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September 20, 2012
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Saving your bacon

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.

Carl 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 peaked.

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.

A Meishan mother in the ruins of an old farrowing barn

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 recalled.

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 or fiber.

“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 oven.”

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.

Pigs 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 said.

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 of sod.

“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 munching tune.

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 prices.

“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,” he predicted.

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 nobody’s business.”

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 Dwolla is.

“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

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