After a life-threatening infection of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Russ Kremer started raising antibiotic-free pork and marketing it to retailers—and changed the pork industry as a result.
Pig Tales (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), by Barry Estabrook, is full of lively portraits of those farmers who are taking an alternative approach to pig raising. Estabrook draws on his own experiences raising pigs and his sharp journalistic insights to investigate the state of the American pork industry. From the realities and effects of conventional confinement farming to nocturnal feral pig hunts in Texas and eco-friendly and humane systems of pork raising across the world, learn about the future of responsible and respectful pork production. The following excerpt is from chapter 14, "The Pope of Pork."
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I visited [Russ] Kremer on a cold, cloudy early spring morning at the 150-acre farm in Missouri’s Ozarks that he bought from his two great-aunts right after college. The land looked more like a state park or forest reserve than any hog farm I’d seen. Most of the terrain consisted of steep, rocky ridges that rose abruptly from flat creek bottoms. A crop of young bright-green rye had sprung up in a field. Shaggy stands of oaks and cedars covered the hilly terrain. Streams crisscrossed the land, and a pond occupied one corner. There was not a gestation crate or section of slatted flooring in sight, but Kremer assured me that about 1,200 growing hogs called the farm home. A group of about 100 half-grown 30-pounders—brown, red, black, spotted—scampered around a low building, the sort that holds pens in confinement operations, except doors on two sides of this building stood open. The pigs had the option to come and go as they pleased. Those in the barn seemed content to tug like puppies on a car tire suspended on a rope from the rafters, or play a piggy version of king of the mountain atop a large rolled bale of cornstalks. Others rooted in the two-foot-deep mat of dry straw that covered the floor. Several strolled over to sniff my cuffs and get backrubs from Kremer. Braving the cold, some pigs ran circles and frolicked in the fields and woodlots outside the barn in a manner befitting lambs.
Kremer and I jumped into his 4x4 pickup truck. He wore a Pig Tales sweatshirt, jeans, rubber boots caked with mud and manure, and a baseball cap, as he always does, with a few curled wisps of graying brown hair escaping from beneath the hatband. Permanent smile lines radiated from the corners of his eyes. He spoke gently and had the placid comportment of a quiet rural priest. As we lurched, bounced, and skidded up a muddy track far better suited to hog hooves than truck tires, Kremer preached the gospel of hog. “We had to relearn what pigs were put on this Earth to do,” he said. “I call it ‘retro hog raising.’ We try to mimic nature.”
He stopped talking while he coaxed the truck through a steep, deeply rutted section that eventually flattened out as we entered a forest. “In the fall, we let the pigs in here to eat acorns,” he said. “These rocky ridges are excellent places to raise pigs. They just love to root. Concrete slats just don’t cut it.” I made out several low, round-roofed, corrugated-metal Port-A-Huts set well apart in the tangle of trucks, branches, and fallen logs, each hut open at one end. In the warm months, Kremer’s free-roaming sows stake out a hut shortly before giving birth and build a nest there from straw, twigs, and leaves. After a week or so, with her litter old enough to keep pace with her, she and her new brood rejoin the sow sorority. “We don’t need to use the crutch of the crate,” Kremer said. “I’ve become an evangelist trying to show people that this type of agriculture will sustain the world in the future. Despite what they’ll tell you, factory farms are not sustainable.”
During the years that Kremer operated one of those big farms, he found the work steadily grew less enjoyable, even though he followed all the rules he had been taught at ag school. When he first started confinement farming, a sick pig was easy to cure. He’d give it a quick jab of an antibiotic; the animal got better. But with his hogs on a steady regimen of low-dose antibiotics, healing them became harder. Whenever he went into barns, he packed a syringe in a holster on his belt like a cowboy in the Old West, and he found himself deploying it throughout the workday. Despite the drugs, his pigs started dying. Postmortems suggested that antibiotics no longer killed the germs that infected his animals. Watching creatures in his care die tortured the conscientious, proud farmer. At the best of times, the pigs, breathing fetid air and having no bedding, endured miserable existences, panting and squealing constantly, biting one another aggressively. Sows grew feeble, and Kremer had to cull some after they had just two or three litters, instead of the ten or more they produced when his father farmed the old way. His calling, “my vocation,” in his words, became a chore. “I was just trying to get through the day,” he said. “It took all the fun out of raising pigs.”
