Is This the World’s Best Way to Raise Pork?

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Even farmers steeped in the monoculture tradition adopted by the majority of the U.S. have successfully switched to organic, polyculture models
  • One farmer adopted the ancient traditions used in Spain and imported Iberian pigs to produce jamón ibérico — the highest grade of free-range, acorn-fed, dry-aged Spanish ham — in Georgia
  • Food companies may introduce a new label called “regenerative” for food grown using soil improvement methods, to be placed on store shelves next to packages labeled “organic” or “fair trade”
  • Scientists found that recycling livestock manure as a substitute for synthetic fertilizers increased the soil organic carbon, or SOC, improving crop productivity, reducing reactive nitrogen pollution and increasing the viability of the soil
  • Converting a conventional farming operation to one that’s regenerative requires commitment and determination, but it has been done, and a growing number of voices in the industry have joined the conversation

By Dr. Mercola

Will Harris III, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, says the hogs that forage on his vast Georgia farm are also loose to forage in the woods behind it. He says they not only fill a unique position on his farm's operation, they also have a unique impact on the land.

Harris, a fourth-generation farmer with a University of Georgia agricultural degree, once adhered to his family's monoculture tradition, complete with the lack of diversity, and with the use of antibiotics, hormones and chemical weed killer system of farming adopted by the majority of the U.S. Then, 40 years into it, he went certified organic instead. Permaculture Voices says "beyond organic" farming operations "celebrate polyculture and close the loop on sustainability."1

It wasn't long before he established the largest comparable enterprise in the Southeast. Among other ingenious, highly effective farming methods, he allowed his cattle to graze native grasses, brought in sheep to eat the plants the cattle wouldn't, chickens to scratch up dung dropped by the cattle and sheep, and goats and pigs to clear up the leftovers and undergrowth.

Hogs may serve to clear up the scrublands around the farm, Harris says, but one of the greatest examples of symbiosis he's ever seen was when he put his baby goats in the forest with the hogs. In a matter of weeks, the goats looked great — better than any other goats he ever had. He researched extensively until he observed that the goats were eating plants the other animals weren't interested in.

Goats often have "barberpole" worms — parasites — which pass through the goats' systems through their feces and pupate in the earth. When the goats graze the grass, they reinfect themselves. The hogs ate the goat feces, which provide an interesting set of nutrients, but more importantly, they break the life cycle of the barberpole worms, which prevents the goats from picking up the parasites again. In the video above, Harris observes:

"It's a great example of heterosis, it's a great example of why nature abhors monoculture. In a factory farm, you would just have goats, or you would just have pigs. You would not enjoy that symbiosis that nature has given us."2

Making Iberian Ham

One of Harris' next projects at White Oak involved the prospect of importing pigs from Iberia, the peninsula that comprises Spain and Portugal, to create a just-as-delectable ham as the celebrated jamón ibérico de bellota — the highest grade of free-range, acorn-fed, dry-aged Spanish ham — a delicacy described as "transcendent."

He wasn't sure yet whether the pigs would thrive in Georgia's heat, being used to a dry climate and high elevation rather than the South's humidity and low elevation, so there was trepidation about how the porcine beasts would thrive, especially given a new set of pathogens they had no resistance to.

Harris staked his reputation on importing the pigs to Georgia and feeding them the same diet of bellotas, or acorns, they'd foraged on in their native Iberia, where the pigs dubbed "olive trees on legs" had been part of the landscape, literally since the Romans. He would produce the same sweet, dark red, melt-in-your-mouth ham that can cost pork enthusiasts $1,000 for a single leg.

"Harris was wagering hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a good portion of White Oak Pastures' reputation, on a long-odds bet that his foreign pigs could do at least as well in exile as they ever had at home, and make a product at least as delicious. And maybe more …

The fat is the secret to the ham's quality, and the acorns are the genesis of the fat. The nuts — technically, fruits — from the oak species that grow in southwest Europe are low in carbohydrates and high in oleic acid, the same monounsaturated fat that makes olive oil healthy."3

Rather than being pale pink and plump or pale with black spots, Eater.com describes the Iberian pata negra, or "black footed" pigs as "lean and compact, long-snouted and quick," with a black bristly fringe between their ears, but each representing a rare delicacy for pork lovers.

Interestingly, when Iberian pigs were bred with industrial-strength European hog breeds in the 20th century, housed indoors and fed a commercial diet, it didn't take long for the quality of the pork to suffer. In fact, Spanish officials were forced to enact controls to monitor and label quality. Among several grades rated in terms of quality, the highest came from the old method of pigs raised first on grass, then acorns exclusively.

