By Rachael Narins
Photographs by Jen Britton
ReRide is a bit of an anomaly in a county where animal farms haven’t been the norm since the 1950s when the area was starting shifting away from agriculture. The land just isn’t available and the necessary zoning to raise animals on a large scale is rare. Instead of big farms doing big things, LA’s push for urban development has made it, so the only farms we have are relatively small, yet, leaving just enough room for diverse niche market farmers like the Ayers at ReRide Ranch.
Lefty and Vicki Ayers’ story begins four years ago when they were looking for a place to live that could accommodate their beloved horses. With plenty of space in a sunny location, ReRide was an ideal fit for the generous couple and their menagerie.
Around the time they took over the lease, their neighbors were moving and left behind two of their pigs they had been raising for 4-H. Those pigs were a Berkshire boar and a Yorkshire sow—that’s a male and female respectively—two pigs whose lives would rapidly change.
The white Yorkshire is one of the most popular of the heritage breeds. The Berkshire is a black pig that is a descendant of a herd discovered by Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s. Even Queen Victoria had a few that lived on the grounds of Windsor Castle as a royal family favorite.
Being heritage breeds makes these animals unique. To be a heritage hog, the distinct breed must have existed before the advent of modern industrial farming.
Most commercial pig farms include less than five varieties that can be raised quickly in confinement (certain types of confinement have been outlawed for gestating sows in California since the passage of Prop 2 in 2008). With only a select few types being raised, many of the worlds other breeds have become critically endangered or have gone extinct, like the beautifully named Lincolnshire Curly Coated and Dorset Gold Tip. For Lefty and Vicki, who both have strong agricultural backgrounds and are truly kind animal lovers, the pigs were an exciting, but new challenge.
Three months after they took them, a litter of piglets was born, but when the sow suddenly died, Lefty and Vicki had to immediately take her stead and hand-raise the hungry, little, wiggling creatures. Through trial and error, the piglets were raised to full weight and were then sold to friends. Meanwhile, Lefty decided to go in whole-hog and enrolled at Bakersfield College for a semester of animal science classes to learn as much as he could. It was there he realized what rare animals he had on his hands.
His Swine Production professor told him that, in Japan, Berkshire pork is called Kurobuta (which means black pig) and is highly prized. Farmers can sell it there for $30 a pound because it is coveted for its rosy color, melting texture and unctuous, heady flavor that is so different from standard, lean, market pork. In the United States, there are very few producers and the end product is shamefully under priced. Luckily, the Berkshire name is starting to gain recognition, and restaurants will proudly point out that it’s being served.
The Ayers had some of the highest quality pigs a person could raise. Word got out quickly, and local chefs, food writers, bloggers, and butchers came calling. In the 1980s, American’s suddenly became obsessed with the negative things fat can do to the body. To meet the changing mindset about their pork, industrial hog farmers started breeding leaner and leaner meat. You can still see that trend today.
Every time you cook up a pork chop, and it comes out like a hockey puck, you can rest assured, it wasn’t your technique; it was more likely the fact that you started with lean pork. Berkshires are an answer to that problem. They have 30% more fat, finer marbling and shorter muscle fibers that make them ideal for cooking. In other words, the Berkshire pig brings moister, more flavorful meat, with fat that isn’t nearly as unhealthy as we have been led to believe.
Pork fat from naturally raised heritage breed black pigs is largely unsaturated, often to the point that it turns to liquid at room temperature. It’s extremely high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and oleic acid.
Swine are also unusual because any fat they consume doesn’t break down. Instead, it’s deposited into the muscle as intramuscular fat. So what the pig eats has a strong effect on the resulting pork and that delicious fat. Pigs that eat acorns for instance — and all the high-quality ones do — have been scientifically proven to have healthier fats than those who are fed conventional pig feed.
Now, four years and many pigs later, including a Berkshire/Hampshire mix that he is very happy with, Lefty has been a judge at Cochon 555 — the chef-pork-cook-off battle, and he and Vicki welcome curious visitors when time allows. They have plans to make the ranch a picnic and event destination, but in the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done.
The passel of piggies, once weaned, are fed 3,000 pounds of food a week, in addition to apples, nuts, plants and whatever else an animal that gains five pounds for every ten it eats can root up. It takes Lefty three hours a day to get all of his animals fed— animals that get up to around 200 pounds in five months. When the pigs come to market weight, he then has to rise at 3 am and make the trip to Modesto and back to have them sacrificado before getting it to his customers.
Under the caring tutelage of Lefty and Vicki, these adorable and intelligent creatures are happy and calm, outdoors and wallowing, frolicking and being raised naturally. Once in the kitchen, the pork cooks up with more flavor than any other we’ve tried domestically. Local chefs like Ben Ford of Ford’s Filling Station agree, and he, along with those at Tender Greens and Animal, keep it on the menus as often as possible. The Ayers do their best to keep a steady stream available, but like all good things, it takes time.