Chefs in the Pasture
A FRANKLIN COUNTY FARM EDUCATES CONSUMERS ABOUT PORK
BY REBECCA FRENCH SMITH
The Independent Film Channel recently released a video from its TV series “Portlandia” in which a couple sits at a table in a restaurant called The Gilt Club. When the waitress appears, they proceed to grill her about the organic upbringing of a chicken on the menu. The waitress excuses herself and returns with “Colin’s” resume—that’s the chicken’s name.
At Geisert Farms in Washington, Mo., hogs farrow in a-frame huts in open pastures.
|Chefs learn about raising pork the "natural" way.|
|A fifth-generation farmer educates chefs about pork production.|
While this parody pokes a little fun at the extremes in the organic and local movements, the fact is consumers, on an ever-increasing scale, are demanding to know where, when and how their food is raised. Farmers and ranchers are rising to the task. While not all farmers run their operations the same way, those who choose to take the steps necessary for the organic or natural food moniker are finding an eager market for their products.
“Chefs in the Pasture,” an event in Franklin County, is a case study in how and why some farmers are developing their own niche markets.
OUT IN THE DIRT
An unusually warm day was a welcome treat for chefs, caterers and business owners who came to the Geisert farm on April 2. The pigs on the farm trotted from the mud puddles and shade, where they lounged, to the tractors full of agriculture tourists there to see how these pigs are raised. The pigs might have thought that food was being delivered, but when they discovered otherwise, they retreated back to their cooler locales.
Six generations have been a part of the daily operation of raising pork on the farm. On this spring day, four generations of Geiserts welcomed guests to the inaugural “Chefs in the Pasture” event, a brainchild of Todd Geisert, a fifth-generation Geisert who oversees daily operations on the farm. It was an opportunity to educate customers about his pork and how it’s raised on the farm. Armed with this information, he says, they can educate their customers about Geisert pork.
“One thing I love about Todd,” says Maddie Earnest, co-owner of Local Harvest Groceries and Local Harvest Cafes in St. Louis, “is that he’s good at marketing.” Local Harvest, along with Schlafly Beer, Augusta Brewing Company, Companion Bread Company, Pappy’s Gourmet and 2nd Street Brewing, co-sponsored the event.
At the Geisert family farm in Washington, Mo., raising pork the natural way is a nearly century-old tradition; hogs have been a part of the operation since 1916. The Geiserts have been farming their land near the Missouri River since 1887.
“It’s one of those things,” says Todd. “This is the way we’ve always raised pigs — out in the dirt.”
As many farmers moved to larger facilities to provide pork to growing markets, the Geiserts continued using methods that had been passed down through the family. After pork prices declined in the 1990s, the Geiserts partnered with Niman Ranch. It is a network of more than 676 independent American farmers and ranchers who adhere to strict protocols of raising food. Because of practices the family already had in place, only a little tweaking in the feed formula was needed to qualify for the “natural” label. “We’re not an organic scenario,” Todd says. “We’re considered natural because we don’t feed [the pigs] organic grains.”
Part of that commitment also includes no antibiotics. Because pigs do get sick occasionally, Todd says, they sell ill animals — an average of 50 a year — to other commodity markets where they can be brought back to health with treatment. Any animal that has been given antibiotics cannot be included in the pork that he sells in the natural market.
Most of the farm visitors already knew this about the pigs they were seeing, because they’d been to the farm before, or had done business with the Geiserts. Still, a few were experiencing the farm for the first time. Some of the chefs and caterers were from restaurants to which Todd provides pork — nearly 20 restaurants in metro St. Louis — or from competition barbecue teams or the eight local groceries. All were curious to see how pork is raised on the Geisert farm.
The visitors went from pasture to pasture as Todd explained the life cycle of the pigs and how they are rotated from field to field with corn, soybeans and specialty crops the family also raises for its roadside pork, egg and produce stand.
“We run a pretty simple operation,” Todd says. “Sometimes it’s too simple for people to understand. We’ve got a self-serve produce and meat market that’s open year-round. The rule of thumb is: If the sun’s up, the stands open.”
In the last decade, sales of natural and organic foods have skyrocketed. In 2010, U.S. retail sales of natural and organic foods and beverages rose to nearly $39 billion, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts.
With food prices expected to rise between 2.5 to 3.5 percent this year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the natural and organic market is projected to more than double from 2010 to 2015, with total annual sales exceeding $78 billion in 2015.
Even though consumers are abandoning store loyalty to find better prices, Earnest says she thinks it’s about more than price.
“It’s interesting,” Earnest says. “Many of our customers who are maybe on small incomes believe that this is their healthcare, and so they’re very careful about the food that they buy. And we’ve got customers who use food stamps, and they believe that that’s their way of insuring their health.”
Geisert pork is a “premium product,” Todd says, and pricing is higher than other pork available in stores. The breeds they raise on the farm — Berkshire, Duroc, Hampshire and Chester White — coupled with how they are raised, he says, contribute to the flavor, making the meat “tastier” than other pork. Mark Bayless agrees.
Bayless is a founding member of the Washington, Mo., competitive barbecue team Oink-A-Doodle-Moo, which has been in competition for three years. “All the product we get from [Todd] is fresh,” Bayless says “We’ve placed in both pork butt and ribs, and we can’t say that of beef and chicken.” He says the higher fat content and marbled nature of the pork gives his barbecue a richer flavor.
But beyond price and taste for some consumers, the connection with food through knowledge of its creation is a big consideration in their food choices. After the Local Harvest Grocery began carrying Geisert pork nearly four years ago, the owners bused the entire staff to the farm to learn about the products so they could answer customers’ questions. “A lot of our customers will ask questions about the farms; they expect us to be able to tell them what the farms are like,” Earnest says. “And we try to go to farms when we can. It’s really important to us to educate our staff.”
“A lot of people that I deal with are wanting to know exactly where their food comes from,” Todd says. “So depending on what you call it — it’s ‘farm to fork’ or ‘farm to table’ — I do that straight line. I raise the pork. I have three different butcher shops that do my processing. … and I deliver it straight to the customer, whether it’s the restaurant or the end consumer or the grocery store.”
The “Portlandia” scene isn’t reality, but every opportunity farmers have to explain the effort it takes to produce the food on your plate helps consumers understand today’s agriculture. The knowledge chefs and staff gain from a visit, to the Geisert farm at least, might be as close as you will get to a pig’s resume, but naming a pig is where Todd draws the line.