Discussing Pastured Pork With Kit Garrett From Blue Dog Bakery


Welcome, everyone. I’m Greg Fleischaker with the Thoughtful Cooking Podcast. Today, I’m sitting down with Kit Garrett from Blue Dog Bakery here in Louisville to discuss, of all things, pastured pork. Now Blue Dog Bakery I believe was established in 1998 and quickly became entrenched as Louisville’s go-to source for topnotch artisan breads and now is also a dining destination of its own with the in-store café. A few years ago, Kit and her husband, Bob, branched out and started raising pigs on a farm a few miles outside of Louisville, and that’s what I’m here today to discuss.

First, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I appreciate your time.

Kit:    Thank you.

Greg:    Secondly, I guess I should mention, as you already know, I’m a customer of yours, have been for quite a few years, so between the bread and the pork, big fan and really looking forward to learning a little bit about the process and your motivation to pursue the pig farming that you do.

I’m curious, what led you all to branch out from Blue Dog Bakery to raising pigs?

Kit:    We traveled to Europe in 2002 and 2004 and had the opportunity to enjoy some of the charcuterie that’s over there, also the cured meats that they do in Spain. We were able to visit a pig farm in Spain. My husband later returned and actually was part of a family pig-slaughtering process where they take one whole animal, start to finish, and break it down. My husband, Bob, just became absolutely obsessed with the possibility of making great pork. He tried to find pork locally that would suit his needs, but the sources were unreliable and buying commodity pork just didn’t give him the quality product that he wanted. We took a giant leap seven years ago and bought our first breeding trio of Red Wattle pigs to start farrowing and raising our own animals.

Greg:    What is farrowing?

Kit:    Farrowing is actually birthing.

Greg:    Okay.

Kit:    We actually take them from birth to processing. The whole lifespan of our pigs is under our care so that we know what they’ve been fed the entire time, we know their genetics. Bobby is now trying to branch out into exploring the genetic possibilities as well.

Greg:    You mean between different types of pigs bred to each other to make his ideal pig?

Kit:    Yes. We started with the Red Wattles, which are known for their tasty meat, but Mulefoot pigs are known for having fabulous hams. We are now crossbreeding the two to try and create great hams and tasty pork.

Greg:    It sounds like there are a couple of different types of breeds of pigs. Is it sort of like dogs? I guess most people think of packaged pork and that’s it, right? It’s pork. Once you get into the industry a little bit, you’re telling me there are different kinds of breeds and they have different characteristics? Are there a lot to choose from? Are there only a couple?

Kit:    There’s not a lot, maybe a handful of different breeds, but there are several Heritage breeds. The Red Wattle and Mulefoot are two of those. Most of them were on the brink of extinction and thanks to the local foods movement and the emphasis on sustainability, more people are trying to bring these animals back. Even in the seven years that we’ve been doing it, we have seen more and more people trying to at least try their hand at it.

Greg:    Sustainability, that’s a pretty big word nowadays, and I’m curious. When you say it, does that mean sustainability for your farm, that you can keep your farm and your animals continuing? Or is that a bigger ideal, so maybe regionally or maybe nationally? What does sustainability mean to you?

Kit:    I think it’s become a real catch phrase and I think it gets bandied about a lot and used probably in situations where it’s not really accurate. To us, it means utilizing our land … It’s not our land, we’re tenant farmers. Respecting the land that our animals are on, putting it to good use, and having it continue to be of value for the future. It goes broader than just our farm because we are bringing that sustainable product to the larger Louisville market and hopefully broadening people’s awareness of the need to support some of these small farmers who aren’t going to make it if we aren’t buying their products.

Greg:    Can I juxtapose what you’re saying here with … The pork you find in a grocery store is, I assume, not sustainable in the same sense that you’re using the word. When you raise a pig, the farmland, it’s healthy, right? When a big commercial operation … They’re sort of killing the land that they raise the pigs on? Is that right or am I reading too many horror stories in the news?