During the mid-1980s, he got a warning that he should have heeded. One Saturday night, a powerful thunderstorm swept through the area, knocking out electricity to the ventilation fans. An alarm that was supposed to wake Kremer up to turn on a generator failed. While he slept, ammonia accumulated in the barn and his animals began to asphyxiate. Three hours after the storm, when Kremer checked in on the herd before changing to go to church, 15 sows and 200 piglets lay dead. There was no worshiping that Sabbath. He had to haul out the dead pigs and bury them in a pit. “You don’t feel like doing that on a Sunday,” he said.
Ignoring the omen, he went back to pig farming as usual until one day in 1989, when he introduced a 700-pound Yorkshire boar that he had just bought from another farmer to a group of receptive sows. For some reason—sexual arousal, agitation toward another boar—the new male jerked its head sideways, driving a tusk into Kremer’s kneecap. “No big deal,” he told me. “I didn’t think much about it. You get cut and scratched all the time on the farm. I wrapped it up and went ahead with my work.”
In time, it became evident that this was no normal nick. His knee felt hot and throbbed. Within a few weeks, his lower leg had swollen to twice its normal size. Still, his doctor did not seem too worried. He said that Kremer had a nasty Streptococcus infection, but nothing that couldn’t be knocked out with penicillin. But even with the antibiotic, his leg kept getting bigger. The doctor tried amoxicillin, azithromycin, tetracycline, and streptomycin one after the other to no avail. The infection entered Kremer’s bloodstream. He began to have heart palpitations. By the time he went to the hospital, doctors warned him and his family that he might not survive. Fortunately, surgery, followed by intravenous administration of yet another antibiotic, brought the infection under control and saved his life. On a follow-up visit, his doctor told him that the germs that nearly killed him were identical to the ones the veterinarian had found in tissue samples from pigs that had died in his barns. By feeding his animals low doses of drugs, Kremer had created the conditions that allowed a germ to mutate and develop antibiotic resistance. In effect, he had almost killed himself. “Right then and there, I got rid of every pig I owned,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘Russ, what have you done?’”
For the first time in generations, the Kremer farm was going to be pigless. The thought of no longer keeping hogs left an enormous void. “Raising hogs was all that I wanted to do,” he said. “I just didn’t want to do it that way.” So Kremer did the unthinkable: He bought new drug-free pigs and swore not to feed them antibiotics. “I went cold turkey,” he said. Every other farmer in the area said he was crazy and that every single pig in his herd would drop dead. He realized that his neighbors might well have been right, but he shrugged and told them, “We’ll see.”
His pigs flourished. The first drug-free year, he saved $16,000 that would have gone to pharmaceutical companies under his old system, and in the years that followed, he built up a “closed” herd of pigs that had not come from other farms—healthy animals with strong immune systems. “Those pigs never saw a needle,” he said.
The money he saved allowed Kremer to continue selling pigs profitably to the large packers he’d previously dealt with for exactly the same commodity prices his competitors received. Things went well for nearly a decade. But disaster struck the hog industry in the late 1990s. Low feed costs combined with high prices offered by pork processors encouraged farmers to increase their herds. When a large slaughterhouse in Detroit closed, suddenly there were more pigs available than packers could handle. Hog prices collapsed to levels not seen since the Great Depression. In 1998, the meat conglomerates that owned the slaughterhouses paid farmers as little as 8 cents a pound for animals that cost 35 cents to raise—if they even bought pigs at all. Pigs from their own herds and from farmers who raised hogs on contract supplied them with all the hogs they needed, shutting small, independent producers out of the market entirely. Many went bankrupt or abandoned the business. One evening when Kremer was sipping a beer at a local hangout, a guy at the other end of the bar slid over and said he wanted to buy a 250 pound pig for his winter meat supply and asked the price. “I traded him a pig for a case of Miller Lite,” Kremer said. “And still think I drove a pretty good bargain, because that was exactly what a pig was worth.”
