Pastured Pork

Fall butchering is finally finished! It’s been a wonderful experience to carve up each piece of pork, learning a new animal’s cuts. The entire journey of raising, handling, caring fore, and slaughtering the pigs at Leafhopper Farm has taught me so much. Pigs are a great farm project and wonderful payout in meat quantity. Organic feed is expensive, but I’m working on ways to reduce costs through bulk purchasing, though I’d need a granary for that kind of feed storage and those aren’t cheap. The pigs also do a great job at clearing land. The blackberries are still rooted in for the most part, but many are partially uprooted and easy to pull. I think another year of pig work would get them out. I could also concentrate pig rooting more heavily by pressuring them on the pasture in small doses, but that really mucks up the land and would have to be monitored with great care. Reseeding would have to happen constantly, putting more time and effort into reconditioning, but at least the blackberry would be gone.

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half a pig carcass in parts

Next spring, pigs are on hold while more work on the land takes shape. Perimeter fencing must go in before more pigs can come onto the land. This will ensure the pigs stay in the areas selected for them and not blunder into sensitive garden areas near the house. It will also prevent angry neighbors. I’d like to raise 6-8 pigs once the fencing goes up, and use the electric mesh to rotate them through smaller quadrants. The electric should also be hardwired to the main grid to prevent grounding out. The pigs figured out how to bury the line in dirt and would get out again and again towards the end of their time at Leafhopper. I could also work on raising the line as the pigs grow, eventually having things up enough to keep dirt from grounding them out. What a science!

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the final cuts of pork

Butchering half a pig takes me about 6 hours, including clean up. The time spent trimming fat and breaking down such a large animal is involved, but so worth it as you’ll see below. Delicious meats are diverse and healthy, having grown on animals fat and happy in the fields. Why is pastured pork more unique? Traditionally, pigs are raised on cement floors where they are prevented from rooting the earth. When you prevent a pig from rooting in the ground, the animal becomes stressed and will root other things, like his fellow pigs tails. That’s why commercial pigs are docked of their tails when they are young. To me, when an animal will eat off his fellow animal’s body parts in stress, that environment is not a good place for them. Cement floors are easy to clean, sterilize, and control. With pigs in large numbers, I can understand why the industry has created these standards. Anyone hawing right now about this should take a moment to reflect on their love of pork fried rice, bacon, and boneless space ribs.

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here’s the bacon

How much bacon do you get off a single pig? I got about 6-8 lbs. off a 100 lb. carcass. Think of all the pigs that need to be raised for our bacon cravings. Now go watch a youtube video about industrial pig farms and maybe you’ll be motivated to think more about what you reach for in the cooler at your local supermarket. Something that did surprise me was the size of the back strap, or what the meat industry calls lion. Not to be confused with tenderloin (pictures below on left), back strap lion runs the length of the pig along the back bone. Both loin cuts are prized for being lean, tender cuts of light colored meat. It’s the prime cut of the animal, but somewhat overrated in my opinion. If you want flavor, the more marbled cuts like the one to the right of the tenderloin pictures below, are the way to go. I am fascinated by all the rich diversity of meat in the pig. Centuries of genetic selection have brought us some fine pork, and the layers of fat and muscle show how technical meat quality really is.

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(left to right) tenderloin, marbled stake, and a rolled roast

There is distinct flavor in each cut, depending on fat content and muscle type. Well, duh! you might say, but now that I am really seeing the diversity of pork, I finally get it. There is difference in the taste, and I find the dark red meat of the less desirable cuts to be more hardy and flavorful. The fat is also different around the body, from pure white flakes along the belly, to a richer yellow lard on the upper neck and back. Berkshire pigs are thought of as more lean, and I’ve helped butcher a lard pig, so I get what they mean by lean. The Berkshire still has great fat, but it’s more the white fine fat you want to cook with. The flavor is mild, allowing it to take on more of the flavors of food you’re using. It enhances flavor, and I kept most of it on each cut to allow the consumer to choose weather or not to trim it off or enjoy it as part of the meat’s complex taste. Either way, you’re getting the whole cut as it comes, without too much dressing down.

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a line of loin chops and two tied leg roasts 

In the picture above, you get a real sense of the myoglobin in muscle. Myoglobin is the process by which tissue cells acquire and store iron and oxygen for use in movement. Reasonably, less active muscle is lighter, having less iron and oxygen stored up for activity, whereas high activity parts of the body like leg meat, is richly red, full of iron and oxygen to keep the muscle mobile. The dark meat of a chicken is found in the lower half of the bird, where all the movement happens. On a pig, the loins we talked about earlier do the least amount of work, and are therefor much less stringy and tough. Active muscle groups are tough because the fibers in them are thick from use. Dark red meat takes a longer chew, but gives more nutrition. Think about that when you’re selecting a cut next time.

The pork I’ve raised is like nothing I’ve ever tasted. Rich meat with an almost sweet taste. The more seasoned pork which hung in the cooler longer has a glimmering sheen to it called “diffraction grating” caused by the presence of minerals in the muscle. I noticed a much more dramatic sheen in the longer aged meat from the cooler. It also tasted better. It will be exciting to hear back from those who try the meat, especially people lucky enough to get a bit of both kinds. All the pork was aged, but one half was aged a week longer to see how dramatic the difference in taste is. Though subtle, the difference is there, and longer aging is better.

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