Kit:    I think that commodity pork has its place, and my husband would certainly say the same thing, because not everyone can afford to buy meat that’s essentially been hand-carried through the whole process. It doesn’t offer the opportunity to preserve the landscape as much. There are issues that evolve from the housing that commodity pork is kept in and the lagoons that are required, but we do know some farmers who are keeping their animals indoors and doing it under biodynamic conditions and they create a wonderful product, too. I think you have to look at it on a case-by-case basis and that’s why it’s so important to know where your food is actually coming from.

Greg:    There’s a wide range, it sounds like, of conditions under which pork can be raised, and you’re saying kind of as a consumer, it’s up to us to know what we want, find what we want, find what we’re comfortable with and hopefully be able to afford whatever, where on that scale we want to fall?

Kit:    I truly believe that, because you could … There’s a group called the Rodale Institute that just published, or actually they just constructed a new facility for raising pork that gives them the opportunity to come back to a central location. They can go out onto pasture, but then they come back to a central location to feed, to sleep, to farrow. Yes, they do get the opportunity to be on pasture, but they’re not rotating through as large an area as, say, we might be trying to do it on our farm. It’s a whole different package deal, but it’s still raising the animals without the use of antibiotics, without the use of growth hormones. It’s what I could call a natural pork product as opposed to maybe just pasture raised.

Greg:    Okay. Wow, there’s really a lot to go back and discuss. You’re saying a lot. Not that this is the prettiest subject to touch on, but I’m curious. The lagoons that you talked about on the … What are you calling it, commoditized, commodity?

Kit:    Commodity pork.

Greg:    Commodity pork. That’s the waste product from the animals, correct?

Kit:    Yes.

Greg:    On a smaller farm like yours, the waste product I’m guessing sort of naturally becomes part of the earth. Is that correct?

Kit:    Exactly. We are actually on what has historically been a horse farm. The pastures were beaten down. The weeds had pretty much overtaken, because the good quality grasses had been beaten down or eaten by the horses. You could see the tread marks all around the edges of the corrals where they would walk the perimeter. In the three or four years that we’ve been at Wildwood Farm, we’ve seen those pastures start to come back. We do re-seed our pastures with a mixture of forage materials for our pigs, but the fact that their manure is being turned back into that earth is a part of that process of rejuvenating the soil and making it come back to life.

Greg:    Then part of that, and this is off topic a little bit, but part of getting the greenery back and making the pastures come back is that it sequesters from the carbon in the atmosphere so that not only is it good for the land, is it good for the animals, but we’re also taking some of the carbon out of the atmosphere and on a small scale fighting global warming. I wanted to address … I kind of forgot where we were.
You were talking about cost, that your product is more expensive, but I was curious as we were talking about the waste material and the lagoons. If we factored in the environmental cost or shared social cost that we have to pay to clean up some of these spills or pay for a highway to get a truck from big plant A to big plant B, do you think if some of those costs were evened out that your product would be more expensive? Or are you saying that because it’s sort of the difference between a hand-crafted commodity versus a mass-produced, it’s always going to be a little bit more expensive?

Kit:    I guess the producer of the commodity pork isn’t bearing those expenses, so we as consumers are shouldering that burden for some of those cleanups and things like that, but the producers are probably still able to sell their pork at a much lower cost than what we can do.

Greg:    Right, so that’s more of a game I play with myself about equalizing cost and not really a real world. I still have to pay the difference when it gets down to it.

Kit:    Exactly.

Greg:    Okay.

Kit:    Exactly.

Greg:    Okay. Full disclosure, I’ve ordered, I think, a full hog and a half hog from you before, and I went through the whole hog that you sent and priced it out per pound compared to what I might find at a grocery store. I did find that it was more expensive than most grocery stores, but I went to Whole Foods and I found theirs to be almost the equivalent, price-wise, but that your pig is … What is it, twenty miles away?

