LA Chefs’ Suppliers: A Cook Pig Ranch

(Originally published January 21, 2014 on Examiner.com).

With industralization and modern living, people no longer know where or how their food is raised. People no longer know who their farmers, ranchers and fishermen are. Rather food production to a large degree has been concentrated and pushed out of view so that most consumers are quite oblivious as to how what they eat has been produced. Though as more and more people are learning about the detrimental consequences to their own health, to the welfare of the animals being raised, and to the environment of such an industrialized and concentrated approach to food production, a growing number of consumers are seeking out healthier, more environmentally sound and more humane options for their sources for food, especially for meat and dairy products. Still the vast array of labels for consumers often are confusing and many terms have been co-opted by large industry so that the only real way for consumers to know their food is to once again know their farmers, ranchers and fishermen.

So meet Mike and Krys Cook of Cook Pigs Ranch located in the hills and forest outside of Julian in Southern California. Their pig ranch supplies a number of LA chefs like Walter Manske, Wes Avelia, andSteve Sansom superior tasting pork products that have been and currently are on the menues of many of the top restaurants in Los Angeles like Petty Cash, Sotto, Republique, Sqirl, and Bouchon as well on the food trucks of Guerrilla Tacos, and Heirlom LA. Their pork is also available at McCall’s Meat & Fish in Silverlake and in numerous other eateries in the OC and San Diego. Plus once again, Cook Pigs Ranch will be supplying pigs to the chefs participating in Cochon555. Cook Pigs Ranch will be supplying four pigs to this year’s event occuring as the third stop of Cochon’s national tour on February 23rd, 2014 at The Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica.

Neither Mike nor Krys grew up raising pigs. Krys grew up on a rural property in Calabasas (LA county). Despite Krys’s dad’s desire to own and run a working ranch like the one he spent much of his childhood on owned and operated by his Grandfather in Northern Los Angeles County, Krys’s mom didn’t share this desire. So Krys’s parent’s compromised and lived on a one acre horse property near Topanga Canyon. Here Krys grew up loving the outdoors plus developed a great affinity for animals at an early age. Dogs, horses, goats, frogs, hamsters, fish, and the outdoors were all her passions. Krys, also being an artist, did makeup for the studios for a while until she got bored and went back to school. She majored in psychology and fine art at Cal State Northridge University graduating with a BA in Fine Arts. She then went on to graduate school at Loyola Marymount University and graduated with an MA degree in Art Therapy, with the intent of becoming a Marriage and Family Therapy Counselor.

Mike grew up on the other coast on the pan handle of Florida. There he learned how to hunt and fish from his parents. He also learned at a very young age how to butcher his own meat as well as do light taxidermy. So naturally Mike developed a great passion for the outdoors. After 9/11, Mike joined the military and has been on active duty ever since. Another passion Mike inherited from his family is cooking. He enjoys cooking anything and everything. These two met while Krys was completing her undergraduate degree and Mike was stationed in Ventura, California. Though their backgrounds were very different, they shared and continue to share a passion for the outdoors, and a love of animals, food and cooking.

Through several deployments and hardships, their relationship based on loyalty, grew stronger and stronger. The two got engaged, their first dog Sherman, the tank, and after another deployment, had a huge wedding in Santa Barbara. Krys got pregnant on the honeymoon. Though she still had a year left of her graduate program and Mike just got orders to go to San Diego in the winter, Krys somehow finished her graduate degree as well as create the most amazing masterpiece in their lives to date: their son Preston Asher Cook.

According to Krys, she wasn’t exactly a maternal person before Preston was born. She actually wasn’t sure she really wanted to have kids. At that time, she considered herself a very self absorbed career focused person. Mike and Krys bought their first place in the suburbs of Oceanside. Krys stayed at home with Preston. When her baby was six months old, he started having serious medical issues that for the next three years would consume Krys. He had severe undiagnosed GERD and severe food allergies. Then when Preston was eleven months old, she got pregnant with her second son Jameson, which made her feel all the sudden very confined by suburbia.

So with two babies under two years of age, they sold their house and bought an acre and a half in Fallbrook, California. Since their new property was zoned to allow livestock, they decided they would get one of each animal to raise for themselves that Mike would slaughter and butcher. Krys wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about all of this, but she liked that she knew where her food was coming from especially considering all of Preston’s health issues. So they got goats, sheep, ducks, chickens. None of these animals were that interesting to her so despite, at that time, having two kids eighteen months apart and a husband who was always gone on training, she was bored.

Mike and Krys then got four pigs and their lives forever changed.

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Krys quickly realized that her new pigs were amazing! Her pigs were intelligent, stimulating, and also very frustrating. Having never had pigs before or even any training on another pig ranch, Mike and Krys learned by doing which, of course, included making a lot of mistakes. For example, they put their pigs in a chain link pen (horrible idea), never fed them at the same time everyday, gave them water in buckets, and tried to avoid walking past them because their pigs would go crazy oinking at them. Mike and Krys quickly learned that pigs weren’t a novelty, plus that their own schedules were never going to be the same again.

