Why Only Heritage Pigs Should Fly
That phrase is usually lobbied derisively, like a verbal bomb. Strictly speaking, it signifies someone who has enough free-floating cash to finance a small farming operation as a hobby instead of as a primary source of income. In other words, it’s a costly pose. But the phrase, on its face, minus the dubious implications, could also be used to define a whole new generation of New York farmers who have turned away from traditional desk jobs back toward the land, often with a few graduate degrees and several high-brow ideas about sustainability, to boot. Mike Yezzi and his Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, New York, fits the new gentleman farmer mold perfectly.
A former New York City lawyer, Yezzi has approached farming with an almost academic, abstracted air, spending more time on his smart-phone tracking orders and weather reports than he does mucking out the barn. He is also passionate, outspoken and actively seeks out the manner in which tech and old-fashioned, sustainable farming methods can intersect.
Since 1999, he has raised, pampered and primped porkers on his 140-acre farm. He didn’t plan to trade in his desk job for a tractor initially. He purchased the land in 1996 to prevent a developer from coming in and subdividing a lush patch of hilly soil in upstate New York, building subpar McMansions. As it stands now—and as it has for centuries—Mount Equinox in Vermont can be seen, hilly pasture beckons, gleeful pigs frolic and cavort. Yezzi’s grand bacon-tinged ambitions came a few years later, when a combination of kismet, distaste for the corporate grind and the financial pressure of restoring an antique farmstead forced his hand and made him look for a source of income closer to home. He knew he was green when he launched his piggery, starting with just three swines.
“They were pink,” he grins, when asked about their specific breed. He grew his herd slowly, and yes, organically, clocking in at around 57 pigs in 2001 and about 1,000 in 2015. There are only about 300 pigs at any one time on the farm, all of which are pasture raised, except in extremely harsh weather, when they are given spacious accommodations indoors. Not a day goes by without Yezzi or his farm manager personally checking on every pig’s personal health, comfort and safety.
These days, Flying Pigs are not all pink. Yezzi raises Tamworths, Old Blacks, Ossabaws, Gloucestershire Old Spots and other rare heritage breeds that produce meat that is fattier (translation: yummier) than classic high-output farmed pork. His heritage pigs also tend to grow more slowly and are smaller overall than factory porkers. He also raises heritage breed chickens.
“Pigs are very smart,” Yezzi says. “It took me a long time to understand just how clever they are. They’re like toddlers, except with a matrix-like intelligence. If one of them learns there’s a way for them to get through a fence, they all seem to instantly learn.” According to Barry Estabrook’s book Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat (W.W. Norton), pigs can be taught to play computer games, they can recognize themselves in a mirror and can observe other pigs, forecast their future behavior and react to it preemptively.
In addition to being used to outwit farmers, that porcine intelligence can pose problems for the pigs’ mental health when not cared for properly. The now-typical factory farm life for pigs from birth to slaughter produces an enormous amount of stress, which is expressed hormonally through excess levels of adrenaline. This breaks down the pigs’ glycogen, resulting in meat that’s pale, acidic and crumbly. The technical term is pale soft exudative (PSE) meat, and yes, it’s as gross as it sounds. (Who hasn’t eaten those sad wan pork chops or flimsy strips of flabby bacon?
As it turns out, it isn’t necessarily the chef who’s to blame—it could be the farmer).
Yezzi may have been just the wonk the pig world needed at a time when eaters in America were demanding more from their markets and restaurants—real food, responsibly produced, delicious to boot. It’s been a long road for Yezzi, and he’s not even getting started. It’s been a long road for eaters, and most of the time, we’re driving in the dark, without headlights.
Like many Americans, I can trace my ancestors’ roots to the land. Two summers ago, I drove across the middle of the country with my parents and young children to revisit those roots and see what fresh buds were sprouting forth. Imagine our dismay, when in addition to amber waves of grain, we discovered miles of land overtaken by the unmistakable fetid rotten egg funk that pervades areas in which factory pork, cattle and chicken farms have sprouted. (America’s livestock produce about 500 million tons of manure annually, and on pig farms, it’s held in lagoons, then sprayed onto cropland or injected in the soil. The EPA doesn’t regulate the activity.)
How did this happen?
