ONE PIG-HAPPY FAMILY: Pasture-raised pork a boost to local food scene
Wrenshall hog farmer Matt Weik can talk passionately about the marbling of his pork, its dark red color and its ability to melt in your mouth given certain treatments.
And then later, he's sitting in a cozy hay-filled pen with a sow and her piglets, stroking the mother and delicately checking on the babies. It sort of proves the theory: you can have your bacon, but you should scratch it, too.
The Weik family — Matt, Sara and Josey — owns and runs the small YKer Acres, a former community-supported agriculture farm that now focuses solely on pasture-raising heritage breed hogs.
The way the Weiks raise their roughly 150 hogs is much different from factory or confinement farms. The YKer Acres pigs — the name comes from the last name of the family — have fenced space to roam outdoors and comfortable space indoors. They can forage for food in the summer and get personal attention from the Weiks each day. They're only given antibiotics if they are sick, and receive no hormones. The pigs are also weaned off their mothers at a slower rate, and are offered what the Weiks say is a life free of stress. Their way, Matt said, is better for the meat and the health of the pig.
"Think of a hog living in a situation where he's stressed out: always fighting for food, fighting for space," he said, pointing to factory farms. "That goes into the meat; that stress."
Former raisers of sled dogs, the Weiks have paired their love of animal husbandry with a humane business model that puts local meat in several area restaurants and one grocery store.
"Knowing the family and who you are buying from, you really feel strong about your decision," said Duluth Grill owner Tom Hanson, who buys whole deboned pigs from YKer Acres.
It's an emotional connection you make, he said, and it helps strengthen the fiber of the community.
"(People) may not want to acknowledge it and say 'well, food is food and I am buying the cheapest I can buy.' But you truly get what you pay for," Hanson said.
Raising hogs humanely
The Weiks raise a few heritage breeds on their 16-acre farm, including Large Blacks, Red Wattles and Tamworths. A sow for each of those breeds costs about $1,000. On the horizon are a couple of Mangalitsas, a rare breed which cost $2,000 to $3,000 each. Using the term "heritage" means the single breed can be traced to the period before industrial farming. After that, many breeds lost the ability to find their own food after being raised in barns.
Breeds raised by the Weiks — described by them as "happy pigs" that will romp in the fields and play in the sun — can handle cold weather. They know to forage the ground for dirt, roots, bugs and the flora and fauna planted for them in the summer. In the fenced pasture the pigs have little huts in which they can bed down on hay.
The new mothers are inside a barn-like building with their babies, each with roomy private pens, heat lamps and outlets to the fenced outdoors.
The sows and boars are named — identified by a chalk mark — and Sara can tick off each on her fingers. Because those animals are kept for at least three years, the Weiks grow to know them well and can describe their personalities.
Tansey is curious — having once escaped from her fenced area — only to be found peering in to the front door of the house. The "talkative" Olive escaped the truck being loaded for the processor in Hudson, Wis. Her ingenuity won her a free pass.
"She talked us into keeping her," Matt joked.
That processing plant — the closest one available for their needs — was carefully chosen by the family for its practices after working with others. It is where the animals are federally inspected and culled.
"Processors are important because we want them harvested in a humane way," said Sara, noting that if it wasn't done properly, "it could ruin all of our hard work."
But the hard work comes with enjoyment. Pigs are intelligent, and fun to raise, Sara said, and most are docile, friendly animals.
"We can tell if a pig is off by how they sound, how they move; just looking at their eyes," she said. "So I feel like it's an animal you can really communicate with."
But they don't see the hogs as pets.
"Their end means is a pig," Matt said, and the purpose of a pig is generally to become food. "It's what they have always been around for ... But we can affect the hundreds of animals who come through here every year and give them the best possible life while they are here."
'The epicenter of local food'
Lake Avenue Cafe chef Tony Beran likes being able to visit the farm where he buys his pork products, and having access to the farmers. The restaurant has a long relationship with the Weiks, having worked with them when they only sold vegetables. Local meat is important, Beran said, especially when it has the quality of YKer Acres.
"Last year we didn't see any vegetables until mid-July, so it's nice that we can do something (local) year-round," he said.
Wrenshall is home to Locally Laid Egg Co., and several farms that sell produce such as Food Farm, but only a handful in the area sell meat to restaurants. Quartermaster Buffalo in Esko sells bison and 4 Quarters Holdings in Wrenshall sells grass-fed beef, for example.
"Wrenshall is really becoming the epicenter of local food," Sara said, citing quality soil and climate.
They acknowledge that buying local meat can be expensive, but high-quality meat eaten less often is better than the alternative, Sara said.
Matt, who has also worked with troubled youth, said much of modern society is detached from where food comes from. When people haven't taken the life of an animal for food, for example, it's easy to be casual about violence, he said; a shift from the era when more people lived on farms.
Duluth Grill's Hanson is seeing a shift in how people think about the food they purchase from restaurants and grocery stores.
"I think that it's not just trending," he said. "People are becoming educated."
Having the mindset of keeping pigs as animals and not pets doesn't mean the family isn't affected by their deaths. There have been difficult trips to the processor when particular pigs were on the truck. Sara admits to still getting upset on occasion, but says she takes the time to thank the animals before they go "for providing food for our communities."
"I take a moment to think about that animal. If that ever stops, then you stop caring about your animals," she said, which can affect efforts to raise pigs in a healthy way.
Matt ensures the animals are properly moved from the truck into the plant and aren't mistreated. The family also deals with piglets that don't survive and death to illness. A recent litter was stillborn.
"Death and life are very much a common thing on this farm," Sara said. "It's not for everybody. It's not."
The Weiks share a lot about what happens on the farm on their Facebook page — complete with videos and photos — to connect people to their world and show the realities of what they do. They've had lots of support from the community, which makes their efforts more worthwhile, they say.
"We carry this burden of bringing life and death to feed people," Matt said, in a way that holds true to the family's values and ethics. But "it's also a privilege."
CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT SMALL-FARM LIVING AT YKER ACRES