Kit:    Right.

Greg:    It really is as local as it gets and you’re telling me that it’s antibiotic- and hormone-free or added hormone-free?

Kit:    Right.

Greg:    Okay. It seems to me that if you’re a consumer who’s interested in that kind of quality that it’s not priced that much differently than a lot of other products you might find.

Kit:    Oh, there’s no question that pricewise we’re in the same ballpark as a Whole Foods, but a Whole Foods versus some of the other products that are out there-

Greg:    There’s a difference.

Kit:    Yeah, there is a big difference.

Greg:    Yeah. What about taste? I’m curious, is there a taste difference between the breeds or what time of year you might harvest a pig? Is it depending on what it’s fed? Is it kind of along those lines?

Kit:    I think the pig’s diet makes a huge difference in what the meat tastes like and also what the fat tastes like. I was always one of those people who dieted to the point of never consuming any fat, certainly not visible fat that I could refrain from taking in. The fat even on our pigs is so tasty that you just can’t let any of it go to waste. We have a custom feed mix that we feed our pigs based on what we’ve seen in Europe and other places.

Again, as I said, we also have foraging materials in the pastures and I do think it makes a huge difference. If you feed a pig a straight diet of corn and there’s no differentiation in what they can consume, it’s just kind of a bland piece of meat. The fact that the marketing strategy for commodity pork for such a long time was the other white meat is ludicrous when you look at meat from a Heritage pig, because our meat is red and it should be red if the pork is raised properly and is as flavorful as it has the potential to be.

Greg:    You’re not as scared as much anymore of fat on the pig?

Kit:    No, not at all.

Greg:    Or you eat the fat from the pig?

Kit:    I do eat it.

Greg:    You all use the entire pig, right? You make bacon. You can get pork chops, pork loin, tenderloin, shoulder, sausage, everything, right?

Kit:    Yes. Our goal is to raise the pigs and use them from head to tail. When we open our new facility, Red Hog, that’s also the basis for … What we’re going for is to use the entire animal, from its ears to its trotters, and everything in between.

Greg:    I’ve gotten stock from you and frying fat. Right?

Kit:    Yeah. We do regular lard and leaf lard. We have pork broth that’s available. We render the bones and render the fat and try and get every little bit out of them that we can.

Greg:    Absolutely. I looked around on your website a little bit and saw a video that Bob was talking about … He’s looking to cure some meat or looking for the perfect hog to cure. I get confused when I walk through a grocery store because I see some packaging that says uncured. Are there different meanings to what cured means or some packaging different from what Bob’s talking about when he says cured?

Kit:    It’s probably more method, methodology, as far as what you do. A lot of the “curing” that’s done in Kentucky is more like smoking. Country ham is something that Kentucky is known for, and that’s a smoked item. Cured items, they tend to use, again, different products, but some of the more commercially produced things have more additives that create that curing process, where Bobby does it more over time. He does use … Depending on what the item is, it might be salt, sugar, but most of it is time.

Greg:    Okay. He’s got to be thinking well out in advance. By the time I get the product at home, you guys have been working on this for, what, months or years?

Kit:    Depending on the product.

Greg:    Depending on the product.

Kit:    Yeah. It’s how soon it loses the … He could do this better than I can as far as … He actually weighs a ham at the beginning of the process, and then all along the way to see how much moisture is gone out of it, to determine if it’s dried enough. It’s in different conditions at different stages in the process, different levels of humidity, different levels of temperature. It could be three years old before you ever taste the ham that he’s producing now.

Greg:    I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t had one, but I’m looking forward to it. I have a couple of more questions. I really do appreciate the time. Just a minute ago, you were talking about earlier in your life being a little fat-phobic in your eating and your dieting and now you’re not. Are there health benefits? Do you know if there are health benefits between the difference, the kind of pigs you raise and the commodity pigs? Is it only taste? Is it only morality, like I feel better about myself when I eat the pigs that you sell me versus some other large, huge, multinational business? I can pat myself on the back, but is there maybe something else going on?

