Raising pork can be a tough business for producers, who've lately been watching feed prices rise along with the cost of corn. That's one reason why a small but growing number of former commodity pork producers are trying their luck with specialty breeds instead. These premium pigs, raised on small farms with methods that appeal to consumers, can also fetch a premium price.
Take Iowa farmer Randy Hilleman. In 1998, he switched from conventional hogs to Berkshire hogs, whose meat is fattier and can hold water better.
"The Berkshire has certain qualities [color and marbling] that makes it better eating and more enjoyable," says Hilleman. "The fat is what gives you the flavor."
Berkshires have fewer piglets per litter than other breeds and require a lot of feed, which means they cost more to bring to market. But Hilleman and another farmer in State Center, Iowa, realized that if they marketed their pork chops directly to restaurants, they could charge more. In 1998, they founded Eden Farms Berkshire Pork, now a collective of 35 farmers raising about 18,000 purebred Berkshire hogs a year.
Eden pigs are raised with limited antibiotics (none are administered in the 100 days before slaughter) and are fed a vegetarian diet. They also get access to the outdoors. By advertising these methods, Eden farmers can get a higher-than-commodity price for their live pigs — $2 to $4 a pound higher than regular commodity pork. Clientele include high-end restaurants and distributors, as well as Iowa State University, which sells Eden hot dogs at its basketball and football stadiums.
Specialty pork like this may be just a tiny fraction of the American pork market, but it is growing. Eden Farms general manager Nick Jones expects the company's sales to grow 30 percent in the coming year.
University of Missouri extension economist Ron Plain says specialty breeds and methods have been attracting conventional pork producers for a while. Farmers first began looking for alternatives to large-scale hog production when the industry started transitioning in the 1980s.
"When we moved to indoor hog production on the large scale, it cost a lot of money" to build big barns to house the pigs, he says. That spurred some interest in the specialty market — sometimes, from farmers lacking capital for new buildings.
Niman Ranch, a national network of hog, cattle and lamb farmers whose meat is branded as "all-natural and humane," is one of the best-known names in specialty pork. Niman's field operations manager, Lori Lyon, says most of Niman's 480 hog farmers are in the Midwest, but they can be found in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Delaware, as well.
She says there's enough demand to keep growing. "We add new farmers all the time," she says, "and we'd like to add more."
Still, all told the niche pork market accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. hog sales.
"Their market share is quite small, and their overall impact on the total industry is quite small," says Plain. And today, Plain says, the specialty pork market is still not luring that many farmers away from commodity production.
"It may be a growth market," he says, "but it's not growing fast."
That doesn't seem to bother Noel Texeira of Happy Hula Farm, a member of Eden Farms. He named the farm in 2008 when he moved from Maui, Hawaii, to Zearing, Iowa, with his wife and two sons. He'd been in commodity hogs before, but says Eden's negotiated prices insulate him from weekly or monthly fluctuations.
"The prices are pretty steady for longer amounts of time," he said, "so you can really plan for the future."
But it's the Berkshires themselves that most helped convince him to choose the smaller market.
"The pork quality is superb," he says.
Amy Mayer is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio, part of Harvest Public Media. Check out her audio slideshow of specialty pork producers here.