The young hogs oinking away as they pressed up to the gate of the finishing barn at this Kerkhoven, Minnesota farm are a source of pride for Ruth and Jeff Goldenstein. The pigs scatter as the couple's dog, Bosco, barks at them, but they quickly return.
Ruth grabs a couple of piglets to show a visitor, proclaiming their cuteness.
"It's about the only time they are cute," Jeff said of their hogs, laughing.
The white faces, feet and tails on the otherwise black pigs mark them as Berkshire hogs, a breed that nearly disappeared but is undergoing a renaissance. At a time when pork is promoted as "The Other White Meat" and lean reigns supreme, Berkshires are a step back in time. Their meat is redder and marbled like a beef steak.
That makes it juicier, more flavorful and more tender, according to chefs at high-end restaurants, demanding consumers around the world and the family farmers that are part of a small but growing movement away from mass produced "commodity pork" toward tastier pork.
As small-scale hog producers look for ways to survive in a market dominated by a few big packers, they're carving out niches, developing markets abroad and finding customers at home willing to pay extra for a premium product. Some specialize in heirloom breeds such as the Berkshire. Others offer natural or organic pork and more humane treatment of their animals. Some hog farmers sell directly to consumers.
"In this country we have for years told our people that 'lean meat, lean meat, lean meat' is the answer," said Pete Hoffman, an animal science professor at Iowa State University and president of the American Berkshire Association.
That's led to pork that can be dry, tough and low on flavor, but consumers buy it anyway because they're trying to avoid fat, Hoffman said. The industry often tries to compensate by pumping pork full of water to make it more palatable, but consumers would actually prefer the taste of pork that's not so lean, he said.
The overall niche pork market is small enough that that U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't keep statistics on it, said Mildred Haley, a pork analyst with the agency. But she and other industry observers agreed it is expanding.
Ronald Plain, a livestock economist with the University of Missouri, said he's not sure if all the various niches would add up to 2 percent of the pork market just yet. But he said food is so cheap for the average American that a growing number will pay extra for something different, so he expects the niche pork market to keep growing.
Hoffman estimated that about 1,500 to 2,000 Berkshire hogs go to market weekly across the country. Most of the pork goes to Japan, where it is known as Kurobuta pork. Customers there prize the higher fat content of the meat, which parallels Kobe beef. It was Japanese demand that sparked the breed's comeback, he said.
The Goldensteins are part of Six Point Berkshire, a marketing group made up of 35 small-scale producers in southwestern Minnesota, named for the distinctive white extremities on the breed. The group sends 95 percent of its production to Japan.
Six Point Berkshire is run by Jeff Goldenstein's cousin, Gene Goldenstein, out of the Farmers Cooperative Elevator Co. in Cottonwood. The group currently markets around 30,000 to 35,000 head annually, but its goal is to reach 40,000 to 45,000 in the next two years, Gene Goldenstein said.
"We could be selling three times as much Berkshire as what we're selling right now -- no problem," Gene said. "The demand is just phenomenal."
But ramping up production takes time, Gene said. Berkshires produce smaller litters and grow slower than more common breeds, which also makes them costlier to raise, and Six Point uses only its own in-house breeding stock.
"If you want to do it right, it takes time. It just does," he said.
Because most Berkshire pork is exported, it's rare to find it in stores, but several companies sell it over the Internet, where an 8-ounce chop can fetch $5 to $15.
And it's turning up across the country in acclaimed restaurants, which often sell it under the flashier Japanese name Kurobuta.
"It's a great, versatile product," said Tom Boyce, chef de cuisine at Spago Beverly Hills in California. "... It's definitely one of our favorite things to cook out here. It's God's favorite animal as far as I'm concerned."
Boyce said the richness of Berkshire pork marries especially well with tart fruit flavors, such as peaches, apples and plums, and earthy flavors, such as porcini mushrooms. He said diners at the celebrity hotspot who might pay $34 for a pork chop are getting a bargain.
The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., has gone to great lengths to get purebred Berkshire pork, said Corey Lee, chef de cuisine.
The Napa Valley landmark is currently using a crossbreed it gets from a small farm in Pennsylvania that uses Berkshire sows and a Duroc boar, Lee said. He said the Duroc adds a little more body to the meat.
"It's a very specific taste," he said. "It doesn't have the generic mild taste of most market pork."
Another growing player in the niche pork business is Niman Ranch, which markets free-range natural pork produced by around 500 farm families in 12 states, concentrated in the Midwest.
"I like to say our animals are raised, they're not manufactured," said Paul Willis, who runs Niman Ranch's pork operations from his farm in Thornton, Iowa.
Niman now ships about 3,000 hogs per week, he said. They end up at retail markets and restaurants across the country, including Whole Foods Markets in some eastern states and Chipotle Mexican Grills nationwide. The hogs are generally crossbreeds, instead of purebreds, and they can't be too lean, he said.
Farmers who are part of Niman Ranch agree to follow strict protocols that prohibit antibiotics, growth-promoting hormones and feed containing meat or meat byproducts. Hogs must be raised on pasture or in pens with deep straw beds, and meet standards for humane treatment.
"I get a chance to travel around the country and talk to chefs," Willis said. "I don't know how many times people told me, 'I don't know what you do, but this is the best pork I've ever tasted in my life."'
On the Net:
National Pork Board niche pork site
American Berkshire Association
Six Point Berkshire
By Steve Karnowski, Associated Press Writer
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)