Breeding for Taste
Shortly after Paul Willis began selling his hogs to Niman Ranch, he came to San Francisco from Thornton, Iowa, to meet some of the chefs serving his pork. This was a new experience for Paul, who had previously sold his hogs to whatever packer-Cargill, Hormel, Tyson-was offering the best price. Typically, like most farmers, he had no idea where the hogs went once they left his farm. At the Zuni Café in San Francisco, the chef came to Paul's table. "I don't know what you do to those hogs," she told Paul, "but that's the best pork I've ever had in my life."
Paul would attribute a big share of that superior flavor to genetics-good breeding, in other words. His first hogs, purchased in the mid-1970s from a neighbor whose breeding stock came from the Farmers Hybrid Company in Des Moines, had a sterling heritage.
Farmers Hybrid sold a line of nine different crossbreeds developed before the rise of confinement factories and lean pork. These were rugged outdoor hogs that grew quickly, converted feed to meat efficiently, and produced robust piglets. They had the thick layer of insulating back fat that enabled them to survive Iowa winters and summers outdoors, fat that worked its way into the muscle to make tasty, well-marbled meat.
With the advent of lean hogs raised indoors, Farmers Hybrid hogs all but disappeared. The company did not follow the lean trend, and in 1998, after sixty years in business, it shut its doors forever. Paul and a few other farmers bucked the tide as well, and never stopped raising Farmers Hybrid hogs. Now Niman Ranch farmers are revitalizing these and other valuable heirloom breeds because they perform so well outdoors, and, as chefs confirm, they provide outstanding pork.