New breed of pigs
Carl Blake's goal when he started raising pigs four years ago was to breed a great-tasting pig. If the response from high-end chefs from Chicago to San Francisco is any indication, he's accomplishing the goal.
Mr Blake, who describes himself as an Apple evangelist, worked for years as a computer consultant.
With the economic downturn, computer work dried up. His son, Sean, was attending Denver schools, and he wanted him to be able to stay there.
"If I was going to stay in Iowa, I had to find other work, and I had the choice —work in another field and get a low-paying job or go back to what I know," Mr Blake said.
He grew up raising hogs on a New Hartford farm.
Mr Blake read a story about Mangalitsa pigs.
"This fellow imported 29 pigs from Austria because they were so great tasting," Mr Blake said. "It cost thousands of dollars. I called him and asked if the pig was as good as he said. He told me it was better, it was the best pork he'd eaten in his life, and there was nothing like it in the United States."
If the guy had the top-tasting pig and was getting $20 a pound, Mr Blake figured maybe he could fix his sights on the second-, third-, fourth- or fifth-best pigs in the heritage market. He learned that the best-tasting pig in Europe was the Swabian Hall from Germany, according to AgriNews.
"It's protected by the European Union, and the Germans won't let that pig come to the United States," Mr Blake said. "I read that the Swabian Hall was created by King Wilhelm in 1821 in Germany. He mated the Meishan from China with the Russian Wild Boar, indigenous to Germany, to obtain the perfect balance of fat and meat. In 1829 the Swabian Hall was judged the best at the World's Fair. The pig won the World's Fair three more times. I figured if the pig was that good, I'd try to recreate it."
When Mr Blake found that Meishans aren't in the United States, they're in China, he figured he'd have to scrap the idea.
A few weeks later, a friend told him that Iowa State University were studying Meishans as part of genetic research project.
He purchased two boars and two sows from ISU. Two months later, ISU asked if he wanted 14 more Meishans because they were disbanding their programme.
"It was like winning the lottery," Mr Blake said.
ISU had been interested in the Meishan's large litter size and ability to breed at an early age. The pigs are among the fattest in the world, Blake said. Their fat hangs off their frames.
Docile and lazy, the wrinkly Meishans freely roam about Blake's Rustik Rooster Farm near Frederika.
Once he had the Meishans, he located Russian Wild Boar genetics and reproduced what he says is as close to the original Swabian Hall as possible. He calls the resulting black pig, Iowa Swabian Hall.
"The pork is succulent and juicy," Mr Blake said. "You want to eat it all."
Mr Blake also raises Mulefoot hogs, another heritage breed, which he said is a top breed for hams in terms of taste, fat and quality. He rears Ossabaws, which come from an island off the coast of Georgia and are a protected species because they're so rare.
"It's one of the best tasting pigs in the world," Mr Blake said. "George Washington had them on his plantation. Originally half Iberico and half Russian Wild Boar, the pigs were put on the island 500 years ago by Ponce De Leon."
Mr Blake crosses the Ossabaw with the Meishan to create a more succulent pig, which is similar to his Iowa Swabian Hall. He calls it Black Beauty. He is looking to the Large Black breed, a slow growing pig that eventually can weigh 800 to 1,000 pounds. Its hams are 60 pounds.
"I want a pig that is longer, grows faster, has more fat and really dark meat," Mr Blake said. "I am not interested in 'white meat' pigs. I'll take genetics from the Meishan, Russian Wild Boar, Large Black and add the growth rate from Hampshire/Duroc cross to create a 'hogzilla.' It will have the features chefs are wanting."
Mr Blake works in close collaboration with chefs.
"High-end chefs are my market," he said. "They can do so much more with our pigs."
An Iowa Swabian Hall prepared by Chef Staffan Terje from Perbacco in San Francisco won the Cochon555 in San Francisco in 2010. Chefs preparing Iowa Swabian Halls won the 2011 Denver Cochon and came in second in Chicago.
Mr Blake's Iowa Swabian Halls are used by restaurants in Atlanta, Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, New Orleans, St. Louis, San Francisco, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Utah. Iowa chefs in Sioux City and Des Moines as well as the Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon and the Art House Cafe in Waterloo are customers.
Celia Lewis, Queen Elizabeth's royal watercolor artist, painted watercolors of most of Blake's pig breeds. Paintings of the pigs are included in a recent book she published on pigs.
"I am proud to be in the book as well as my pigs," Mr Blake said.
He currently is breeding 120 sows. His goal is to sell 2,000 head of hogs per year and build up the genetics so that he has a 200 sows for breeding.
Coming from the computer business, Mr Blake said he approaches things from a different point of view.
"We're integrating a lot of technology on the farm, kind of like the Jetsons meet Green Acres," Mr Blake said. "We have special software to assist with security and managing pigs. We have equipment that tells us the temperature of the pigs and how much feed and water are flowing. We can watch that from our cell phones."
When his pigs are slaughtered, the head and skin are left on and they're shipped fresh to restaurant customers. Mr Blake is in the process of acquiring his own USDA-approved processing plant. For individuals interested in an Iowa Swabian Hall pig, Blake works with Polashek's Locker Service in Protivin.