Breed matters

by Bernard Shire
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Hogs raised for Berkwood Farms
More than 60 farmers raise Berkshire pigs for Berkwood Farms, a producer and processor of cured and fresh pork products.
 

Berkwood Farms is an award-winning Midwest producer and processor of many cured and fresh pork products, including its outstanding bacon products. But two things set Berkwood Farms apart from other pork and bacon producers, including many of its competitors. First, it is a farmer-owned and managed cooperative operation, and second, all its pork products come from 100 percent certified heirloom Berkshire pigs.

“In fact, Berkwood is the only farmer-owned company with national distribution of its products,” says Alex Conover, director of producer services for the co-op, which is based in Des Moines, Iowa. “We have more than 60 producer-owners of the company, and they’re mostly based in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Kansas. Most of the farms are smaller, and their owners are very concerned about humane treatment of their animals, as well as running sustainable animal husbandry operations. The farmers are second, third, fourth and in some cases, fifth generation. Our company began 10 years ago, with the idea of making products for a niche market.”

The one thing co-op members all share is they’re involved in humane, healthy, hand-inspected, and environmentally friendly animal husbandry for only the Berkshire breed for their bacon and other pork products. So that means the pig bellies used in crafting Berkwood Farms bacon comes from these 60-plus farmers raising nothing but the Berkshire pork breed. Does that make a difference?

“Yes, we strongly believe it does,” Conover says. “Berkshire pork is the oldest breed of pork in existence today. The animals are raised for the meat’s distinctive color and marbling. There’s also a superior cooked moisture content that comes as part of Berkshire pork,” he points out.

Berkshire pork is considered the “Angus” of the pork world. Purebred Berkshire pigs are considered a “heritage” breed. “Heritage breeds like Berkshire are traditional breeds of animals that were raised for food in the past, but whose numbers dwindled during the rise of industrial agriculture. In the last 15 years or so, they’ve come back. The Berkshire pig, a black and white breed, has a long history — its bloodlines go back more than 300 years to England,” Conover notes. “The breed was imported into the United States. They’re better able to withstand disease and live in open pastures.”

Berkwood Farms co-op members
Eugene (left) and Larry Ruppert, owners of Ruppert Brothers Farm, raise Berkshire pigs in Mallard, Iowa.
 

To be considered a heritage breed, a Berkshire pig must have unique genetic traits and be raised on an organic and sustainable farm. The pigs are never given added hormones or anything to promote growth. “Berkshire pork also has a higher pH compared to commodity pork, which helps greatly in the taste category, and that’s especially true of our bacon, which is very juicy, tender and flavorful,” Conover says. All the bacon Berkwood Farms creates is from Berkshire pig bellies from animals raised by the farmers in the Berkwood Farms Cooperative. So, it’s all “local.” Coming from Berkshire pigs, the company’s bellies have a higher fat content, meaning more flavor from the bellies, Conover believes.

Berkwood Farms bacon and its other uncured products are “uncured,” in the sense that the operator uses natural celery salt to produce the naturally-occurring nitrates and nitrites, rather than adding them synthetically. “The bacon is smoked over Applewood chips, with no MSG, artificial ingredients or preservatives,” he says.

The co-op’s uncured bacon was voted the Best Bacon and People’s Choice in 2012 and 2013 in Colorado’s Blue-Ribbon Bacon Festival. It was also voted best bacon three years ago at the Blue Ribbon Festival in Des Moines. “Our thick-cut bacon is uncured with no added nitrites, except those that naturally occur in celery salt,” Conover explains. “The pork bellies are injected with a special brine formula.” So, he recommends pan frying the uncured bacon for the best, most flavorful results. “All our bacon is labeled ‘uncured’ because of using the celery salt. The advantage is we’re creating a more natural, holistic product.”

Strips of bacon from Berkwood Farms
Berkwood Farms offers bacon bits, pieces, partial slices and bacon ends.
 

Berkwood also makes uncured “Cowboy Cut” bacon. Also with no added nitrites except those naturally coming from the celery salt, the bacon is more in the form of bits, pieces, partial slices and ends, which are very popular with bacon consumers.

“We’re also in the process of developing ‘jowl bacon,’ coming from the inside of the pork cheek, as a value-added product,” Conover says. “It goes through a curing process, and is sliced a little differently — not as uniform as a belly would be, and a little fattier,” he notes. Jowl bacon can also be used as a seasoning, to be served to black-eyed peas, beans, collard greens or turnip greens. Like many other processors who make bacon, Berkwood Farms is certainly happy how bacon has caught on — “used on everything from burgers to mac ‘n cheese,” Conover says. “I think people began to see its versatility – not just for breakfast, but for dinner, supper, anytime.

Berkwood Farms bacon is sold in bulk, to foodservice and restaurants and at retail in grocery stores, farmers markets, and small meat markets. The retail locations are in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin and New York. Foodservice distribution covers the South, the Northeast, the Pacific Coast and Southwest, and the Midwest. Distributors are in Chicago, Minneapolis, Texas, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Georgia, New Jersey and New York State.

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