Courtesy of Ja’el Sundown for Symbio-Hush
Butcher Series’ online shop offers exclusive a la carte cuts of locally sourced meat.
On a cold December afternoon in 2013, among food writers, farmers and noted Texas chefs, I learned what it means to be happier than a pig in shit.
I’d heard the phrase before, but on the sprawling grounds of South Texas Heritage Pork, an artisan hog farm nestled just 50 minutes southeast of downtown San Antonio, I saw firsthand exactly how happy the critters could be.
That afternoon, our motley crew of local food pros — some boasting deep Louisiana roots — banded together to hold a traditional boucherie. The rural southern Louisiana tradition centers around the slaughter, butchering and cooking of an entire animal, the meat of which is divvied up between participating families to serve in a shared, potluck-style feast.
The pork was incredible, the camaraderie unmatched and the ingenuity of the chefs played a big part.
What I remember most clearly, however, is those pleased pigs.
When Heritage Pork owners Mark and Kelley Escobedo welcomed our band of culinary misfits into their humble home, it was clear they’d spared hardly any expense on their animals’ living conditions. The well-fed, nocturnal beasts were free to roam the grounds, foraging for native vittles. A pack of trained guard dogs kept them safe from nighttime predators.
I know I mentioned porcine poo earlier, but these swine had room to roam and a meticulously maintained environment. They had it made.
Over the past few decades, a growing number of independent meat, poultry and dairy farmers have seized on this quality of care, but it’s not always been embraced by consumers. The resulting meat — nutritional, sustainable and oh-so-tasty — has a tendency to be more expensive than what’s available from big box grocers. As a result, consumers generally know less about independently owned options available in their communities.
The COVID-19 meat shortage started to change that.
Due to labor shortages brought on by the pandemic, meat became harder to get nationwide last spring. When mega-brands such as Tyson and Smithfield Foods temporarily closed plants as staff tested positive for the coronavirus, smaller farms saw a significant upswing in new, local customers.
“Let’s face it, people had more time at home … and they were doing more ordering through online mechanisms, even if it was a click-and-collect model at their local grocery store,” said Chris Oliviero, general manager of Niman Ranch, a network of 750 small, independent family farmers and ranchers. “If you think about it, how much time do you spend looking at a package of meat in a store? Not a whole lot. But when you’re shopping from home, you have the ability to click on an item, and it pulls up more information about who that supplier is.”
Westminster, Colorado-based Niman Ranch works with farms that raise cattle, pigs and lamb humanely and sustainably — with no antibiotics or hormones. The business also pays the ranchers a premium for their livestock, recognizing the work that goes into raising their animals to strict protocols. In turn, it sells the meat to restaurants, distributors, butchers and specialty grocers.
Niman’s San Antonio purchasers include restaurants Down on Grayson, 18 Oaks at the JW Marriott Hill Country Resort and Camp Outpost in Southtown.
Pre-COVID, about 43% of Niman’s business was foodservice. That bottomed out in April of last year at 13%, but has bumped back up to 25-30%, according to Oliviero.
“Consumers, when they were quarantined and fearful of dining out, started trying services like meal kit companies, or companies like Butcher Box,” he said. “[Sales through] that channel have increased 40% over the course of the year.”
SA-born chef and butcher Joe Saenz took advantage of that trend and in August launched Swine House Butcher Series, an online butcher shop that allows customers to purchase locally raised specialty meats. The shop — a collaboration with popular food truck and catering outfit Box Street Social — works with regional pork, lamb and grass-fed beef providers to purchase and butcher whole animals. It stocks an online shop with exclusive a la carte cuts.
“It just seems like there’s even less resistance from consumers now,” Saenz said. “The momentum we saw back in August has intensified, and we’ve definitely seen enough to be encouraged.”
Citing steadily growing consumer interest in the Butcher Series, Saenz said he’s looking into refrigerated vehicles so his crew can expand into delivery.
“People are now expecting pick-up and delivery systems,” he said. “Companies are getting rid of their dining rooms completely and using those spaces as landing areas for newly developed to-go systems. I’m excited to be able to move toward helping consumers see what they’ve been missing out on for the sake of convenience.”
Direct to consumers
As it turns out, Alamo City residents aren’t alone in turning to smaller, independent farms as they look for better sources of meat.
In April and May of last year, more than 200 livestock and poultry farmers across 40 states were awarded emergency mini-grants from Chicago-based nonprofit Food Animal Concerns Trust. Over those two months, FACT— which focuses on advancing food safety and animal welfare policies — doled out grants of up to $500 designed to help farmers address pandemic-related challenges.
In a December survey of those emergency mini-grant recipients, 62% reported that their farm business is better off now than it was before the pandemic. Many of those independent farmers were able to beef up — pun intended — their marketing, cold storage, shipping and technical capabilities via the grants.
“When restaurants were first shut down, farmers had all of this meat, and then suddenly didn’t have a market for it,” FACT Executive Director Harry Rhodes said. “Our mini-grants were so helpful to these independent farmers because they were able to funnel that money away from marketing as a wholesale operation, and instead market directly to consumers.”
Rhodes credits the relative success of small, independent farmers during the pandemic to more consumer awareness. Focused social media, marketing and advertising campaigns — avenues to which many independent farmers hadn’t previously dedicated time and money — played a role in building that interest.
Heritage hog farmer Mark Escobedo shows off locally sourced beef cuts.
Until recently, the Escobedos of Heritage Pork were just such business owners.
The couple have operated their farm for more than a decade, posting up at weekend farmers markets and selling directly to area eateries. Pasture-raising English Large Black and Tamworth hogs meant seven-day workweeks for the couple, so social media and other marketing efforts weren’t exactly a priority.
When the opportunity to open a brick-and-mortar butcher shop — a career-long dream — presented itself during the pandemic, the Escobedos jumped at the chance. Social media is now a pivotal, daily aspect of their consumer relations.
“It’s been nerve wracking, for sure,” Kelley Escobedo told me when I stopped by their shop, The Farmer’s Butcher, to reintroduce myself after nearly ten years. “But things have evened out. We’re tired, but right now, our prices aren’t that much more expensive than what you’ll find at H-E-B. And it’s good stuff.”
Indeed, the glass cases of the East Side shop are brimming with the Escobedos’ flavorful, sustainable, healthy and environmentally responsible signature pork, along with cuts of beef and poultry from like-minded farmers.
For folks who might have always thought proteins from local, independent farmers were too expensive to fit into a weekly budget, local farmers and food professionals say now’s the time for a rethink.
“Literal cookie-cutter packages of meat are built for speed, scaling and industrialized food systems,” Swine House chef and butcher Saenz said.
“Maybe it’s just time to liberate ourselves from expecting what we’ve come to know as the ‘ideal’ form of any one product and embrace the journey of going from raw to cooked with righteously raised meats.”
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