The family farm of yesteryear is long gone. Four companies (Smithfield, Tyson, JBS and Cargill) control about 65% of the pork slaughterhouse business. These giants are also taking over breeding, raising and fattening of hogs. The consolidation results in a less competitive market, leaving small-time farmers, distributors and suppliers squeezed out by larger ones who have control over the supply chain. At the supermarket, the dozen or so brands may be run by one or two processors, giving consumers the illusion of choice.
The reality is 97% of the 100 million hogs raised in America each year are raised on factory farms, according to Pig Tales. Inhumane conditions for pigs and their human neighbors, a polluted landscape and a PSE meat result.
There’s hope though. In pockets of the country, a rebel army of farmers is gathering, and Yezzi is one of its generals. A recent visit to Flying Pigs Farm provided me with the illusive farm fairy tale we sought two summers ago in the Midwest. It goes something like this: The drive approaching it from any direction winds through back roads in bucolic, scenic towns bursting with antique shops and adorable cafés. Mist rises from the clear, fish-filled Battenkill River that skirts the property; the Taconic and Equinox mountains loom in the distance.
Yezzi approached raising pigs from an intellectual place from the start, and instead of turning to the factory farm model, he consulted antique farming texts. He learned what pigs like to eat and how they liked to spend their time, by watching them—and tasting the delicious results.
“Pigs who are raised in fields, who root through fields, eating a mixture of vegetables and foraged bits and getting plenty of exercise, taste so much better,” Yezzi says. “The variety in their diet adds layers of flavor and complexity, and the exercise they get tenderizes their flesh.”
More flavorful is an understatement. Mary Cleaver, of the Green Table and the Cleaver Co., and one of the original farm-to-table pioneers in New York City, was the first major chef to discover Yezzi’s pastured pork at the farmers’ market in New York City, but she wasn’t the last. Now Yezzi works with Dan Barber at Blue Hill and Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern, and other restaurants, most of which have complicated coat check policies and staff sommeliers. They’re all in New York City.
“I did deliver to restaurants in Albany and Saratoga when I was starting out, but I couldn’t make it work financially because the area is so spread out,” he explains. “It costs me less in gas and time to drive to the city and make a dozen deliveries to restaurants and stay over for two markets than it does to be driving all over the Capital District for smaller orders and fewer deliveries.”
That’s something Yezzi wants to change. But the fact is, he isn’t a classic gentleman farmer. He needs to make a living, he says. And the reason factory farming has become so pervasive is that it’s affordable—in the short-term.
“Your average person isn’t going to pay pound for pound what it costs me to produce a decent pig,” he says, sounding temporarily defeated. “It takes me longer to safely and responsibly feed and grow pigs, and mine are only 210 pounds, whereas factory pigs are around 250, thanks to the hormones and sedentary living conditions. I can’t scale up significantly without negatively impacting the lives my pigs lead or the land.”
A typical factory farm has several thousand animals crammed into warehouse-style conditions (Estabrook visited one farm in Iowa that processed 150,000 pigs in a year) and spews out dozens upon dozens of different gaseous compounds. Even worse, the porkers never see the light of day.
To be able to bring home the bacon to his direct neighbors, Yezzi is tinkering with his economic model. He wants his local community to be able to eat pigs raised a few fields away, but as of yet, he hasn’t hit on the perfect strategy. (He did say that when he approached local farmers’ markets, they all said that they already had one pork seller on their roster of farmers, and that was enough.)
There are a few projects designed to get more Flying Pigs’ roasts in upstate ovens, and while Yezzi wouldn’t divulge all of the projects as they are works in progress, he did share information about an exciting new sustainability initiative. Flying Pigs is working with Baldor Food to combat the company’s organic food waste and provide his oinkers with delicious, wholesome meals. Right now, Flying Pigs gets 16,000 pounds of scraps per week. He is also working on continuing to scale up production so that he can produce enough pork to find a cost-effective entry to markets in his own backyard. In the meantime, mail order is available (recipients have to pay the shipping fee).
It seems backward.
A farmer with a keen interest in the environment, sustainability and organic foodways can’t figure out a way to make a living selling some of the best pork in the country within a 50-mile radius. That fact speaks volumes about the state of our food system. But if anyone can help mend it? My money is on the gentleman from Shushan.
Here’s to hoping we run into some Flying Pigs in the Capital District soon.