Iowa Trip Report, Part 2: Vande Rose Farms

This is the second in a series of posts about a few days visiting different farmers and producers in Iowa, including several from whom we’ve bought pork. Additionally, my perceptions are certainly informed from previous trips to the state, of a more social nature. Everything here is just my observation as an outsider; I’m sure I’m missing many subtleties and in several instances I may be just plumb wrong. Caveat emptor.

See the previous post here.

Vande Rose Farms: Niche Breeding

In my previous post I explained how the vast majority of pork produced in Iowa is a commodity, where meat quality is unimportant and yield is everything. Of course, commodity farming isn’t always a great situation for the farmers, so some number of farmers are pursuing ways to develop new markets where quality adds value, also known as “niche markets.”

Vande Rose Farms, in Oskaloosa, Iowa (an hour southeast of Des Moines) is one of the producers we work with, who is pursuing this goal. Vande Rose principally comprises 4 farms owned by the Van Gilst, DeBruin, and Rozenboom families, all of which have been farming pigs in the area for around a century. Steve DeBruin of Vande Rose was an extremely gracious host, taking me to two of the farms, including their main breeding farm and their feedmill. Steve also showed me around their Des Moines headquarters and shipping facility, and we watched the pork get processed, at Pine Ridge Farms packing plant.

Vande Rose’s method, I learned, is predicated on carefully developing and maintaining a pig breed (in broad termss, a Duroc-Chester White cross) which has great flavor and moisture, maintains a low pH for meat quality, is genetically predisposed to not react physically to stress, and has a hardy immune system so that, even in confinement, the pig won’t require antbiotics to stay healthy (the pigs do receive antibiotics when very young; they do not receive them as adults, so that the meat will not have anitbiotics in it).

We’ve served Vande Rose pork for a while, and it’s easy to understand how they have succeeded in developing a market for their product. The meat is clearly superior, in flavor and tenderness, to any commodity pork you can buy. By selecting a breed which will do well in the environment of the modern pig farm, Vande Rose can distinguish itself both in the profile of their meat, and by shipping meat which is free of antibiotics.

Vande Rose is a modern confinement operation — it’s neither an integrated farm like Old Creek Ranch nor a pastured pig ranch like Caw Caw Creek. Because they follow the most modern practices, Vande Rose is able to raise enough pork to ship regularly, in dependable amounts, to Calfornia; and they are able to sell their meat at a moderate premium, keeping it possible for a restaurant like ours to serve it at a moderate price.

Personally, I am pushing for a shift away from industrial farming practices such as confinement, and toward traditional farming practices. However, for the moment, anyway, the industrial-agriculture complex is the only consistently available source of pork for our restaurant, and I appreciate what Vande Rose offers:

  • Pork with excellent flavor and texture
  • Meat that doesn’t contain antibiotics
  • Source-verified meat, meaning that a specific farmer (in this case, the 3 families) stands behind the quality of the meat
  • A completely transparent operation – they were happy to show me every aspect of what they do
  • A commitment to maintaining sustainable practices that not all pig farmers are willing to do, including using all their pig waste as fertilizer. The principal inputs to their system are small amounts of feed supplements, herbicides and pesticides for their corn and soybeans (the pigs are not organically fed), and chemical fertilizer for a small portion of their farmland close to the town limits, where the residents wouldn’t appreciate the use of pig manure.

Longer term, it is our goal to serve in our restaurant principally (or even exclusively) meats and produce which are farmed in traditional methods. I spent a fair amount of my time in Iowa exploring whether that will be soon possible for us, and in doing so I met other interesting folks who are moving their operations out of the commodity market, in different ways. The next few posts will look at some of those people.

I also want to express my personal gratitude to Steve and all the folks at Vande Rose for their hospitality and all the time they took to show me around. I understand how to do my job better with each tour and each discussion with producers — and the Vande Rose people provided lots of each. Also, the DeBruins are involved in a nifty little winery called Tassel Ridge, in between Oskaloosa and Pella. I really enjoyed my visit to the winery, and am looking forward to returning.