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LA Chefs' Suppliers: A Cook Pig Ranch's tale- the pork butt Part 3

Third part of 3 parts, please start here with Part 1

Pigs at Cook Pigs Ranch
Pigs at Cook Pigs Ranch
Image courtesy of SHGfoto
Mike & Krys Cook plus family of Cook Pigs Ranch
image by Carrie Sandoval, Baby as Art, provided by Krys Cook

If there's a heaven for hogs, Cook Pigs Ranch may be just that place.

Here a variety of heritage breed of pigs live outside in the sun, under oak trees on a number of acres where they can root, forage, sleep in pig piles and play. In essence, Pigs on Cook Pigs Ranch get to be pigs until their one bad day. This is in stark contrast to the factory farms where every day of a pig's life may be described as a pig hell. In these CAFO's or concentrated animal feeding operations, pigs selectively bred to grow quickly go from artificial insemination to cellophane without ever seeing the light of day. Pigs in these factories are fed GMO corn and soy plus live on crowded concrete floors where they can't display any of their natural behaviors like rooting and nesting.

For chefs though there is a huge difference in flavor between a pastured pig and one raised in a CAFO. LA Chefs like Melisse's Josiah Citrin note that the better an animal is cared for, the better it tastes, so especially with meats, sourcing- that is knowing where your food comes from- is everything. You are what the animal you eat eats, so one that's fed a natural and diverse diet that also has ample room to exercise in a stress free environment is going to taste better (as well as be more nutritious) than another animal that's confined in a very stressful environment like a CAFO.

Since Cook's pigs are genetically diverse and not confined with room to roam, diseases aren't as easily spread. Therefore, unlike factory confined pigs, Cook's pigs aren't continuously fed low levels of antibiotics that are also used by CAFO's to stimulate growth. Cook's pigs aren't given any growth hormones. Thus when Cook's pigs defecate, no residual antibiotics or hormones end up in the compost pile that's used to build soil on their property. This is vastly different than the slurry waste in lagoons from CAFO's that doesn't compost properly before being applied to agricultural fields. This waste in these lagoons is full of the residual antibiotics and hormones given to the confined pigs.

The way that Cook Pigs Ranch is arranged, pigs after they're bred and weened are transferred to the largest tiered portion of the property that includes hilly terrain. This too is vastly different than pigs in confinement. Cook's pigs have plenty of room to exercise, explore, and be intellectually stimulated. Here is where Cook's pigs build up a great balance of interstitial fat trapping Omega threes for very flavorful meat. This tiered arrangement is, in part, based on research that Krys did on how Iberico pigs are raised in Spain.

On Cook Pigs Ranch different sections of the ranch are separated for the pigs at different stages of their development. One large area is for a boar and sows to breed. To ensure an healthy genetic diversity, different boars are rotated through this space and bred with different sows. Once the sows are ready for delivery, the sows are moved to a pen without any sort of gestation crate for natural birthing and then, shortly thereafter, to an adjacent area where the piglets continue to nurse until these pigs are of sufficient size to be weened from their mothers. All the weened pigs then are kept in another section until they're transferred to the largest portion of the site where they have ample space and hilly terrain to exercise, eat and grow in size until their one, and only, bad day of existence occurs that being a drive to Central California to a USDA facility to be processed.

This pig ranch that feels like a heritage breed pig sanctuary, where some of the boars and sows that breed grow to over a thousands pounds, wasn't always as well managed as it is now. When Krys and Mike first moved to their current location from their prior one in Fallbrook, Mike was deployed as part of his military duty for nine months. They also set everything up in their new location based upon what they learned in Fallbrook which turned out to be a big mistake. Fallbrook is a tropical climate whereas Julian is five thousand feet higher and mountainous. They lost a large number of pigs by January their first year due to the weather. To give the pigs protection from the elements, Krys's Dad, a structural engineer, designed structures for the pigs. Krys and Mike bought more heritage hogs and started to see things flow correctly plus production go way up. Slowly they observed the pigs noticing what stimulated the pigs, made them happy, kept them healthy, as well as what parts of their land worked best for them. Mike and Krys figured how to run their ranch all on our own through trial and error as well as with lots of joy from their hands on experience. From learning from their vet how to castrate their pigs, to learning how to feed them, running the ranch has been all done first hand by Mike and Krys.

Krys's drive comes from her passion and love for what she's doing. In her husband Mike, she found someone who pushes her and shares her dreams and goals. As the demand originally generated by chefs grows to include more and families, Mike and Krys dreams and goals continue to expand. This expansion includes a new retail outlet and warehouse near San Diego, a CSA (community supported agriculture) program, a pet food product line, and even more land to raise more pigs.

So as Krys stated, their pig ranch is making a difference which she continued to note, their difference may be a small difference, that always will be small, but together with all the other heritage farmers letting pigs pasture, who are also making a small difference, collectively they all are making a big difference. Krys concedes that the market for her pork product is small niche one, since not everyone is willing to spend a premium on their pork and would instead rather shop at the grocery store for cheap commodity pork. But she think this makes her pork even more desirable, plus honestly concludes, " not everyone wants to make such a big effort to do a CSA, have meat ups, and get our meat. It's a huge dedication to the food movement to support small farmers like us."

For Krys and Mike Cook their method of farming is a craft, beautiful, full of love and emotion, small, and specific to people who care as much about the animal, meat, and story as they do. And there is a story, since each of their pigs had a life, a beautiful life where the pigs could root, play, sun bathe, cuddle, nurse for a long time, and socialize. By buying Cook Pigs Ranch pork products, consumers support this method of animal husbandry where the circle of life is very real, and in tune, rather than in conflict, with the environment. Krys and Mike Cook respect every life that comes in and goes out of their pig ranch. For them, their part in what they do is a very humbling experience that they are honored to be a part of doing.

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