Krys and Mike’s prior experience with dogs didn’t prepare them for their new life with pigs. Krys remembers coming home from a wonderful family day out only to find their lush gorgeous green grass completely uprooted by the pigs that were also drinking out of the swimming pool. After crying, Krys took the kids inside and had a long conversation with Mike about what the hell they were doing. Understand, at this point, Krys became obsessed with pigs and the psychology of relating to them. Krys thought constantly about the best possible feed and environment for pigs, the most elite breed of pigs, methods of farming for pigs, niche markets, and the farm-to-table movement as well as how to do all of this when their savings were close to being depleted.

Krys’s great grandpa on her dad’s side started one of the very first ranches in LA, specifically in Agua Dulce, that had three hundred plus acres. It was a full working sustainable pasture ranch. Krys’s dad grew up fishing and riding horses there. When Krys’s Great-Grandpa Asher passed away, the ranch got sold. The county now owns some of the ranch as a county park while the rest of the land was developed as upscale houses called Asher Estates. Krys’s dad is an extremely smart business man, plus is Krys’s inspiration and mentor. Krys’s dad though was very confused about this whole whimsical pig farming idea that she was doing. Her father worried because Mike and Krys were investing all of their savings into this seemingly crazy venture. Krys’s father’s father, her grandpa, helped Mike and Krys with their beginning business plan, plus gave Mike and Krys some amazing tips that her great grandfather used. To begin with, don’t buy commercial grain, instead tap into local high quality throw away food. So this food strategy intially became Krys’s primary focus.

She formulated a feed plan from all of her research on hogs raised in Hawaii and Spain. She learned that if you start feeding them a more wholesome diet that they actually exert less methane in their feces and this is better for the environment. (Additionally, all the food that pigs eat that would otherwise end up in landfills reduces methane from that food decomposing). She also realized that living in Fallbrook was the perfect set-up for the most delicious pig ever. So rather than the soy and grain fed factory farms pigs in large industrial warehouses, Krys and Mike’s fed their pigs raised outdoors avocados, macadamias, tortillas, spent grain, fresh fruits, and goat’s milk. Krys obsessing on breeds of pigs also started learning more about heritage breeds. Krys and Mike already had Durocs, which they got on a whim. But now they did more research and decided to purchase Red Wattles. They bought one young boar, one barrow, and two gilts. This purchase was a huge financial and and emotional commitment for them. Additionally Krys and Mike invested in some heavy duty livestock panels to help keep their pigs contained.

At this point, Krys’s family thought Mike and Krys were certifiably insane. Though at this time Mike and Krys also connected with Mike Sullivan from Cochon 555 and were subsequently invited to participate inLA’s Cochon555. They were excited and honoured being involved, even if they weren’t sure how their participation in this event would help them. As it turned out, the Cook Pigs Ranch pig got paired with Chef Ben Ford from Fords Filling Station, who did an amazing job, and consequently won this region’s competition. Needless to say Mike and Krys were very excited to be a part of Chef Ford’s team! Krys’s parents came to this event and saw the respect, want, need, and love for what their daughter and her husband were doing raising heritage breeds of pigs so this was the turning point for her parents from skeptics into believers. After Cochon555, Mike and Krys got calls from tons of chefs the following week as well as a couple small write-ups.

Also around this time, after buying a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving at McCall’s Meat & Fish Co., Krys and Mike got into a conversation with co-owner and chef Nathan McCall about what they were doing with their pig ranch. This eventually led to McCall’s being Cook Pigs Ranch’s first buyer. Chef McCall continues to be one of Cook Pigs Ranch’s biggest supporters.

So almost immediately after Cochon and receiving their first buyer, Krys started Cook Pigs Ranch’sFacebook, instagram, and twitter accounts. Through social media, Krys marketed what they were doing and found even more like-minded chefs. Krys and Mike’s whole business is built off of social media. As Krys noted, “who knew I was good at marketing!” Though all the sudden, Cook Pigs Ranch had a lot of demand but not enough supply or, for that matter, space for that supply. They had already out grown their property and zoning in Fallbrook.

Consequently Krys’s dad did a business plan for Mike and Krys based upon what they were doing and then showed it to her family. Every one in her family wanted to be a part of this new plan. So Cook Pigs Ranch started looking at places where they could expand. They had a lot of different criteria. They didn’t want pasture, horse property, or flat land. Plus the location couldn’t be too remote (since Mike isn’t home a lot), had to have the right zoning, be in San Diego County, and have good schools as well as an abundance of oak trees and interesting terrain.

Though this seemed like a lot to look for after months of searching, Mike and Krys found hog heaven in the forest and higher elevations just outside of Julian.

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If there’s a heaven for hogs, Cook Pigs Ranch may be just that place.

Here a variety of heritage breed of pigs live outside in the sun, under oak trees on a number of acres where they can root, forage, sleep in pig piles and play. In essence, Pigs on Cook Pigs Ranch get to be pigs until their one bad day. This is in stark contrast to the factory farms where every day of a pig’s life may be described as a pig hell. In these CAFO’s or concentrated animal feeding operations, pigs selectively bred to grow quickly go from artificial insemination to cellophane without ever seeing the light of day. Pigs in these factories are fed GMO corn and soy plus live on crowded concrete floors where they can’t display any of their natural behaviors like rooting and nesting.