After the financial crash in 2008, which devastated Spain, only a 12 percent-per-year average of the 3 million pigs raised for Iberian ham produced what was designated as bellota-grade, prompting expert ham producers to ask their government to sanction the export of Iberian pigs. It was a first, and there was no "protected designation of origin" label other foods had been given (such as Italy's Parmigiano-Reggiano).

Spanish Investors Tap Iberian Ham Production in the US

One of the problems with Iberian ham, from the perspective of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was a concern about Spanish slaughterhouse regulations (or possible lack thereof) and the potential for pig diseases. Iberian ham also didn't (yet) have much renown except among international travelers and culinary experts.

Then Jaime and Kurt Oriol, a father-son team from Southwestern Spain, intrigued by both the prospects and the opportunity, began visiting farms in the Midwest and Texas. Someone suggested White Oak Pastures and, after meeting Harris, they canceled the rest of their tour. As the saying goes, they made him an offer his sense of adventure couldn't refuse. Their proposal:

"The vision the Oriols unrolled for Harris was simple, if not easy: They would bring pure ibérico breeding stock from Spain, and Harris would raise them, with the two families splitting the ownership, the expenses and the proceeds. The goal would be to produce jamón ibérico — or at least as close to the original as they could get."4

Harris' hog operation had only been going for a few years when the Orioles contacted him, and he relished the challenge, quipping, "These pigs were an attractive proposition. I didn't have as many hogs as I needed. And raising them is a kind of sexy and challenging thing to do."5

The Oriol-Harris collaboration that resulted in Iberian Pastures in early-January 2015 was followed by months of quarantines on both continents. Then, 24 young, unbred female Iberian pigs and six boars shipped to south Georgia were given the run of a 50-year-old pecan grove. Eater.com notes:

"It was going to be challenging, for sure. Georgia is nothing like the pigs' ancestral home. The dehesa is shallow-soiled and suffers hard droughts. White Oak is almost always humid; it lies on a coastal plain so rich that, 1,000 years before Europeans arrived, indigenous Americans built one of the oldest and largest mound-city settlements in the southeastern U.S. there. Even the oaks are different, water oaks and live oaks instead of the holm oaks and cork oaks in Spain."6

The worry was that such variances could alter the taste of the newly displaced Iberian pigs' meat, as acorn fats and flavor are essential to the jamón ibérico flavor profile. Southern acorns have different fatty acids, aren't as sweet and contain bitter toxins. Looking for a tasty, abundant and nutritious alternative to the Iberian bellotas, Harris found it 12 miles distant in Blakely, Georgia, where it's "all about the peanuts."7

America's Answer to Jamón Ibérico: Country Ham

Country ham production is similar to that used in Spain, starting with carving the back legs, the use of salt to draw out moisture and hanging up the end result for the perfect melding of cool air, enzymes, age and wood smoke. Accordingly, the next, all-important challenge was to find a place to cure the ham they hoped would rival the best jamón ibérico and they found the perfect operation in Iowa — perfect for one simple reason:

"Spanish hams are never smoked — which meant the great American curing houses, and the ham masters who run them, would not be able to produce White Oak's jamón. Nor would White Oak be able to build a curing house of its own: Iberian hams age, instead of rot, in the cool and dry climate of southwestern Spain, and southern Georgia is seldom dry or cool."

Herb and Kathy Eckhouse, owners of La Quercia in Des Moines are noted for making prosciutto using meat from American pigs, but by means of Italian curing techniques. Iberian Pastures slaughtered the first batch of pigs in 2017, after their Iberian-born parents arrived and were mated just two years prior. According to Eckhouse:

"Grapes from all over the world are being grown in the United States. Are they the same as the wines that are made in Bordeaux, or Tuscany? No, they're not. Are they delicious? Yes, they are. We don't expect (our ham) to be the same, or even want it to be the same, but we expect it to be delicious. We want to develop an American tradition."

While the prospect of the pig importing enterprise was certainly not guaranteed, what with being transplanted to an ecosystem vastly different from any had experienced for millennia, the Iberian pigs thrived at White Oak Pastures. Harris was pleased to report they hadn't lost even one pig. Before long, word regarding the Iberian Pastures "experiment" at White Oaks started circulating among the food industry.

