Tag: farmer


Larry and Madonna - Lazy S. Farms – La Plata, Missouri

Larry Sorrell, Red Wattle Pig Farmer

When you see Red Wattle pork on a menu, what you are seeing is a five-state, fifteen farm network dedicated to raising a storied breed that was once upon a time nearly extinct.

Larry Sorrell is one of the heroes of this story, an avatar of the heritage food movement, a salt of the earth farmer, a true believer who was destined to become the Guardian of the Red Wattle. He is proof positive of the ethos that when it comes to endangered livestock, “you have to eat them to save them.”

In the beginning, back in 2004 when Patrick Martins began Heritage Foods, a market for the Red Wattle was built on handshake agreement with Mark Ladner, then the chef at Mario Batali’s Lupa, who recognized the high-quality and undiminished taste that came from a Red Wattle pig raised on-pasture, chemical free, humanely, using traditional farming methods. The deal with Ladner, and the partnership with Larry and his Lazy S farms, were truly the origins of Heritage Foods.

“We traveled 18,000 miles to get started,” Larry says matter-of-factly about a Heritage Foods Odyssey whose mission was to search out rare Red Wattle sows and collect a viable genetic lineage of this incredible pig whose American legacy goes back to 17th century New Orleans. “When we began, we had two Red Wattle gilts and a boar, and we had to travel all over the United States to start a herd.

“The Red Wattle was on their way to being extinct, we had to rasise ‘em to eat ‘em or they were going to disappear, that’s where it was at. When I started delivering hogs for Patrick, he had just started Heritage. He’s the one that really got the breed going – he got the meat to the chefs. They loved it and it grew from there….

“Now I’ve kinda retired from raising animals, but we have fifteen Amish growers working with us, and I pick up the hogs and pay for them, and then bring them to the processor, Paradise Locker. I drive a tractor trailer and go around picking up three-hundered pounders, fifty head a week. We have farms in Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa… that’s a lot of traveling, We may have four or five pick-ups every week. You wear out a truck pretty fast.”

Larry, now “pushing eighty,” still does all the driving. “I’ll have to quit sometime but right now it’s going pretty good. The driving is easy. The hard job is you gotta keep fifteen Amish families happy, picking up their hogs, coordinating farmers on the phone, monitoring the size of the animals and making sure we have the right amount— each week we round up fifty pigs. And we’ve been doing it for fourteen years now.”

“When we began,” Patrick says, “farmers were willing to sell their Red Wattle pigs since there was no market for them. Larry went out and helped us begin spreading the word on existing farms, and also got new farmers interested. What Larry has done to promote the Red Wattle breed has literally saved it. Red Wattle is still considered a rare breed by the American Livestock Conservatory, but has been upgraded off their ‘critical list’ to ‘threatened.’

“This is our most powerful statement. People associate Heritage Foods and Red Wattle – no one else sells this breed. We work with fifteen farms and each bite is an epiphany. The New York Times food critic Frank Bruni, in his final article for the paper, wrote that the Heritage Red Wattle country rib at the Brooklyn restaurant Vinegar Hill was one of the best bites of food in his entire career.”

It’s been a long strange trip for the Red Wattle — Legend has it that French colonialists brought the pigs to Louisiana all the way from New Caldonia, so favored were they for their flavor, bold enough to stand up to any local cuisine. Now they are the toast of the town in New York City and gaining popularity across the United States, served in some of the most discerning restaurants, and becoming the go-to pork chop for demanding home cooks.

All talk of animals aside, there are dozens of people involved in bringing thousands of Heritage Red Wattle pigs to market each year, a remarkable consortium of like-minded folks from diverse American cultures, from Larry and his wife Madonna (their nine kids left the roost years ago), to the fifteen Amish family farms who raise these beautiful beasts; the team at Paradise Locker in Trimble, MO, the exalted processor of all this meat; and Patrick Martins, the Pig Man of Brooklyn, who somehow holds it all together. So how does Larry get along with everyone? “Well,” he says, with the coyness of an old-school Kansas farmer, “You can’t work for somebody for fourteen years and not like them at least a little bit.”

