Heritage breed farmers breed pork with a purpose

Sep 28, 2016  | 6 min  | Ep4206

In the spring of 2013, in the rolling hills of Southeast, Iowa, Jason and Angela Johnson launched Lucky George Farm. It had been their dream to live on a small farm, raising and growing their own food and at the same time being good stewards of the land. 
Without realizing it, the couple stumbled upon a successful strategy to produce pork with a purpose instead of pork with a profit. What grew from their hard work has gone far beyond their wildest dreams. 
Angela Johnson, Lucky George farm, “This is the way that we wanted to farm. Which was hands off, not intensive farming. Hands off an extensive model, the traditional model, rather than a conventional model.”

On twenty acres, the Johnson’s carved out a multi species plan to pasture heritage breed chickens, geese, sheep, goats, cows, and pigs. 

Jason Johnson, Lucky George Farm, “I thought what if we can find the system that would honor the animal, allowed them to grow to an older age, be raised outside and in an environment that you could put many animals. And so it’s multi-species grazing here that the pigs and goats and everything runs together and it produces a product that's different than what you would find elsewhere.”

To help offset input costs, the family began selling various cuts at farmers markets in Iowa and Kansas. Word spread about their product line and an urban audience started to take notice.  

Jason Johnson, Lucky George Farm, “From a practical standpoint, as a producer, and if you're going to a market, the more products that you can offer, you can bring to the customer you know drives an interest. So there’s certain producers and they only had beef or maybe only have pork, but if someone walks up to our booth they're like ‘oh, you have quail eggs, chicken eggs, you have mutton’ which is an adult sheep. That's something that nobody else sells. We have goat meat and we have large black pigs so you know it's an interest there that just doesn't exist among other producers.”

They had been searching for pork that would be healthy enough to meet their dietary demands and be hearty enough to thrive in an outside environment at Lucky George Farm. All the characteristics the Johnson’s were looking for were found in the Large Black heritage breed. 

Angela Johnson, Lucky George Farm, “We bought the farm for us. We did not buy the farm to be a business./ I was totally shocked and surprised the first 6 months when we found out other people wanted our meat.”

Some of those other people showing interest in Lucky George products are parts of a movement known as Cochon 555, a group that promotes Heritage Breed pork and those who produce it. Through culinary competitions staged across the country, organizers pair up top chefs with small family farms in an effort to raise awareness the unique breeds.  
Brady Lowe, Founder, Cochon 555, “when you find it's small family farmers who raising it. It can't exist on an industrial level so almost every time you buy heritage breed, chew on it, you're just supporting family farming. It's a direct hit.”

Organizers at the Minneapolis semi-final Cochon 555 event began looking to pair up the Johnson Family with a top chef who wanted to work with the Large Black breed. Jorge Guzman, executive chef for Surly Brewing Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, answered the call. 
Jorge Guzman, Executive Chef, Surly Brewing, “It's a Heritage breed that you don't see very often. So even promoting the fact that you're doing a large black. Like people are like 'what's that'? Like when's the last time you heard of a large black hog? You don't. You don't hear about them that often and so that's part of what Cochon and lucky George farm. That organization is trying to promote Heritage breed Hogs and large black is one of those hogs and it's just a better product.”

Guzman believes in supporting heritage breed production to educate consumers on the differences in taste and character found in old world breeds. 
Jorge Guzman, Executive Chef, Surly Brewing Company, “knowing that we have a responsibility that's how we start our food and hopefully it just triggered the trickle-down effect like this is the way that most restaurant should purchase.”

On any given Saturday, Surly Brewing Company restaurants will see two thousand customers, far too many for small operations like Lucky George Farm to provide a large enough supply. But for special occasions, Guzman and his team purchase and prepare a plethora of plates using exclusively heritage breed pork. 
Jorge Guzman, Executive Chef, Surly Brewing Company, "That's your pork chop, and your loin, and your belly."

Guzman praised Large Black hogs for their marbled red meat and points out the fat has a higher smoke point, which produces a higher quality white lard. 

With a win at Cochon 555 in Minneapolis, Guzman, his team, and Lucky George Farm earned a seat at the big table in Snowmass, Colorado for the Grand Cochon. 

Ten teams from across the country went head to head in hopes of being recognized as having the best tasting pork in the country. Each team presents their dish to numerous judges and hundreds of guests who vote for the best bite of the day. But no matter who wins, exposure and awareness of heritage breed pork, and the farmers that produce it, is the real prize.

Despite not taking the top prize at this year’s event, the Johnson’s were energized about having hundreds of people taste pork from the breed they are proud to raise. 
Brady Lowe, Founder, Cochon 555, “it is amazing to see, you know a farm like lucky George jump into the game do something they believe in, be very passionate about it and that product showcases what the stewards of those animals are doing and it comes through in that animal, it comes through on a plate for a chef.”

Angela Johnson, Lucky George Farm, “these pigs have a life and they're going to one day be on your plate they have a life with purpose and hopefully we're raising them in a purposeful way.”

Jason Johnson, Lucky George Farm, “I guess it has to do with the passion to do something you believe in.”

For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy

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