Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Sgt. Major is a big player. The enormous pig with proportionally enormous balls is the male hog responsible for fathering the majority of the pigs at Spring House Farm in Lovettsville, Virginia. The property, run by farmer Andrew “Boss Hog” Crush, spans 400 acres in Loudoun County’s wine country. Goats, rabbits, chickens, cattle, and honeybees are also integral to the operation, but Spring House Farm is a true pig paradise.
Pigs there are raised on pasture land feeding on grubs, grass, and supplemental feed until they reach 100 pounds. “When they’re big enough to protect themselves from coyotes, we move them onto the mountain,” Crush explains. “They forage on worms, snakes, acorns, and whatever other cool stuff they can find.” The pigs eat so well on this 80-acre mountain resort that it takes three days to trap them when it’s time to process them humanely and without stress.
Compare this bucolic scene to the sad existence of a “commodity pig,” or the type of pork most commonly consumed after a trip to the grocery store. Since there’s a thing called YouTube, there’s no need to go into the Upton Sinclarian details, but Crush explains commodity pigs live in confinement above grates and feed on modified corn and soybeans. Sometimes they’re pumped full of antibiotics.
When it comes to consumption, you can taste the difference because pork absorbs more flavor than any other meat. That flavor comes from where the pig lived and what it ate, much like a wine’s terroir. Crush says most consumers don’t think pork has much flavor because they’ve only tasted the commodity kind.
Worse yet, sometimes restaurants pass off commodity pork as responsibly raised pork that came from a family farm like Spring House. Fibbing about farm-to-table endangers people like Crush. “That is a big concern to us because if they’re giving you a commodity-style product and they’re telling you it’s farm-to-fork, then you’re like, Ooh, it’s not really that good.’ You’re not going to want to justify paying the extra money.”
Crush says he’s had to call restaurants to ask them to buy something from the farm or take the farm’s name off the menu. “It’s been on your menu for three years, but you just bought a little honey four years ago,” he provides as an example, unwilling to name the offending restaurant for the record.
It’s an issue that was chronicled in a Tampa Bay Times series that went viral, “Farm to Fable,” by critic Laura Reiley. “There’s a tremendous amount of smoke and mirrors out there in the grocery store side of things and definitely in the restaurant industry,” Crush says. “It’s actually nauseating.”
Though D.C. has more restaurants than ever before, many of which fly the farm-to-table flag, not enough chefs are cooking with Crush’s products. “We wish we had a lot more chefs,” he says. “It’s quite frustrating right now.” It’s difficult given the prices the farmer is competing with. He describes seeing pork shoulder priced $1.35 per pound in a Maryland Wegmans. “It costs me in kill fees and packaging fees $1.25 a pound, and that’s before my feed cost, birthing, labor, and transport,” he says.
But price isn’t the only barrier to entry, and that’s where Kyle Bailey, executive chef at Sixth Engine and former executive chef at Birch & Barley, comes in, demonstrating what can happen if farms and restaurants get creative and join forces.
Crush sells half and whole pigs to restaurants, which is more sustainable and cost effective. But it requires a chef who knows how to butcher a pig and a kitchen big enough to get the job done. Bailey knows his way around a pig and has been sourcing them from Crush for about four years. The two met at Cochon 555—a national pork competition that raises awareness about heritage breed pigs.
After Crush approached Bailey to relay that things were “getting a little dicey” at the farm, Bailey graduated from Spring House customer to confidant and advocate. “This guy is doing what we all said we wanted, what all the chefs and consumers say they want—local, heritage breed stuff,” Bailey says. “This guy’s doing it, but nobody’s buying it, even though everyone’s banging that drum so hard.”
In short, Bailey is becoming a pro bono pig broker. “I want to be the intermediary,” he says. “I really like pork. This is supporting our local infrastructure, our farmers. No farms, no food.”
Not only is he telling his chef brethren about the quality of the farm’s products, but he’s also breaking down pigs and distributing the prime cuts to restaurants that don’t have adequate space. Even more critically, Bailey is educating industry colleagues about how to butcher a pig and make a major return on the investment. If used to its full potential, a $1,000 pig could pull in $5,000 in sales, according to Crush.
Sixth Engine is a study on how to use the whole animal: The loins make it straight onto the dinner menu, the bones are used for stock, the skin is used for pork rinds, and the head becomes coppa di testa (head cheese). Bailey devils the hearts and tosses them on the grill for an “awesome little treat,” and he’s saving the kidneys for a winter kidney and steak pie.
“It’s one thing to show them how to break it down,” Crush says. “It’s more important to show them how to make money off of it—that’s where these guys who are seasoned can help.”
Bailey’s not the only “pig broker” helping Crush spread the good gospel of whole animal butchery. Chef Mike Haney, who worked with Bailey at Birch & Barley, also helps on a pro bono basis, while Crush pays a Baltimore-based butcher, Marc Pauvert, for similar services.
“Whole animal butchery is something that’s easy to get started with as long as you have someone to teach you,” says Haney, who currently cooks at All Purpose. “There’s no reason tons of restaurants shouldn’t be jumping on board.”
Bailey says response has been good so far. “Ed Scarpone [of DBGB Kitchen + Bar] is going to buy whole pigs, and Danny Lee from Mandu says he’ll do what he can.” Bailey also rattles off names like Chef Matt Baker of the forthcoming restaurant Gravitas and Chef Andrew Markert from Beuchert’s Saloon.
“I’d like to do it when I can,” Markert says. “The size of the restaurant doesn’t always allow for that. If we do it, we would get half animals. It’s such a cool experience to throw a whole animal around on a cutting board and turn it into something in an hour.”
Bailey makes helping Crush a priority even though he’s also gearing up to open The Salt Line at Dock 79 with Long Shot Hospitality.
“I barely have time to do this, but I feel really strongly about it,” he says. “I want to help Andrew out.” He continues, “If this farm closed, I’d be like, ‘Fuck, we failed, we all failed and now we have garbage pork, and bad food wins.’”
Bad food will continue to win if restaurants (and consumers) don’t give farms more credit. “When you go into a restaurant and you have a good meal or a memorable meal, you associate that with the kitchen, but there are a lot of factors involved,” Crush explains.
Say you’re tearing into the pork loin dish at Sixth Engine. “From when we decided to breed that mom to when you got the food was about a year and a half,” Crush says. “A tremendous amount of time and effort went into getting that product to the chef who probably only had it for a week. People forget there is another factor that goes into producing that delicious meal.”
At the same time, Crush wants people to know he isn’t looking for pity. “I don’t want you to buy from me because you think it’s cool or you want to help support my family—I want you to buy from me because it’s damn good,” he says, suggesting the “buy local” movement will be supplanted with a more permanent “buy better” movement.
There are two opportunities to try Spring House Farm products other than on Sixth Engine’s menu. The first is the farm’s CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) program. Though currently mid-cycle, people can still sign up and receive pro-rated pricing. Three sizes are offered and there’s a pick-up location in D.C. at Primal Fitness (219 M Street NW). Each pack could contain beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken, and honey—all from the farm.
Second, some of the chefs Bailey and Crush are courting to become more involved in whole animal butchery will be participating in an Oct. 16 event called “Pigstarter” at Sixth Engine. Participants, including Thip Khao’s Seng Luangrath, Momofuku CCDC’s Pat Curran, and Bar Pilar’s Jesse Miller, will be assigned a part of a pig to transform into a memorable dish for the public to taste. Tickets are $75 and beverages will be provided by 3 Stars Brewing Company, One Eight Distilling, and Wild Hare Cider. Crush will be at the “One Pig, One Farm, One Awesome Party” answering questions. CP
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.