But selling animals for one-fourth of what it cost to raise them was a certain formula for financial ruin. For the second time in his career, Kremer faced the prospect of a future without pigs.
Faced with the prospect of going broke, Russ Kremer decided to reinvent his business using a marketing approach similar to the one pioneered by Willis at Niman. He convinced thirty-three neighboring small farmers to join with him to form what would become known as the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative to market their meat directly to consumers and retailers. Like Niman’s farmers, members of the cooperative agreed to raise their animals on pasture or in barns with deep bedding. Feed containing animal by-products and antibiotics was forbidden.
Each Ozark member had to invest in the cooperative and in return received an ownership stake. And, in a highly unusual requirement, all Ozark farmers had to draw up and present detailed succession plans showing exactly how they intended to pass their farms on to the next generation. “We wanted a living wage and a quality of life that were good enough to encourage younger people to continue farming,” Kremer said. “In return, we were going to raise pigs the right way.” In practice, Kremer’s well-meaning vision disintegrated into a disaster. “It was ugly,” said Kremer.
Buoyed by the us-versus-them camaraderie of the cooperative movement and determined to preserve their way of life, the group raised nearly $800,000 through government grants and investments, most of which went to the 2002 purchase of a small, faltering slaughterhouse. As president of Ozark, Kremer became a prophet of better pork, crisscrossing the country trying to convert restaurants and supermarkets to his product, which he marketed under the name of Heritage Acres Pork. Buyers were few. “We don’t produce the other white meat,” Kremer said.
Meanwhile, the slaughterhouse ground through managers almost as fast as it processed pigs—seven in six years. On four occasions, members had to re-up on their original investments. Kremer liquidated his savings and cashed out his retirement investments. But even after an infusion of an additional $200,000, the company still hemorrhaged money. “We were ahead of our time, and we were inept,” he said. “We tried to get too big too fast when we did not know a thing about money, marketing, or management.”
Realizing that growth for growth’s sake guaranteed bankruptcy, Kremer scaled back his vision. “We applied lessons of one million dollars of tuition. We decided to raise fewer hogs and more hell.” In 2004, he got his first big break. After making two cold sales calls to the Denver, Colorado, headquarters of Chipotle Mexican Grill, Kremer tweaked the curiosity of Steve Ells, the company’s founder and president. Ells came to Missouri, saw how Ozark farmers raised pigs, and inked a deal. D’Artagnan, a New York City-area purveyor of gourmet food invited him to their test kitchen for a cook-off against other producers. Kremer was horrified when the chef cooked the meat to medium rare (being an old-school Missourian, Kremer prefers his pork cooked well done), but the Easterners liked it better than the other contenders and took Ozark on as a supplier. Highly regarded restaurants such as Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan started using Ozark’s pork, causing the co-op’s reputation to grow. La Quercia, the award-winning producer of smoked and preserved pork in Norwalk, Iowa, became a devoted customer. It was the company’s founder who gave Kremer his unofficial title by saying that meeting Kremer for the first time was like having an audience with the pope. Ozark achieved financial security when Whole Foods Market began to sell its pork in stores throughout the Midwest.
