The perfect American pig?

My wife forwarded me this story, which is interesting for a number of reasons.  It begins:

From California's Silicon Valley to the cornfields of Iowa, former computer engineer and now pig farmer, Carl Blake is reinventing the way that Americans eat their pork. Through his technology-based approach and good ol’ fashioned farming, he says he has bred the perfect tasting American pig.

There are a couple things to like about this guy's approach.  First, it shows that small-scale niche farming doesn't have to imply a rejection of modern technology.  

The quality of the pork also has to do with what the pigs are fed. Blake uses hydroponic technology, which grows fresh food in water. He is able to pay about $100 for seeds that will grow one-ton of food in six days. Compare that to the price tag of conventional feed prices of $500-$600 per ton. Blake said he doesn’t understand why more farms don’t use the same technology but hopes that it will eventually catch on.  

I'm a little skeptical about the claim that feed from hydroponic technology is substantially cheaper than typical hog feed, once one factors in the cost of labor, capital, etc.  But, more power to him if he can make it work.  And, if it is really increases quality and reduces costs, there's a good chance Tyson, Smithfield, and other large hog producers will be following shortly behind.

There are two things about this story that are worth picking on.  First, is something of a clarification.  Blake is right that meat from the so-called "heritage breeds" of pork are often juicier and tastier (and fatter) than what you'll normally find in the grocery store. As Blake put it:

If you wanted white meat, you buy a chicken. Pork is not meant to be a white meat,

But, we need to ask why the large hog producers make pork this way.  One is that it is probably healthier (at least in terms of fat content) and because, for most people, price trumps quality.  It is easy to decry "chicken-like pork" in the grocery store, but I think it is useful to take a step back and ask why this is the pork we have, and it is a result of a grand competitive process of consumers trying to tell hog producers what they want via their wallets at the store.  We all want cheaper pork.  We all want tastier pork.  That's not controversial.  The interesting thing is to see how that trade-off is manifested in the market, and at least have some respect for the outcome that has emerged.  Now, that's not to say there isn't merit in trying to grow a different kind of pork for someone who particularly values quality or has a few more $ to spend.  

Finally, I was intrigued with the farmer's claim that: 

This is an American pig that I developed in America and I developed it here in Iowa.

I think I know what he's getting at, but a little history is useful too.  Did you know hogs are not native to America?  They came over once Europeans started trekking back and forth in a process referred to as the Columbian exchange.  Here's a neat picture (taken from here) of some of the foods that are "new" to America: