a combination of Russian Wild Boar and a Chinese Meishan pig. He calls the pigs he breeds the Iowan Swabian Hall. While he says the pigs may not be from traditional domestic breeds, they were developed in America, and they’re the only ones like it in the U.S.
The Swabian Hall pigs and others like what Blake has are called heritage pigs because they were raised on a small farm. The pork from this type of pig is fattier, the meat is juicer, and it’s colored deep red, not a whiter color like most mass produced pork - called confinement pork.
Blake said that there is “no comparison” between confinement raised pork and the meat from his pigs. “If you wanted white meat, you buy a chicken. Pork is not meant to be a white meat," said Blake.
As word got out about the meat from Rustik Rooster Farms, restaurants have been eager to get the pork in their kitchens. Scott Stroud, corporate chef for Orchestrate Hospitality, uses the pigs in the restaurants he oversees in Des Moines, Iowa. One of those restaurants, Django, is the only restaurant in Iowa that can legally cure its own pork. Stroud says that's only possible because of Blake's pigs.
"A confinement [pig] is going to be dry. There’s going to be a different flavor there of the unknown; where was it raised, what was it fed, how was it killed. To Carl’s pig, when you cook it up you can literally wring it out there's so much moisture and flavor from that fat,” said Stroud, “You can only have an excellent end product with an excellent beginning product."
Many of the pigs are bred on Blake’s own land. But he also works with small farms and the Amish. Blake said one young Amish boy took a few of the piglets to raise and when Blake went to pick them back up when they were ready for market, they were the “finest” Swabian Hall pigs he’d ever seen.
The quality of the pork also has to do with what the pigs are fed. Blake uses hydroponic technology, which grows fresh food in water. He is able to pay about $100 for seeds that will grow one-ton of food in six days. Compare that to the price tag of conventional feed prices of $500-$600 per ton. Blake said he doesn’t understand why more farms don’t use the same technology but hopes that it will eventually catch on.
Plus, the vegetables that Blake grows in the hydroponic chamber are completely edible for humans. He says it’s more affordable and healthier for raising pigs, plus then he can have some of the food for his own kitchen.
"I'm trying to bring pig farmers back from extinction. And bring back the Heritage pig, and bring back pig farmers from the confinement days,” said Blake.
He has gained some notoriety for his efforts. He's was featured on the Travel Channel’s show “Bizarre Foods” in March, and was later invited to be a guest on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."
“I have a beef with your pork,” Stephen Colbert said to Blake in the interview, ribbing him about the Chinese-Russian mix of his breeds. “Why do you need two Commie pigs?”
But Blake takes his mission to grow the perfect American pig seriously, and he said that he's gotten tremendous support for his efforts. In particular, one elderly man wants to gift a book of original recipes -- including the original recipe for Jimmy Dean's sausages.
Blake said its that kind of support that keeps him going even when he faces challenges in his own state of Iowa for processing the meat. If Blake wants to slaughter a pig to sell, he has to take it to other states that still have processing plants that small farmers can use.
"This is an American pig that I developed in America and I developed it here in Iowa. It's just that the markets and things have changed to eliminate the farmer. Period. All there is left is corporate farmers," Blake said, adding, "It's a classic David and Goliath story."