In 2010, Kremer said, Ozark started making “real money.” A year later, the co-op sold the impractical slaughterhouse in Mountain View, further stabilizing its finances. By 2014 it had grown to include about eighty-five members, the maximum number Kremer wanted. “We intend to keep it at a size where we know all the producers personally,” he said. The cooperative produces about 1,200 pigs a week. It calculates what it pays members on a formula based on the cost of production, a fair labor rate, and a depreciation allowance. The goal is to give farmers a return of at least 12 percent on their investments. When I met Kremer, Ozark members were making $1.15 a pound for a dressed carcass. Commodity producers got only 85 cents, which meant that Ozark farmers were earning $50 to $60 more per pig than factory farmers.
The lifting of financial pressures allowed Kremer to plan for Ozark to expand, not in size, but in sustainability. The company bought another slaughterhouse and is taking steps to make it non-polluting and energy self-sufficient. Soybeans are an important component of pig feed, but nearly all soy in the United States is genetically modified (GMO), so in an effort to become GMO-free by mid 2015, the cooperative hopes to use micro soybean mills and commission local farmers to raise soybeans that have not been genetically modified for its feed. Members are experimenting with other feed crops like grain sorghum (also called milo), winter peas, and barley to reduce their reliance on corn and soybeans.
Kremer has also won a measure of recognition. His story was the real-life inspiration for Chipotle’s animated short film Back to the Start, which aired during the 2011 Grammy Awards ceremony and went on to collect a Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. “We loved him and his story,” Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communications director, told me. “His story is a really good example of why farmers should be raising meat this way.” In 2013, the Natural Resources Defense Council awarded Kremer with its Growing Green Award for his contributions to a healthful, more sustainable food system. With Ozark’s financial stability assured, Kremer, a lifelong bachelor, even found time for a girlfriend.
At the end of my visit, Kremer drove for ten minutes along winding, hilly gravel roads to his “maternity ward,” the barn that housed some of his sows. All 20 of the sows there had recently given birth to litters of between 6 and 13 piglets and were temporarily there for protection from the cold, wet weather. We entered a building that was about three times the size of a two-car garage. Kremer clucked his tongue, and said, “Hi, girls,” before taking a seat on bales of straw arranged like a sofa. I sat down beside him.
In the closest enclosure, a 12x12 square wooden stable, a 500-pound mother kept a wary eye on her brood, each so small I could have cradled it in my cupped palms, until she seemed to accept that the presence of a strange human in the barn posed no threat. Then, almost in slow motion, she settled onto the straw bedding, forelegs first, then back legs, before rolling to her side.
“See how careful she is not to lie on her babies,” Kremer said. “My sows are selected to have good maternal instincts.” The sow’s eyelids became heavy, closing, batting open, closing for longer as she slipped into a trancelike doze while her litter punched and pulled her nipples. Every fifteen seconds or so, she emitted a deep, quiet grunt. Inside identical pens, most of the other sows nursed their broods, but a few slept. Their piglets scampered around nuzzling one another and sniffing the straw until they, too, grew tired and retreated to corners where they could snooze under heat lamps out of harm’s way.
“I can sit here and watch these guys for hours until I absolutely have to get up and go somewhere,” said Kremer. I could not envision any factory farm operator saying the same thing. I knew I couldn’t wait to get out of the confinement barns I’d visited fast enough. Sitting in Kremer’s “maternity ward” reminded me of what a farmer who raised his cattle on pasture told me one evening as we leaned over a fence looking at his animals graze, each of us sipping glasses of red wine. “If I can relax at the end of a day and look at my cattle, then I know I’m raising them right,” he said. It was too early for red wine, but I would have enjoyed sitting on that hay-bale sofa with a mug of strong coffee just looking at Kremer’s pigs. The barn was meditative and lulling, so relaxing that I found myself drifting, listening to the grunts of the mammoth sows and the scurrying of miniature hooves. “They are so beautiful and happy, and curious and social. Even at this age, they all have distinct personalities,” Kremer said. “And I know that they will never be stressed or fearful throughout their lives until they meet their maker.”
Something made me want to say, “Amen.”
Excerpted from Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat by Barry Estabrook. Copyright © 2015 by Barry Estabrook. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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