Heritage Turkey Premiere: An Interview with Frank Reese

Heritage Turkey Premiere: An Interview with Frank Reese

 

“I have baby turkeys everywhere!”

It’s that time of year, summer in Kansas, and the heat is rising. “Turkeys have to be hatched before June to be ready for Thanksgiving,” says Frank Reese. “But these birds do real well in the heat – they aren’t morbidly obese, so they can handle it. And unlike on an industrial farm, they have trees and shade and get plenty of fresh water… commercial turkeys suffer a lot in the heat. Those birds have been genetically selected to grow as fast as possible.”

“A turkey is no better than the farmer behind it. And the genetics, of course,” says Frank, whose turkeys are one of the only flocks in America to receive certification by the American Poultry Association as purebreds, standards that were set in 1873.

“The biggest thing this year is that we’ve added three new farms to meet a bigger demand. We never seem to have enough — hopefully this year if everything goes well we’ll have twice as many turkeys as last year. But it’s still a drop in the bucket — our four farmers together are going to raise what one big commercial plant will do in a week

“What people don’t realize that when you send turkeys to get processed, they don’t all come out as birds in a bag — some birds are bruised and you can’t sell it as a whole Grade A bird. Truthfully we lose very few turkeys to cosmetic things — but to the big guys, they don’t care as much about their animals because they don’t make money off of whole turkeys, they make money off of deli meat. For an industrial producer, that’s where the money is. For them a whole turkey at Thanksgiving is like a giveaway. But when that turkey you usually sell for 99 cents a pound is instead smoked and put in an eight ounce package that now costs five dollars, you’re now selling that same bird for ten bucks a pound. And that’s why they only sell hens as whole birds — their toms they get up to 40 lbs in 14 weeks and sell as deli meat.”

An industrial turkey farm can get a 20 lb. hen in 12 weeks, or a 40 lb tom in 14 weeks. My hens, in 12 weeks only weigh 7 or 8 lbs – and we won’t process them till 24 or 28 weeks when their live weight is 15-16 lbs. My toms —  in 24 weeks weigh 24 lbs— a commercial factory turkey in that much time would weigh 44 lbs, and they don’t quit growing. They’ll get to 50 – 60 lbs and weigh too much for their legs to carry. I don’t lose any turkeys because of obesity because I haven’t selected them to be so fat that they cant live.

“The industry has made their money off of uniformity… there can be no variance, no difference. My turkeys don’t all come out the same – it is a totally different system.

“All the industrial turkeys have salt water added – they call it flavor enhancers – but sometimes its more than just salt. They figure most people don’t know how to cook a bird properly, and they figure it will keep the turkey from turning into dry leather. The truth is that because they raise these birds so fast and kill them so young, they don’t develop a layer of fat. My birds are harvested at a normal age and maturity, and having that maturity brings taste, flavor, texture. The industry has removed that — what people are used to now, the taste of turkey they think they love, is mostly just added salt.

Long-time Heritage customers know that we got our start selling Frank’s turkeys, and our relationship with him truly is the cornerstone of our business. Frank can count among his fans Alice Waters, who says “These birds are without a doubt the tastiest birds you can possibly serve,” and Mario Batali, who proudly claims “I’ve served these birds for my Thanksgiving every year for the past 12 years and always will.”

Frank is a true hero of the heritage food movement — he is the first and one of the only sustainable commercial farmers to receive certification by the American Poultry Association, and the USDA, for his birds as purebreds— and he has been featured in publications ranging from The New York Times to National Geographic. His story is the Rosetta Stone of sustainable farming, and the reason why when it comes to meat, the word “heritage” is synonymous with “heirloom.” Good Shepherd turkeys are the oldest line of turkey in America, 100 percent antibiotic free, and pasture raised on the Kansas prairie.

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