How a farmer and former UNI football player
became an innovator of pork
Story and photos by Jim Duncan
When technology think tank IdeaMensch came
to Des Moines this summer, they packed Jasper
Winery with entrepreneurs and code writers brainstorming
on how ideas become valuable. Local legends
Ben Milne, of Dwolla, and Tej Dhawan, of Startup
City, headlined, but it was a pig farmer named
Carl Blake who stole the show.
Blake is not your typical 21st-century Iowa
farmer. In fact, the former University of Northern
Iowa football player used to be a code writer
who designed computer systems from the early
days of the Internet until a traffic accident
laid him up in 2000.
“I decided I wanted to do something healthier.
I grew up on a farm, so I thought it might make
a nice neat circle to go back to farming. As
soon as I could walk again, I was planting 1,000
tomato plants with my crutches,” he explained.
Blake with six-day barley fodder.
Blake also had time to read about esoteric
stuff like Hungarian pigs. He learned how Mangalitsas,
a heritage breed of Hungarian pig, was making
a comeback after nearly going extinct during
the Communist era. Like many old breeds, Mangalitsas
were originally bred for their lard. Coincidentally,
high-end restaurants began championing the use
of whole animals after Heston Blumenthal’s “Family
Food” was published in 2000. Thomas Keller’s
legendary French Laundry was one of the first
U.S. customers to tout Mangalitsa lard, so interest
Blake tried to buy breeding stock but never
found a seller. By that time, he’d also discovered
Swabian Hall, a legendary German pig that made
Stuttgart a tourist destination for 19th-century
foodies. Though it had been judged as the best
pork at three different World’s Fairs, Swabian
Hall went extinct in the 20th century. Third
millennium Germans revived it in the same manner
it had been created 180 years earlier — by crossing
Chinese Meishan, the world’s oldest breed of
pig, with Russian Wild Boars (RWB).
Like Mangalitsas, Meishans had traditionally
been raised for lard as fuel. They are so fat
they have wrinkled faces and skins. Besides
providing good lard, which is gaining favor
with gourmets after decades of fat paranoia,
Meishans make incredible mothers. Blake says
they birth as many as 28 in a litter and are
able to conceive as young as six weeks old.
RWB, on the other hand, are so ornery that Missouri
hunters are permitted to kill as many as they
want without a license.
Meishan mother in the ruins of an old
Blake learned that there was one Meishan herd
in the U.S. that was imported for research at
Iowa State University and the University of
Illinois in 1989. He inquired about buying some.
“They asked me why I would want to buy a pig
with no commercial use at all. They had tried
crossing them but not with RWB. They gladly
sold me their whole herd. They delivered, too
— the next day. I was late getting to the farm,
and they had begun unloading pigs which were
already busy breeding when I got there,” he
RWB were easier to find but harder to control.
“They’d like to tackle you, kill you and eat
you if you aren’t careful,” Blake explained,
but their temperament was not the only problem.
“Originally I tried to buy them from out-of-state
sources. The next day there were eight squad
cars at my farm from all kinds of agencies,”
he recalled. Blake argued that RWB’s were legal
in Iowa as long as they are raised for food
“I think they thought I wanted them for terrorist
purposes,“ he joked. Some authorities also wanted
to rid Blake of his Meishans because they had
never seen anything like them.
“I spent six weeks battling with the DNR (Department
of Natural Resources) as well as ISU and some
Chinese officials, too,” he said.
Blake says there are still folks who thwart
his success by stealing, poisoning or shooting
his pigs. He also suspects some of his buyers
are sometimes pressured into giving up his account.
Despite the bureaucratic issues, things moved
along for Blake and his pigs. Iowa Swabian Hall
quickly became popular with top chefs like Charlie
Trotter and Stephanie Izard. One of Blake’s
pigs won the Cochon555 championship in San Francisco,
where chefs praised its fat as superior to Mangalitsa
for charcuterie. Travel Network star Andrew
Zimmern spent two days shooting at Blake’s farm
earlier this summer and will air a program about
Iowa food in early December. In Des Moines,
Centro’s Derek Eidson became a big fan, too.
“The fat on his pigs reminds me of really great
butter, just full of flavor and not greasy at
all like other pigs,” Eidson said. “We made
the best guanciale and pancetta that my sous
chefs and I have ever had with our Iowa Swabian
Hall. I really love to de-bone the smaller ones
and do whole porcettas in our wood-fired, brick
Rustik Rooster Farm
From Des Moines, the drive to Blake’s Rustik
Rooster Farm provides a geo-historical perspective.
One passes through the heaviest concentrations
of Iowa’s 20 million hogs without ever seeing
a pig. It’s easier to smell the huge confined
animal feeding operations (CAFOs) than it is
too see them from the highway. This industrialized
agriculture seems displaced in the heart of
the legendary Des Moines lode, the rich dumping
ground of the most recent glaciers that covered
north central Iowa, carving out lakes and potholes
before melting and leaving bogs and hummocks
that would weather into the finest farmland
in the world.
devouring barley fodder.
When Europeans came, they drained the slews
and tiled the fields. They put up fences and
planted crops where wild grasses had reigned
for millennia. Yet this is also pheasant hunting
country and habitat land. Occasionally one sees
where a farmer has returned some of his cropland
to wetland, so one feels he’s driving over eons
of trends that come for awhile before slipping
into the sinkholes of the fens. And even the
CAFOs are transient.
