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Flavor 5: Pasture Raised Pork

May 31, 2014

Wendy Brugh, co-owner of Dry Ridge Farm, recalls an old dairy farm with beautiful Holstein cows near her childhood home in Raleigh. Returning home from college one day, she saw that the farm had been turned into a treeless development of supersize houses. "It was sad to lose that," she says, "[and] realize that that is what is happening to a lot of farmland." From this realization sprang her interest in farming.

Wendy and her husband Graham raise pork, lamb, chicken, and eggs on their farm in Mars Hill, NC. They bought their first animals two days after getting engaged. Committing to building a farm together was as big a commitment as marriage, Wendy says. She and Graham are dedicated to keeping their animals in as natural a setting as possible -- that's why they are currently phasing out their rabbits, whose cages don't fit in with the rest of the farm's philosophy.

Dry Ridge Farm's motto, "The Omnivore's Delight," makes reference to Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, which offers a critique of the American way of eating. Wendy believes that their farm's meats are raised in a way that Pollan would support. She and her husband raise their animals using no hormones, steroids, or feed antibiotics. To preserve their land, they use a rotational grazing system and work the soil and seed after a group of pigs have been through.

Dry Ridge Farm has a 10-sow breeding herd. "We're one of few farms in the area that raises our pigs from birth to finish," Wendy says, rather than purchasing "feeder" pigs around eight weeks old. All of their hogs are purebred herefords, a breed that Wendy and Graham chose for their large litters and good mothering skills. Hereford sows tend to make good nests and take care not to squash their piglets. Another benefit, Wendy explains, is that having a single breed gives their pork consistent quality. She considers the hereford breed's meat-to-fat ratio ideal, neither too fatty nor too lean.

Wendy met Graham while he was working on a hog, beef and pork producing farm in the Piedmont area. While Wendy started her farm experience with vegetables, once she was introduced to pigs, she fell in love. They're fun, she says. They have personality, they're curious and playful, and they love getting scratched. Plus, "piglets are adorable."

Wendy began hunting deer around age 19, to make sure she could kill an animal herself and still want to eat meat. She has butchered a hog and processed all the kinds of animals they raise at the farm. "I don't know that anyone likes the slaughter part of it," she says, "but you do that as quickly and well as you can."

Dry Ridge Farm uses a small processing facility called Wells Jenkins in Forest City, about an hour and a half away, that does the actual slaughtering and then cuts down the animals into parts and packages them. Wendy has been on the floor with the workers there and was able to tell them exactly how she wanted the cuts done.

In response to my question about vegetarian arguments, Wendy says she doesn't take issue with the idea that one shouldn't eat animals -- that's a personal decision, she says. She does think it's important for folks to realize, though, that farms like theirs give their animals the opportunity to live, and live well, whereas otherwise they would not be born. "My primary concern," she adds, "is knowing that the animals are raised in as natural an environment as possible and that they have a good life until they go to market."

Dry Ridge Farm swine roam and forage, building muscle and enjoying a balanced diet of grass, grubs, and nuts. They're free to bask in the sun, roll in mud wallows, or lounge under hickory and black walnut trees, where they crack open the nuts with their strong jaws. During my visit, the pigs were out munching on some of the farm's invasive miscanthus and seeking shade from the mid-day sun.

Wendy believes that high quality of life translates into great meat. "I don't know if you've had a conventionally raised pork chop lately," she says, "but it doesn't taste like much." Instead of adding herbs, spices, and sauces to their pork chops, chicken, and lamb steaks, most times, Wendy says, she and Graham just salt and pepper before cooking. "You get the flavor out of the meat, rather than what you're putting on that meat," she explains.

Eager to try Dry Ridge Farm meat for myself, I purchased a couple of samples to cook up at home. The farm's piquant chorizo made some fabulous tacos. And Wendy and Graham's pork chops turned out juicy and impressive, with a well-balanced, hearty taste. Maybe it was my imagination, but I think I even detected hints of sweet clover and walnuts.

Verdict: quality shows.

Wendy and Graham sell primarily at farmer's markets, but also have a CSA and do some wholesaling to restaurants like Cork and Crown in Mars Hill and Isis in Asheville.

Look for Dry Ridge Farm pork, eggs, chicken, and lamb Saturdays at the Asheville City Market Downtown, Wednesdays at Asheville City Market South and the French Broad Food Coop Market, and in the wintertime Saturdays at the YMCA Woodfin and Asheville City Downtown Markets.