The Planted Row: Premium pork gives small farm a chance

Farm Forum

In last week’s column, I mentioned that I attended a “Know Your Farmer” dinner in Aberdeen. What I didn’t mention was that this dinner included locally-grown food.

We ate at The Brass Kettle, a restaurant that is a little out of the norm compared to most of the other restaurants I’ve visited in northeast South Dakota. How out of the norm? Well, they grow most of the greens they use hydroponically in the basement and will soon be installing a rooftop garden to grow even more of the food they serve.

Before I go any further, I should say the food was very good. For example, the salad served with the meal included pork belly and a poached egg. They had me at pork belly. Add in the runny, delicious egg yolk over a bed of fresh greens? I was in heaven. My fellow diners must have been amused to see this Southern boy trying to get every last bit of salad onto my fork.

While the rest of the meal was also excellent, my favorite part was the appetizer – steamed pork buns. The soft steamed buns contained a quick pickled slaw and pork (braised shoulder, if my memory serves). First, let me say that slaw and pork go together like peas and carrots. Every Southerner knows that a proper barbecue sandwich comes with slaw… on the sandwich. So while the pork bun served by The Brass Kettle might have had a serious Asian influence, in my opinion, it had its roots deep in the traditional pulled pork sandwich, and it was fantastic.

The star of the dish, of course, was the pork. The chef explained to us the meat came from Mangalitsa pigs raised near Aberdeen at Bumpy Road Ranch. You can find a story about this operation on page 73F of this paper, but in short, they pasture-raise Mangalitsa pigs and sell the meat locally. Mangalitsa is a heritage breed that many sources have referred to as the Kobe beef of pork. So, of course, the consumer is going to pay much more for pork from this breed of pig.

And therein lies the marvel — for me, at least. Judging solely on the type of food and the type of restaurant I’m used to encountering in these parts, the palate of the Northern Plains seems to be down to earth. Hearty, even. Meat and veggies. Good, solid fare.

But here, near Aberdeen, in a land where most people aren’t far off the farm, we’ve got an operation that manages to raise high-end, niche market pork that sells directly to the consumer or local restaurants. It isn’t a large operation, but it’s a family operation. Would an operation this small be able to survive without the premium price the consumer is willing to pay for its products? Probably not. But the operation is surviving, and even here, the consumer is willing to pay the higher price.

So what am I getting at here?

My point is this: Even in South Dakota, where the average farm size is over 1,300 acres, a small family farm can survive if it is raising the right product and marketing those products to the right buyers. Many farmers I encounter are quick to complain about being vilified by organic farmers and non-GMO-craving consumers. But the value those consumers place on sustainable, locally-grown food allows many families to enjoy a small farm lifestyle that has become quite rare since the 1970s. When I look at the high price of ag land these days, I wonder how someone just starting out in farming or ranching can make it.

A place like Bumpy Road Ranch provides the answer. Many larger farmers might take offense at the marketing strategies that allow small operations to survive, but personally, I’m glad those small farmers have a fighting chance.