Craig Thompson is a fourth-generation California farmer whose parents still grow rice in Richvale. But in 2011, he and his wife Jenny -- both in their late 20s at the time -- decided to start a new branch of the family farming tradition. They bought a small parcel of 100 acres in mountainous Siskiyou County, and founded Rockside Ranch: a mission-oriented, nonprofit livestock farm that teaches youth in crisis job skills through farming apprenticeships.
“We started Rockside,” Craig explains, “because we felt there was a connection between farming and recovery.”
Rockside Ranch takes apprentices who are transitioning from homelessness, jail, or rehab, and who have applied to the apprenticeship program because they want to take a big step forward in their lives.
“There’s a natural link,” he goes on, “between people who are trying to turn their life around, and the life lessons all around you on a working farm.”
“For somebody who’s been beaten down, there is so much life breathed into them the moment they step on the farm and interact with animals, the moment they are responsible for other forms of life. Farming is an instant dose of dignity and pride.”
The work Craig, Jenny, and their apprentices do on the farm is extraordinary in its own right. Chickens, sheep, and heritage breeds of pigs thrive on their half-pasture, half-forest farm, and pretty much all the stops are pulled out to make the farm as ethical and environmentally friendly as can be. The heritage hogs (which include Red Wattle, Berkshire, Mangalitsa, Old Spot Gloucester, Mule Foot, and Tamworth) live in mobile houses with shade structures and straw bedding, ensuring they have 24/7 access to the outdoors while still being protected from the elements. Farrowing -- the period when piglets are born and staying close to the mother’s side -- is done in insulated huts with a triangular layout, which means 1) the temperature is kept comfortable even on the hottest and coldest days, 2) the mom and piglets have ample room to move around, and 3) the piglets are protected from mom’s heavy body when she lies down because they have little corners to scurry into. It takes a huge investment of time and money to create insulated huts, but it’s the absolute gold standard of animal welfare on pig farms, because it reduces piglet mortality without bringing gestation crates, or small metal cages, into the equation (that’s what happens at industrial pig farms).
Craig and Jenny are also partnering with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to decrease wildlife risk in their area -- using the heritage pigs! Basically, northern California ecosystems historically saw fires sweep through periodically, which kept forest growth under control. But these days, less frequent fires mean that the forests are never thinned, and they’re overfilled with a layer of flammable detritus on the foreste floor, plus tons of super thin saplings -- perfect fodder for an absolute inferno when a forest fire does finally sweep through. Besides manually thinning the saplings, Craig and Jenny also encourage their pigs to root in the forest. The pigs’ snouts and hooves both act to push pine needles, cones, and detritus deep into the soil, tilling it and bringing dirt to the surface instead. Dirt doesn’t burn, so wildfire risk is reduced.
Finally, the meat quality at Rockside Ranch is awesome. The heritage flavors are delicious, and Craig and Jenny’s choice to include lots of heritage breeds was intentional.
“They complement each other. Each brings something different to the table.”
For three years, we've been traveling across America and beyond, seeking out the most delicious and unique beef from independently-owned farms, from Pennsylvania Angus finished on ancient grains to the world’s rarest steak, Olive-fed Wagyu, which hails from a remote Japanese island.
Now we're expanding our appetite to pork, searching out the country’s highest-quality, independently raised pork not available in stores. Among the types of pork we're seeking out as we become a marketplace for craft producers are heritage and unusual breeds, farms with innovative feed programs like locally sourced hazelnuts, and meat with regionally distinct flavors. We'll continue adding pork offerings as it finds exceptional new farms.
Before factory farms became the norm for U.S. pork production -- and with them, dry, bland-tasting meat -- heritage breeds abounded on small farms. Today, a movement of small-scale pork producers around the country is working to save heritage breeds, while also giving eaters tastier, richer meat. Heritage breeds range in flavor from Berkshire on the one end, known for being tender and rich in fat, to Red Wattle on the other, a rare, flavorful variety bred by New Calendonians and later New Orleaners to star in Cajun cuisine.
Pasture-raised pork can cook a little faster than industrially raised pork. For chops, use the reverse-sear method: cook the pork in the oven, to your desired doneness, then transfer to a skillet to quickly sear. Braises also work well for pasture-raised pork. Bacon is best treated to a nice, quick pan-sizzle. Read on for more on the cooking techniques you can use.
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