Small amounts of uncured meat that appeared for sale on the company website were quickly snatched up. With availability by the summer of 2019, Harris's daughter, Jenni, traveled around offering samples of the succulent pork to high-end chefs — high end because potential pricing for the hams could be around $1,500 apiece. Exceeding their highest hopes, the finished product, Eater.com relates, was delicious:

"It was charred outside, dark red and juicy within, and marbled so finely that almost no fat was visible. It tasted more like a grass-fed steak than like the lean white meat of commodity pork — like an animal that had enjoyed its life outdoors, chewy and tender and tasting of fresh herbs and blood. It offered a palatable confirmation of how well these foreign pigs had done in their new home, and a promise of what they might become."

It's Not Just About the Meat — It's About the Soil

NPR recently published an article about a growing "grass-roots movement" to keep more roots in the soil. While that may sound counterintuitive, it really is about the roots, but the goal is to "promote healthy soil that's full of life." It's a healthy endeavor: One farmer commented that in some areas, dirt doesn't even smell like dirt anymore. There's hope, though.

The concept that soil can be healthy is not just among organic farmers and agricultural fringe groups. The movement as well as the debate seems to be an emerging narrative in farm periodicals, trickling down to small farmers across the U.S. Food companies are talking about a new eco-label to go alongside "organic" and "fair trade." There's a hope that "regenerative agriculture" — building healthy soil — will become the new normal.

There's a caveat, though. The author notes "There's no universally accepted measure of soil health, nor a clear definition of regenerative farming." Each farmer approaches it individually, like Del Ficke of Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, who says he recalls the moment he "heard a call from God to farm in a different way, one that felt closer to the native prairie that used to flourish in eastern Nebraska."8

In essence, an almost tangible appeal to leave the so-called technological, "modern" approach to farming resonated with Ficke, who emphasizes that the soil as we once knew it is "endangered" and that we're running out of time to remedy it. "Tillage," he stresses, "is the most destructive thing in agriculture." NPR notes:

"That's not even controversial anymore. Many farmers have adopted 'no-till' farming, recognizing its environmental benefits. But (after) Ficke … harvests his corn or soybeans, he plants something else on those fields right away — often a mixture of grasses and legumes like cowpeas. On some of that land, he keeps those 'cover crops' growing right on through the next summer, instead of conventional crops like corn. His cattle graze on those fields the way bison once grazed on the prairie."9

In this way, decaying roots, as well as manure and urine from grazing cattle in resting soil, are enriched, growing darker, more fertile and "chock-full of microbes and fungi." The difference today is that, while this isn't new information, the possibility that the soil really can be amended naturally is. As a result, what was scoffed at by investors in the latest chemical-driven farming methods a mere five years ago seems to be taking root.

Is Plant Diversity the Key to Soil Health?

Gabe Brown of Bismarck, North Dakota, contends that "tillage destroys carbon, soil life, structure, infiltration and water holding capacity." Graze Online10 quotes the essence of Brown's farming philosophy: that "no planted crop will build soil health as quickly and completely as a well-managed and very diverse perennial pasture."

Brown's response to his conviction is to load the seed boxes on his no-till drill with 15 to 25 species at a time. His crop diversity ranges from warm and cool season grasses to broadleaf crops; buckwheat to barley; turnips to triticale.

"The crop ground here is seeded to cover crops during the course of the growing season … the goal here is to keep the ground covered and a living root in the soil as much of the year as possible, often with highly diverse 'cocktail' mixes of forages … all for the purpose of providing good forage yields while also building soils."11

Brown also maintains that "mob grazing" is another facet of the operation. He keeps a ratio density of about 685,000 pounds of beef cattle per acre to graze — and meanwhile, trample — about 60 percent of the forage lands, and provide natural fertilizer and other benefits to the soil.

Like Harris' operation, the cattle and plant diversity are symbiotic with the richness of the soil. In addition, Brown quit using commercial fertilizers in 2008 and insecticides or fungicides about 20 years ago. His plan for 2013 was to eliminate the use of herbicides, trusting the plant diversity and cattle grazing to "do their thing." The American Society of Agronomy reported12 that plant roots serve a much greater purpose than many people imagine in regard to nutrition and soil health.