Kit:    I think that most of us are aware that the addition of antibiotics during the growth process is not advantageous to us as consumers when we enjoy an end product or try to enjoy it. The supplementing of diets with growth hormones is the same way. I do think that those impact flavor, but they also impact the level of health benefits that you might be getting from that product that you’re consuming. I can’t give you a nutritional analysis, but I know that the fat in the Heritage pigs is a better quality. There was a recent article … Maybe not recent, but there was an article in Food & Wine, because my husband and I were actually looking up the value of lard versus, say, a hydrogenated oil or something like that. Lard came out on top as a winner because the unsaturated fats in it, or the good fats, are at a much higher level than in other products that you might be using for cooking.

Greg:    Oh, okay. It’s actually a little bit of a different color, isn’t it? The lard or the fat on the chops, for instance, that I get from you, it’s actually a little bit different color. It looks like it’s being affected by what the pig ate, going back to what we were talking about earlier, as opposed to being just a colorless, something … It looks different than what you find in-

Kit:    Colorless and flavorless.

Greg:    I guess what I was wondering is if the stress of a pig growing up in a commodity, in a big farming operation might either make it taste worse or might make it less nutritious. I don’t know how you sort of track that down versus growing up on a pasture, on a more humane environment.

Kit:    You can see the effects of stress in the animal after it’s been processed. The highly stressed animal tends to hold more water as well. I can’t remember the name. Again, Bobby would know, but there’s a name for that when it’s … Yeah, I’m going to floor that one.

Greg:    That’s fine.

Kit:    Anyway, I know that when we’ve taken our animals to the processor, Bobby takes just a few at a time. He’s had to work with the processors on offloading animals so that it’s gentle and they’re going back off onto grass so there’s no stress, because stress at the final hour, after they’ve had this idyllic life, also shows up in the meat. You’ll see blood spotting or the water-saturated meat that is not what is a quality end product.

Greg:    If you were not being careful at the very end, you could undo all the work you did, that both of you did, raising the pig?

Kit:    Oh, absolutely. You can do it at that eleventh hour.

Greg:    Wow, okay. It looks like we’re nearing the end of the time and before I let you go, sorry, I’d like to ask you one more question. Any time I get to talk with people who obviously enjoy food and spend a great deal of time thinking about food, I like to ask this question. Curious if over the last few weeks or months if you can think of maybe a favorite meal or a dish or maybe even a snack that for whatever reason just sort of sticks out in your mind, it just worked for you. If you’re okay, maybe share that with us.

Kit:    This past week my husband started experimenting with nduja, which is a cured item from the pork. It’s heavy on fat, uses a lot of spices and paprika, some peppers. It actually is almost in like a spreadable form when it’s ready to use. He spread that on toasted levain and added a variety of cheeses, three different cheeses. Made grilled cheese sandwiches with fresh tomatoes from the garden and just a little bit of green on there, and it was absolutely delicious.

Greg:    Yes, it sounds like it. That sounds delightful. If someone’s listening and they want to try any of the things you’ve mentioned or if they would like to pick some pork up, is there a place locally that they can find you?

Kit:    Yes. We do sell our products at Blue Dog Bakery. We are also at the Douglass Loop Farmers Market on Saturdays with a selection of our pork. Then by year’s end, we hope to have Red Hog Butcher Shop open where you’ll be able to buy not only our pork but other locally raised animals that have been well taken care of throughout their lifetime.

Greg:    All pork or all sorts of …?

Kit:    No. we’re going to do all animals. We’re going to have bison, lamb, poultry.

Greg:    Wow. All right, well, you know I’ll be there.

Kit:    That would be great. We would love to see you.

Greg:    I appreciate your time today.

Kit:    Okay, thank you, Greg.

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