Changes at Blake’s Rustik Rooster Farm in Ionia
have been less dramatic. The place was a show
farm in 1960, but parts of buildings remain
from the 1880s. Pigs run freely like dogs and
approach humans comfortably. Meishan mothers
hang out with their litters in the remains of
a 19th-century farrowing barn, as if sensing
its historical purpose. An old iron farrowing
stall rusts in a pile of things discarded by
previous owners. It’s become a playground for
piglets. Blake pointed out some cute, little
baby RWBs that would need to be exiled to their
own pen, with 10-foot high fences, in another
week or two.
Like Zimmern, I visited Rustik Rooster Farm
to see Blake’s latest brainstorm, a feeding
operation that produces faster growing pigs
at about one-fifth the current cost of conventional
corn-based feed. It was designed to fit inside
a 60-year-old corn crib that is the largest
(60’-by-30’-by-50’) in Bremer County.
“They used to dry all the grain here, mix it
and feed it directly to their animals with a
gravity delivery system. I’m doing all that,
except I’m wetting grain instead of drying it,”
Blake installed two computer-controlled hydroponic
units inside the crib, having traded pigs for
the hardware. Each day barley seeds are placed
in plastic tubs designed so that six rows fit
its shelves. On the sixth day, the seeds have
sprouted into fodder so tasty that Blake intends
to begin growing some to sell to chefs. He pulled
out six-day-old fodder and folded it into rolls
“When animals graze, they only eat the top of
the plant. With this system, they get the roots
and all, exponentially more nutrition. I am
as excited about this as I was about the Internet
in 1980,” he admitted.
Though a considerable distance away, Blake’s
hogs began grunting and squealing as wheelbarrows
filled with fodder.
“As soon as they smell it, they get excited.
I can throw corn at them now, and they will
ignore it. This is all they want to eat,” he
said, demonstrating by tossing the fodder to
the hogs. Their squealing became an harmonic
Saving your bacon
The hydroponic system is so efficiently computerized
that Blake says his 15-year-old daughter Karman
can run the feeding operations by herself. More
significantly, feed that saves a farmer 80 percent
of his cost could literally save everyone’s
bacon. As September began, this summer’s drought
was rated the worst in the U.S. in more than
50 years. In August, farmers in the Midwest
destroyed one-sixth of the nation’s expected
corn crop, triggering a likely surge in global
food price inflation. The U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) rated half the corn crop
as “poor” or “very poor.”
Because corn is mainly used to feed animals,
this failure will likely clobber the world’s
livestock manufacturers. Eyeing low supplies,
the USDA forecasts sharp declines in domestic
meat and poultry supplies next year. Corn futures
have already hit an all-time high with many
analysts predicting they can only go higher.
Prices will be passed on to consumers. Blake
thinks things are even worse for future pork
“All the pork processors in Iowa are running
24/7 right now because farmers are having their
pigs butchered at only 50-100 pounds. After
losing their crops, they can‘t afford to feed
them. I have to take my pigs to Minnesota for
processing. There’s no avoiding the consequences;
six months from now those pigs would have been
full grown and going to market. They won’t be
there. That’s going to fuel huge inflation,”
Going whole hog
Blake only sells whole hogs. That, in itself,
is a commitment for a farmer in Iowa, where
nearly 30 percent of the nation’s 68 million
hogs are raised, and almost all live in CAFOs.
“When hogs stand over the fumes from their own
waste 24/7, toxins leech into their skin. That’s
why all the Iowa processors, except one, insist
on removing the skin and the head — that’s 27
percent of the carcass yield. The chefs who
buy my pigs can realize $500 from the head alone;
that’s $500 that the conventional system throws
away,” he explained.
Matt Steigerwald of Lincoln Café in Mount Vernon
is Blake’s longest-running, whole hog customer.
In fact, he made an Iowa Swabian Hall brain
mousse for Zimmern this summer.
“We only get whole hogs when we can get them
from Carl. He’s a rambunctious, genius friend
of the café,” Steigerwald said. “I love Carl.
He follows up on the quality of his animals.
He talks up his animals, brags and can back
it up. Can’t say enough good about Carl. Last
time he brought a hog, he called me from the
car outside and said he needed help because
he couldn’t turn the truck off or it wouldn’t
start again. Yet he can cross breed hogs like
One of Blake’s newest fans is Ben Milne, the
young code writer and Dwolla founder who is
transforming the way money is transferred. And
the appreciation is mutual. In fact, Blake only
reached out to IdeaMensch because he wanted
to meet Milne.
“That guy has 80-pound brass balls,” Blake asserted.
“I read where he warned VISA and Mastercard
that he was coming after them. I love that.
I love Dwolla, too. I had a guy who was overdue
paying me $20,000. I called him to demand my
money, and he paid me with American Express.
That transaction cost me $600. I told him to
get a Dwolla account if he ever wanted to do
business with me again. He did, and the next
such transaction cost me 25 cents.”
Milne became so interested in Blake’s work that
at IdeaMensch he told him that he wanted to
help him expand any way he could. He just might
get his chance. Blake’s next dream endeavor
is to build his own inspected processing facility
on the farm.
“Processing fees have risen recently from $25
to $100 per hog,” Blake said.
Besides saving him from driving to Minnesota
to dress a pig without losing the skin and head,
he thinks he will be busy for the same reasons
“There are so many parallels between making
new electronics systems and making new kinds
of pig,” Milne reflected.
Yeah. For one, it takes 80-pound brass balls
to change much about either. CV