Apr 092015

08 April 2015

Your pork is too expensive and other dilemmas of growing food in the age of plenty

We are growing pigs in Vermont mostly on a diet of by-products: whey, spent grains, and left over bread. We are doing a good thing. We are raising pigs as they have been raised traditionally. Our pigs are recyclers and piggy banks who help the farmer add value to by-products and surpluses. We are raising very tasty pork while participating actively in the local economy and farming in an ecologically sound manner. It all sounds good. Right?

So why do we have a difficult time competing with so-called “commodity pork” from other states that have developed industrial models of pork production?

On the supermarket shelves the price of commodity pork is so ridiculously low that it makes our product look like a fine wine in a gas station wine display: a product for the wealthy elite who can afford the luxury of a specialty item.

So we ask ourselves: is there something wrong with our production model that we must charge so much for our product, or is there something wrong with the competing product that they can charge so little for theirs?

There is plenty of analysis of the food systems in this country that argues that industrial agriculture is able to produce “cheap” food partly because of the structurally imbedded policies that affect agriculture and commerce: subsidies to fuel, fertilizer, and machinery; efforts to eliminate labor from the farming systems and pay labor as little as possible; the ability of corporate agriculture to externalize costs; economies of scale and other factors such as geography and climate.

There is another issue that is not discussed that often: it has to do with the quantity of food that the American public expects to consume. Cheap food is no longer cheap if you consume too much of it. And it is no longer cheap if it makes you sick. So we need to ask some questions about our food system that are not always asked:

What good is cheap food if people are going to consume too much of it?

What good is cheap food if consuming lots of it is making people sick?

Who is paying for the damage to the health of our population?

What good is cheap food if producing it is so costly to the environment?

Who is paying for the damage to our environment caused by a cheap food policy?

While it may seem counterintuitive, we suggest that buying our rightly priced pork is actually less expensive than buying cheap pork. Buy less of a really good thing and everyone benefits. Savor small quantities of good food and avoid gorging on bad food. We will all be healthier and happier.

Apr 092015

08 April 2015

Yes I told the potential vendor for our pork we know our prices are high. Yes I sympathized with him we understand it is difficult for his store to sell at the markup they would have to apply in order to take on our product. Yes I said and it is a good product, a special product; it is not a commodity product. Our unique feeding protocol has received USDA acknowledgement. This means we can put our special claim on our pork label. This means our pork is very special.

I said all this knowing our markup is too slim for us to make more than a marginal profit—barely a profit—at this price not enough to allow us to do this work full-time, no matter how much pork we sell.

I question why this is so, why such a small number of Vermont retailers are willing to accept our pork to sell? Why is our price—with its tiny margin of profit—deemed by most consumers too costly? Why do most consumers of pork expect to pay much less, and why do they actually find pork that does cost much less?

The answer has two distinct though correlated parts. The first has to do with factory farming practices and the second with expectations that are part of the culture of our country.

Factory farming pushes rapid weight gain at the expense of traditional feed and free-range movement of animals. Factory farm animals are tightly confined and fed diets designed to put on weight—fast—to rapidly bring animals to slaughter, and thus meat to market. Animals are routinely given small (sub-therapeutic) quantities of antibiotics to promote growth. Possibly these sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotic promote growth by providing protection from disease inevitably present in a confined environment (think day-care-centers).

The combination of a huge quantity of animals in confined space with rapid weight gain leads to economies of scale which keep production costs—and product-to-consumer costs—low in comparison to costs incurred by the small producer who has far fewer animals, feeds them a traditional diet, may give antibiotics only when necessary—and in our case as a rare exception—and gives them free range on pasture.

US consumers are accustomed to inexpensive—and plentiful—food. They have been accultured to believe eating meat frequently—and as the largest portion of each of three meals per day—is the normal and acceptable diet. Low-cost and plentiful meat fosters a belief they are receiving a quality product at a fair price. US consumers are not accultured to question—and ultimately to understand—what confinement, poor diet, and antibiotics do to the quality of the products they eat. These activities compromise the health of animals, and animals with compromised health produce low-quality meat. In comparison, animals pastured and on a traditional diet gain weight slowly. They are healthy animals usually not needing antibiotics. They produce high quality and flavourful meat.

Inexpensive and plentiful low-quality food fosters societal and economic problems. These begin at the farm—affecting the health and safety of farm workers—and weave their way to consumers as they promote food waste and compromised health and diet, which bring on heart disease, obesity, and other ailments. Humans are not meant to eat meat in the quantities consumed by the average person in the US. Human physiology responds in a healthy way to moderate portions of meat. We are not designed to eat meat fattened by products which are ultimately unhealthy, and poor quality food provides substandard nutrition to those who consume it.

