Friends of Farming
San Diego County
One could say that Cook Pigs started with a bit of an odd obsession with pigs. In 2011 Krystina and Mike Cook were living in Fallbrook and had recently welcomed their second child into their lives. They were becoming more intentional about what food they were feeding their growing family, and looked into raising a pig for their own consumption. Krystina got into it. Really into it. “My whole family thought I had a serious problem with pigs. They actually thought that maybe I had post-partum depression, because this was bizarre. It was a bizarre obsession,” she says.
Out of that obsession started a small business. Krys and Mike raised heirloom breed hogs for themselves and began reaching out to farm to table restaurants to sell a few. At that point Krys realized something. “I learned I was pretty good at marketing, and we had this really niche market. I started getting chefs excited about it in LA and all of a sudden we got these write-ups in the LA Times and LA Weekly. I could have been selling a ton of pigs a week.”
It was at that point the extended family took a closer look at what Krys and Mike were doing, and soon put a business plan together. The Cooks sold their home in Fallbrook and with financial backing from the rest of the family bought a larger property in Julian. In Fallbrook, they had only room for 20 pigs on the property at a time. In Julian, over 400 pigs of nine distinct heritage breeds roam freely through a carefully designed environment.
The environment at Cook Pigs Ranch is designed to mimic the Iberian Peninsula where the world famous Iberico pigs are produced. “Iberico is the highest quality pork in the world. If you can get it, it sells for $150-200 per pound here. Here in Julian, we’re right under 5,000 ft. elevation and we’ve mimicked an Iberico pig, to the extreme now. We’ve placed them on rolling hills just for that purpose, and under oak trees which we are very specific about the kind of oak trees and the acorns. We take a lot of pride in this, and the pigs are living a supreme type of life,” Krys explains.
Krys doesn’t mince words when she describes what sets their pork apart. “We’re about trying to preserve the heritage breeds. I’m about selling this pork to people that respect it as much as we do here. The chefs that are putting it on their menu, they label it as a Cook Pig and that’s not part of a deal we make. If you’re going to spend that much money, then people should know and care where it’s coming from, and respect the animal as much on the plate as it is here on the ranch. So when people complain about our prices, sometimes we do have room to move, but if you’re comparing us to a high end Smithfield brand, to us that’s insulting. That’s not even close. The conditions our pigs live in we take a lot of pride in. I say it’s transparent farming. We want people to come here. We have open ranch days all the time. We want people to know about their food, and be informed and educated.”
Aside from being able to roam around the property Krys describes as “hog heaven” and eat wild acorns, Cook Pigs are also on a free feed program of a specialized food Krys developed with a swine nutritionist that keeps them naturally dewormed and healthy. “This whole property, if I was to describe our farm technique, is psychological. I’m a serious crazy pig person. We do everything for the pigs that is designed to make them happy and make them stress free.”
Cook Pigs is doing more than raising and selling their own happy hogs. In November last year, they opened a USDA certified cut and wrap meat processing and retail shop in Kearny Mesa, sharing block space with other notable food purveyors like the Meat Men and Societe Brewing. It is the only USDA certified cut and wrap facility in the region. For swine, the next closest is in Fresno. Now, local livestock producers can get animals processed to USDA standards allowing that meat to be sold individually packaged at the retail level. This has already made a significant difference to one local farm.
Paul Grieb is a co-owner of Primal Pastures, a farm in Temecula raising pastured lamb, chickens, and beef. They market their products almost exclusively online. “Customers order online, then we have farm to door stuff on delivery throughout Southern California,” he explains. Having Cook Pigs’ new facility in their relative backyard has expanded what Primal Pastures can offer customers. “Previously we had to have our meats butchered up in Paso Robles, but having them here is so much closer and convenient,” says Grieb. “We need USDA certification to sell to our customers, and Paso Robles was the closest. It’s a lot more convenient now. We can do smaller quantity batches because the transportation isn’t so bad. It keeps it in the community. If we raise, kill, butcher, and consume it here, that makes a lot more sense than driving it all over God’s green earth.” Plus, he adds, it gives them confidence in the product. “It’s good insurance for us; once it’s stamped USDA we know it’s been fully inspected and it’s safe. I guess that’s kind of the purpose; USDA is there to verify health and safety and cleanliness, but it’s better for the customer knowing that the food safety is there.”
Krys admits that it’s been a slow start on the processing side. “We haven’t had a huge outpouring of ranchers, but we’ve had a few,” she says. It’s a chicken and egg conundrum; there aren’t a lot of livestock producers doing direct marketing because there was never a USDA facility near enough to make the finances pencil out. Now there’s a facility and the Cooks are hoping it’s a build it and they will come scenario. But having the facility, “it controls our product, and that’s the largest part of it,” she says. “We have such a really niche clientele, and they change their cut and wrap orders every week. We couldn’t outsource that now, it’s way too custom.”
Looking ahead, “I think that one day there will be, I hope, more ranchers. Especially if we can get a slaughter facility set up here, then that’d be a huge deal. But that’s a huge feat, and we’re not going to do that,” Krys says laughing. Then again, Krys’s family thought she was crazy for looking at how to raise pigs.
Friends of Farming San Diego County 420 South Broadway, Suite 200, Escondido, CA 92025 760-745-3023 firstname.lastname@example.org