Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
In a recent Mother Earth News magazine I was pleasantly surprised to see a blurb article about Roam Sticks – pork jerky products from John and Holly Arbuckle's of LaPlata, MO. We became friends with John and Holly during our time at the Possibility Alliance which is just a couple miles down the road from their Singing Prairie Farm. Back then, they were both working hard to grow their businesses – Holly as an acupuncturist and John as a farmer.
When we first started raising pigs on our urban homestead in Reno, John was an important mentor who happily answered all my newbie questions about raising, shooting, and butchering hogs. John’s knowledge and self-deprecating humor were super helpful as we navigated hog heaven on our homestead.
I called John after reading the article to catch up and hear more about Roam Sticks: They’d come a long way with them since their crowdfunding campaign of a few years back. And, like with any small farmer following a dream, I wanted to learn how it all came together and where they were heading with them. What he shared was inspiring and fascinating and seemed like good fodder for a blog post.
However, before I get to the Roam Sticks, I want to share a few stories about John (after all, this is my blog post).
One of my fondest memories of John is from a Halloween evening we shared with our children. All of the parents had been dreading the toxic candy our kids would soon be collecting but there was no way we weren’t going to trick or treat. With our youngins all dressed up and raring to go, John showed up with a bag of grapes, apples, pencils and the like. As our group toddled towards each house John would dash ahead and give the goodies to the homeowner before our kids reached the door. The wee ones were none the wiser and thrilled with what they were given.
John also used to be a river guide. One picture I saw had him in the back a raft loaded with people decked out in helmets and life jackets. The water was huge and through the spray in the picture I could tell that the rafters were intensely focused on getting through alive – paddles pulling, faces intent, bodies straining to keep the boat on line. And there’s John in the back with the rudder, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, emanating calmness.
Lastly, years back, well before we knew him, John traveled across the Mexican desert on a donkey he called Milagro (“miracle”). His trip began by crossing through the Rio Grande onto Mexican soil at what wound up being a military base. Weeks of travel followed that included finding crystal caverns and nearly dying of thirst (Holly shared that most of John’s tales involve him running out of food and water).
So aside from just wanting to give some color to readers about John the farmer (and here’s where I tie it all back together), his attention to what’s important and his willingness to put himself out there shows through with his Roam Sticks.
The vast majority of pork raised in the US is controlled by large corporations and is of low quality. Pigs raised indoors on crummy food is bad for the pigs, bad for the land, and bad for the consumer. Roam sticks are a way, John says, for the small pork farmer to be profitable while raising hogs in a way that is humane, regenerative to the land, and results in healthy, nutrient-dense meat. According to John, over 80% of farmers selling pork at farmer’s markets are breaking even or loosing money. Obviously, that is unsustainable.
John raises his hogs on a mix of pasture, vegetables like pumpkins, kale, turnips, pea-vines (both planted specifically for the pigs and locally-sourced) and varying amounts of grain. The pigs are also “mob grazed" meaning they are rotated through pasture in tight groups mimicking how prey would normally eat if predators were on the loose. Rotational grazing has been promoted by Allan Savory for decades and has been shown to improve pasture, sequester carbon, decrease feed costs, and result in well-rounded diets, happy animals and superior meat. Commonly done with cows, Joel Salatin has called his rotated, pasture-raised meat, “Salad Bar Beef”. John’s adopted that, with Joel’s blessings, for his operation with “Salad Bar Pork”.
Roam Sticks have been so successful that John cannot meet demand from his hogs alone. As a result he now works with small-scale farmers throughout his region who raise hogs to his high standards. With regular and frequent lab-testing of this pork he is confident it is the most nutritious pork in the country. In addition to the success of Roam Sticks (they now “pay all the bills on the farm”) John and Holly are aiming to influence the national discussion around how pigs are raised while offering more small-scale farmers an opportunity to flourish.
When we talked on the phone John was on his way to a Paleo food conference in Texas. That demographic is going hog-wild (yuk-yuk) over the sticks. He says their customers tend to be active types who munch them for a protein hit on hikes, while skiing, or working out. Also, kids love them as healthy and tasty snacks. They sell for $2 a stick (1 oz size) and can be found online at vitalchoice.com and roamsticks.com.
Oh, and they are delicious! John was kind enough to send us some samples which were quickly devoured by our growing boys. So here’s to John and Holly for developing a multifaceted, visionary, and creative solution for small-scale pig farmers!
Kyle Chandler-Isacksen runs the Be the Change Project with his wife in Reno, Nevada. They are dedicated to creating a just and life-sustaining world while having fun doing it. They were one of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ Homesteads of the Year in 2013. Shoot him an email.
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