Food grown and processed locally by small producers who respect traditional food-growing methods results in higher across-the-board prices and presumably lower consumption. A brilliant consequence of lower consumption is consumers paying less in the long run for higher quality meat! Eating higher-quality pork—and less of it—is a win-win economic and health benefit.

Producing local and buying local strengthens the fabric of a community as it fosters bonds among the people who live and work in the community. Small farms provide humane treatment of animals and regeneration of pastureland. They provide quality of life for the farm workers and the animals.

Local agriculture benefits local economies by growing food and growing jobs within the community. Small-scale food processing facilities are needed—and small-scale by its nature promotes a healthy work environment. Fossil fuel use is minimized, too, as local economies keep the production chain local, with considerably less need for transport and for refrigeration during transport.

Oct 232014

It is about time that we give our friends an update on our progress. Our apologies for keeping this site in such a state of neglect. If there is any excuse, it is that we have been too busy raising pigs on whey and trying to develop our production system.

We now know that we can raise some very nice pigs on a diet that includes up to 5 gallons of whey per pig per day, provided that this diet is supplemented with an energy source that does not need a lot of protein. This is where the savings come. Protein is the highest cost component of a pig´s diet, and if you can get it from whey, there in lies the benefit.

Currently Vermont Whey Fed Pigs is buying animals from two sources. One is the
Von Trapp Farmstead, an award-winning cheese maker in Waitsfield, and the home of Vermont Whey Fed Pigs operations and prototype development site. We are also buying pigs from Spring Brook Farm of Reading, Vermont, also an award-winning cheese maker associated with Farms for City Kids. Spring Brook is raising Berkshire pigs, and Von Trapp Farmstead continues to use a mix of Tamworth, Old Spot and Duroc breeds.

At our home base this year, we were able to bust out of our limited land base and open up our operations to put our pigs to work as land restoration agents. A local family who runs a large extensive beef operation has graciously agreed to let our pigs work their land in exchange for a place to graze, root, and be real pigs. We are also working diligently to make our winter headquarters more friendly to the pigs. Keeping our pigs dry and gaining weight consistently through the winter has been a challenge given that their liquid consumption is somewhat exaggerated. We are hoping that a planned distance from whey and feeding trough to sleeping quarters will be far enough to encourage evacuation on the way, rather that in the sleeping quarters. We will report on our level of success in this department in the future.

In the marketing end of things we made progress by securing label approval from USDA/FSIS to label our product as Vermont Whey Fed Pigs. We are working with the newly established Vermont Packinghouse in North Springfield, Vermont as our slaughterhouse and processor. Besides our sales to several restaurants in the area, we are trying out a new strategy that allows us to offer small portions of a whole animal as a “sampler” that we hope will avoid the pitfalls of getting stuck with some cuts while running out of the others. Our customers still have the option and a financial incentive to purchase a whole animal from us, if that is what they prefer.

Here are a few other things we have learned: We are pretty sure that with the quantities of whey we are feeding, our pigs seem to have no internal parasite problems. This is a real bonus. We have also learned that since we rely heavily on spent grains to supply our energy, our pigs tend to grow slower than the normal. It is taking us between 9 and 11 months to take a pig to a hanging weight of 220 lbs. Using by-products such as whey and spent grains is a great program, but the labor costs grow the longer the animals are around.

Our hope is that as we continue to fine tune our prototype and we get better at marketing our product, the option of raising pigs on whey becomes ever more attractive to cheese makers and Vermont Whey Fed Pigs are recognized as the high value product that many are now convince they are.

 Posted by at 2:30 pm
Mar 022011
  • We recognize that the same degree of brand recognition, job creation and overall excitement earned by Vermont Cheese could be achieved by Vermont Whey Fed Pork, an enterprise that fits naturally side by side cheese making in other parts of the world, and most notably in the Parma region of Italy.
  • We are seeking to generate new jobs on our farms by feeding pigs the whey from our cheese houses to create a high value Whey Fed Pork product.
  • We are seeking to develop a production system and quality standards that can be applied by all the cheese makers in our group, and others that will join later. As some of the leading cheese makers in the state, we are in a position to develop relationships with other cheese makers that can lead to collaborative arrangements to replicate the production model and create new jobs at each cheese making location.
  • Collaboration by a group of producers enables the production of a consistent product, the sharing of information and resources, and a larger, unified presence in the market. This in turn allows cheaper access to inputs, and more efficient use of abattoir and processing facilities through planning and coordination.
  • High quality whey fed pork can be marketed fresh and as processed and cured meats. The production of cured and aged meats is another craft that will generate more jobs and add value to the product. But first, consistent and high quality whey fed pork must be raised in the state.
  • One important and necessary component of this collaboration is that production systems, though unified in product standards, remain decentralized and close to the source of whey. This is a key and almost necessary component. We do not want to encourage the hauling of whey over long distances. We are trying to close the loop by feeding pigs as close to the source of whey as possible.
 Posted by at 10:38 pm