The soil around a plant's roots is referred to as the rhizosphere. You can't see it, but the chemical compounds called exudates are quite different from ordinary soil. At the University of Aberdeen, Paul Hallett and colleagues found that rhizosphere phytochemicals are excreted, somewhat like gastric juices, to "liberate" soil nutrients as an important component of soil microbiome. According to Science Daily:

"Exudates also have an important role in holding soil together. Roots and fungi that live in the soil hold together larger clumps of soil, but exudates work on the micro level. Like glue, they hold together soil particles in important mechanical networks. Soil scientists call these soil networks aggregates."13

However, "Whereas the binding effects of roots and fungal networks are usually long-term, exudates' influence on the soil can be fleeting; root exudates don't have a long-term effect, and the type of soil, whether clay, loam or sand, for instance, can vary."14 As for Brown's farming, his experimentation took a few hits over a few seasons, but he's convinced that "failure" is the only way to push the envelope, thereby putting the "tried" into the "true.

He's convinced, as surrounding farmers who once speculated over the sustainability of his methods have become convinced, that it's worth it in the long run. Jay Fuhrer of Burleigh County, North Dakota's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) observed that many of the area's farmers have modified their methods, at least on portions of their land, in that way "taking important steps toward improving soil health and moisture retention in precipitation-challenged central North Dakota."15

Agricultural Scientists Have Been Doing Their Homework, Too

In 2017, the journal Environmental Science & Technology published a study16 making the case for recycling livestock manure as at least a partial substitute for synthetic fertilization, in part to alleviate environmental degradation due to the effects of nitrogen. That in turn might affect food security and soil greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers explored its effect on crop productivity, yield and use efficiency, as well as:

"Reactive (nitrogen) losses (ammonia emission, nitrogen leaching and runoff), (methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide) emissions and soil organic carbon sequestration in agroecosystems … We conducted a global meta-analysis of 141 studies and found that substituting livestock manure for synthetic (nitrogen) fertilizer significantly increased crop yield by 4.4 percent and significantly decreased reactive nitrogen losses."17

Testing in different soil types, including paddy fields and hill areas, the scientists found that using "real" manure decreased ammonia emissions by 26.8 percent; nitrogen leaching by 28.9 percent and nitrogen runoff by 26.2 percent. The property or viability of the soil organic carbon, or SOC, was also "significantly increased." The upshot: Recycling livestock manure in agroecosystems was recommended, as it improves crop productivity, reduces reactive nitrogen pollution and increases the viability of the soil.

NPR notes that when carbon is replaced in the soil, the effects of reduced fertilizer reduce erosion, and soil with decaying roots and accompanying microbes soak up water like a sponge, so plant nutrients perpetuate themselves naturally. However, while these facts may be acknowledged across the board, getting farmers in place economically to "reverse the bus," as it were, is one of the biggest hurdles in the entire farming industry.

"That's the catch. Planting those additional soil-building cover crops costs money up-front … and it takes years to see the benefits. This is the main reason why only 5 or 10 percent of farmers in Iowa are really doing it."18

Yes, avant-garde farmers and their talk of helping the environment by regenerating the soil naturally may have been regarded skeptically by their neighbors at first, but now some of the most influential voices in the industry have been taking the conversation seriously, including Monsanto, General Mills and Walmart, according to NPR, and more than one prestigious environmental organization.

There's a little healthy skepticism regarding the underlying motives behind big money backing endeavors toward soil health. For his part, Ficke doesn't necessarily trust that the enthusiasm is genuine. There's just too much money on the line. As Permaculture Voices notes: "Converting a conventional operation requires a lot of commitment and determination on behalf of the decision maker. In corporate industrial farming operations that can be tough due to the bureaucracy of power."19

Then there's the question of the best soil for different areas and what "regenerative farming" means from region to region. There's still a lot of speculation and, understandably, trepidation; farmers et al. have poured what may amount to billions of dollars into equipment, materials and supplies, with the threat that the inertia-driven farming philosophies would come to a screeching halt.

Still, for the farmers who put their lives and livelihoods on the line to determine for themselves — and for others looking on — all are convinced it's worth it, not only for the conjecture of symbiosis but for the sake of soil health, which one way or another affects all of us. But it's not just for huge farming operations consisting of hundreds of acres. You can enrich the soil in your own backyard garden.

  • Try planting cover crops in between the harvesting of your tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli and beets.
  • Your current lawn and ornamental plants could be transitioned to become more vegetables and other edibles.
  • Even if you have only a patio, porch or flower pot, you can grow sprouts, herbs, vegetables and even fruit trees, according to Rodale's Organic Life.20

Eating foods that are grown organically and with nutritionally charged roots is not just a good idea. Changing the toxic agricultural systems that have been set up and locked in place to grow "bigger and better" crops is crucial to the health and survival of future generations, not only in the U.S., but the world.