For chefs though there is a huge difference in flavor between a pastured pig and one raised in a CAFO. LA Chefs like Melisse’s Josiah Citrin note that the better an animal is cared for, the better it tastes, so especially with meats, sourcing- that is knowing where your food comes from- is everything. You are what the animal you eat eats, so one that’s fed a natural and diverse diet that also has ample room to exercise in a stress free environment is going to taste better (as well as be more nutritious) than another animal that’s confined in a very stressful environment like a CAFO.

Since Cook’s pigs are genetically diverse and not confined with room to roam, diseases aren’t as easily spread. Therefore, unlike factory confined pigs, Cook’s pigs aren’t continuously fed low levels of antibiotics that are also used by CAFO’s to stimulate growth. Cook’s pigs aren’t given any growth hormones. Thus when Cook’s pigs defecate, no residual antibiotics or hormones end up in the compost pile that’s used to build soil on their property. This is vastly different than the slurry waste in lagoons from CAFO’s that doesn’t compost properly before being applied to agricultural fields. This waste in these lagoons is full of the residual antibiotics and hormones given to the confined pigs.

The way that Cook Pigs Ranch is arranged, pigs after they’re bred and weened are transferred to the largest tiered portion of the property that includes hilly terrain. This too is vastly different than pigs in confinement. Cook’s pigs have plenty of room to exercise, explore, and be intellectually stimulated. Here is where Cook’s pigs build up a great balance of interstitial fat trapping Omega threes for very flavorful meat. This tiered arrangement is, in part, based on research that Krys did on how Iberico pigs are raised in Spain.

On Cook Pigs Ranch different sections of the ranch are separated for the pigs at different stages of their development. One large area is for a boar and sows to breed. To ensure an healthy genetic diversity, different boars are rotated through this space and bred with different sows. Once the sows are ready for delivery, the sows are moved to a pen without any sort of gestation crate for natural birthing and then, shortly thereafter, to an adjacent area where the piglets continue to nurse until these pigs are of sufficient size to be weened from their mothers. All the weened pigs then are kept in another section until they’re transferred to the largest portion of the site where they have ample space and hilly terrain to exercise, eat and grow in size until their one, and only, bad day of existence occurs that being a drive to Central California to a USDA facility to be processed.

This pig ranch that feels like a heritage breed pig sanctuary, where some of the boars and sows that breed grow to over a thousands pounds, wasn’t always as well managed as it is now. When Krys and Mike first moved to their current location from their prior one in Fallbrook, Mike was deployed as part of his military duty for nine months. They also set everything up in their new location based upon what they learned in Fallbrook which turned out to be a big mistake. Fallbrook is a tropical climate whereas Julian is five thousand feet higher and mountainous. They lost a large number of pigs by January their first year due to the weather. To give the pigs protection from the elements, Krys’s Dad, a structural engineer, designed structures for the pigs. Krys and Mike bought more heritage hogs and started to see things flow correctly plus production go way up. Slowly they observed the pigs noticing what stimulated the pigs, made them happy, kept them healthy, as well as what parts of their land worked best for them. Mike and Krys figured how to run their ranch all on our own through trial and error as well as with lots of joy from their hands on experience. From learning from their vet how to castrate their pigs, to learning how to feed them, running the ranch has been all done first hand by Mike and Krys.

Krys’s drive comes from her passion and love for what she’s doing. In her husband Mike, she found someone who pushes her and shares her dreams and goals. As the demand originally generated by chefs grows to include more and families, Mike and Krys dreams and goals continue to expand. This expansion includes a new retail outlet and warehouse near San Diego, a CSA (community supported agriculture) program, a pet food product line, and even more land to raise more pigs.

So as Krys stated, their pig ranch is making a difference which she continued to note, their difference may be a small difference, that always will be small, but together with all the other heritage farmers letting pigs pasture, who are also making a small difference, collectively they all are making a big difference. Krys concedes that the market for her pork product is small niche one, since not everyone is willing to spend a premium on their pork and would instead rather shop at the grocery store for cheap commodity pork. But she think this makes her pork even more desirable, plus honestly concludes, ” not everyone wants to make such a big effort to do a CSA, have meat ups, and get our meat. It’s a huge dedication to the food movement to support small farmers like us.”

For Krys and Mike Cook their method of farming is a craft, beautiful, full of love and emotion, small, and specific to people who care as much about the animal, meat, and story as they do. And there is a story, since each of their pigs had a life, a beautiful life where the pigs could root, play, sun bathe, cuddle, nurse for a long time, and socialize. By buying Cook Pigs Ranch pork products, consumers support this method of animal husbandry where the circle of life is very real, and in tune, rather than in conflict, with the environment. Krys and Mike Cook respect every life that comes in and goes out of their pig ranch. For them, their part in what they do is a very humbling experience that they are honored to be a part of doing.

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