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The Search for the Happiest Pigs

Yker Acres owner Matt Weik with Minnie, one of the Minnesota farm’s Large Black sows.

Do happy pigs really taste better? 

Ask around the annual Cochon 555 event and you’ll hear a resounding “yes!” Each year the event comes to Minneapolis to extol the virtues of heritage pigs, their place in the local food community and how family farmers can expand their offerings with the animals. It’s hard to find someone that isn’t drooling, tasting ravenously or lining up for seconds from top Minnesota chefs. 

To Brady Lowe, the founder of the tour and Piggy Bank, there’s no question happy pigs taste better. But there’s a lot more to the project. In tandem, Cochon 555 and nonprofit Piggy Bank educate food communities on the high-quality proteins and empower local family farms with the resources to supply them. 

“There is the social and the community benefit to eating heritage pork. Every time someone eats heritage pork, it’s a direct deposit into family farms,” said Lowe. “That’s a benefit because it ensures that we have family farmers in the future.”

The nonprofit gets breeds like the Large Black, with which Grae Nonas won the Minneapolis leg of the competition in February. This year the winning pig came from Yker Acres in Carlton, which gives the pigs very piggy lives of foraging, plodding around open pastures and general stress-free living all the way to harvest. It means a very different type of pork.

“The first thing you’d notice is the fat content and the intramuscular marbling, that’s massive for flavor,” said Matt Weik, owner of Yker Acres. “Our meat is very deep red, which is an indicator of PH which is part genetics and part the stress-free environment. We go to great lengths to have happy pigs.” 

Weik supplies pork shoulder for Tom Hanson’s new Duluth barbecue concept OMC Smokehouse (which stands for oink, moo, cluck). He said the partnership with local restaurateurs has kept his farm in business. Weik also supplies Duluth Grill, Hanson’s original restaurant and area-favorite, with heritage pork. 

Weik said Piggy Bank is still largely a marketing body, but the organization has aims to become a “genetic ark” for heritage pigs, getting breeding animals to farmers along with business plans and connections to grow. 

That task of communicating the quality with consumers is difficult and one thing Piggy Bank and Cochon 555 are attempting to do. But with a sliver of the resources behind something like grass-fed beef, it’s a tough message to get out. Hence events like Cochon 555, where those virtues are communicated to the industry not through scientific discussions about marbling or biodiversity, but through really, really good food. And while competing at Cochon 555, chef J.D. Fratzke of the Strip Club Meat and Fish said that’s the best message. 

“At the end of the day, it comes down to flavor; hogs that are treated better taste better and a discerning guest will understand that,” said Fratzke, adding that customers seek out high-quality local foods already. “A person who wants to improve their health and think about where their food really comes from is going to do the work to find restaurants that serve things like we do. But we don’t blow a trumpet on our menu.” 

And for chefs looking to get these pigs in the restaurant, it’s just a matter of searching online for local farms or asking around. 

“One of the things I love most about this community we have in greater Minnesota is the fact that it is not cutthroat. Everybody in this room tonight, who I quite frankly want to beat, they’re all my friends and I’d do anything for them,” said Fratzke. “It’s like knocking on your neighbors’ door to get a cup a sugar, that’s what we do here, that’s what Minnesota is all about.” 

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