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“The public is hungry to eat local,” says Cheryl Ouellette, known to her friends and customers as Cheryl the Pig Lady. “They’re starved for relationships with their farmers.”
Ouellette should know. While articles, books and even movies have been dedicated to the subjects of “slow food” and the “locavores” who are as concerned about “food miles” as calories, Ouellette has firsthand experience with local food’s rising popularity.
The pig lady’s entry into local food production began just more than 15 years ago, when she left her construction job to take care of her son on their 5-acre farm in Tacoma, Wash. Little did she know that what started out as a way to feed her family would turn into a way to feed hundreds in a natural and sustainable way.
Ouellette started out with only two pigs – one for her family, and one for a neighbor who couldn’t resist farm-fresh pork. After her first success, more and more neighbors started to request pigs, until one day she woke up to 13 sows, each with a litter of piglets. Nowadays, Ouellette keeps a total of 20 free-range pigs at any given time and grows them until they’re fully mature and ready for slaughter (usually around eight months), instead of selling piglets to other farmers.
Cheryl with her pigs and cows
“We now grow breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Ouellette, who now raises cows, goats, sheep, chicken, turkeys and ducks in addition to her pigs. “On my farm we work very hard to have happy, healthy animals, but we have the animals do the work. They do the tilling and fertilizing, as well as other jobs.” She’s even writing a book titled This Little Pig Went to Market in conjunction with Storey Publishing about her experiences and viewpoints.
Cheryl was serving on the Pierce County Farm Advisory Commission, which led to speaking engagements. On a few such engagements, Ouellette ran into Charlie McManus of Tacoma’s Primo Grill, and a star was born.
“Charlie is the reason I’m famous, he believed in me from the beginning!” Ouellette says. “He asked, ‘How do we get your product on my table?’”
Ouellette and McManus started small, and the Primo Grill purchased Ouellette’s meat for specials whenever it was available. Before the pair knew it, a local food critic for The Tacoma News Tribune did a story on them, which attracted the attention of The New York Times. Now Ouellette provides pulled pork, chicken, beef and Italian sausage for the Primo Grill, and chicken and beef for McManus’ other restaurant, Crown Bar.
Cheryl with a plate of slow-roasted pulled pork at the Primo Grill
“One of Charlie’s big missions is growing a local food system and helping farmers be viable,” Ouellette says. “If they’re getting a decent price for their product they can afford to keep farming, and if he can feature them in his restaurant he can keep the support for local farmers. We’re growing a local food system one farmer at a time.”
Ouellette is also negotiating with three other restaurants, and local families who want a constant supply of fresh meat – there are 100 in all – own shares in her Community Supported Agriculture project. She also sells through Lee Markholt of the Meat Shop of Tacoma, who was the inspiration for the Mobile Meat Project, a local slaughterhouse on wheels.
Markholt used to drive several hours every week to bring his cattle to a slaughterhouse. With the stress this caused the cattle during transport and the rising price of gas, this was no mean feat for a farmer in his late 80s. As recently as 2009, Ouellette was also forced to travel to four different locations to harvest her livestock. To fill the gap for butchers, and to help Markholt (and herself) fix this pricey problem, Ouellette agitated to bring a mobile slaughterhouse to Tacoma and the surrounding area.
Now, Ouellette processes nearly four tons of pork a year in the Pierce County Conservation District’s mobile slaughterhouse – a 45-foot stainless steel trailer with its own USDA inspector. The mobile slaughterhouse visits the Meat Shop of Tacoma every other week so Ouellette, Markholt and their neighbors can harvest their meat minutes away from their farms instead of hours – which is much less stressful for the livestock, saves the farmers time and passes on savings to local customers.
Now that she’s not running around all week to process meat, Ouellette has another problem: She doesn’t have enough supply to meet the demand. “Everyone wants to buy local,” she says. “My mission is to grow more farmers to feed the community because I can’t do it all!”
Ouellette recently took sows to six nearby farms to help meet the need for homegrown pork. From raising piglets to selling at the farmers market, Ouellette taught these farmers everything she knows. “I’m trying to expand without losing quality control, flavor and the face-to-face interaction of the customer with the person who’s growing the meat.”
To plant the seeds of local farming in more minds, Ouellette plans to speak at the Mother Earth News Fair, which will come to the Puyallup Fairgrounds June 4-5. Her presentations include an Introduction to Meat Processing, Growing Meat for Market, Free-Range Pork Production and Growing Your Passion.
“I want to get my message out to other people just like me who always dreamed they could be farmers, feeding their communities,” Ouellette says. “I’m honored to be put into the same venue as Joel Salatin. It’s a dream come true.” Salatin, who will also speak at the Fair, is a third-generation organic farmer featured in Food, Inc. and The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Ouellette encourages all Fair attendees to bring a notebook, and to “come with an open mind and a lot of questions! Lots and lots of information will be out there.”
The Mother Earth News Fair is a family-friendly sustainable-living event that features more than 120 hands-on workshops from experts on real food, organic gardening, homesteading, renewable energy, green building and remodeling, DIY projects, small-scale livestock, green transportation and related topics. The Fair will also include a green shopping pavilion, a seed swap, children’s projects, artisan food tastings, local and organic food offerings, live music, and livestock, vendor and craft demonstrations.The Fair will be held at the Puyallup Fairgrounds June 4 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and June 5 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are available by phone at 1 (800) 234-3368, online at www.motherearthnews.com/fair/tickets.aspx, and on site. Weekend passes cost $30 at the gate, $25 pre-order. Single-day passes cost $20 at the gate, $15 pre-order. For more information about the fair, please visit www.motherearthnewsfair.com.