Iowa Trip Report, Part 3: Eden Natural Farms

This is the third 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 posts here and here.

Leaving the truly scenic Pella-Oski area, I made my way north to State Center, Iowa to spend a couple days tagging along with Kelly Biensen of Eden Natural. In addition to showing me all about Eden Natural’s operations, Kelly took me on a two-day-and-night tour of central Iowa farms, dairies, henhouses (I mean that literally), town centers, meatcutters, restaurants, and roadhouses. All in all, a rollicking good time, and educational to boot. Some of the particularly interesting folks I met I’ll be writing about in subsequent posts.

Biensen Farm
All photos are of the Biensen farm on a rainy day

Eden Natural is a cooperative owned by about 30 family farmers, that produces Berkshire breed pork. Kelly started the company and serves as CEO. Once it had grown to a certain size, he gave his ownership to all the farmers who raise pigs for Eden Natural. Kelly is one of those farmers, too, although over time I gather his leadership role has supplanted his farming role to a large degree. Kelly’s unrelenting mission, as I see it, is to develop a market for traditionally raised pork so his friends and neighbors can get out of the (unpleasant and usually unrewarding) commodity farming business, and back into the kind of farming in which people have traditionally found pride and joy of life.

Eden Natural is all about 100% Berkshire breed pork. Several folks told me that Kelly’s family had raised Berkshire breed pigs for generations, to explain the source of his passion for the breed. If you ask him, he’ll tell you about scientific reasons, including research from the National Pork Board, demonstrating that Berkshire (now also marketed as Kurobuta pork) is a superior meat breed to every widely available breed of pig available.

And it’s through quality of meat — via breed, farming practices, and close attention — that Eden Natural has distinguished itself as being far outside of the commodity market. Breed is obviously a big deal, as are farming practices, but attention matters, too. During the time I was around Kelly, Nina Biensen (Eden Natural CFO and Kelly’s wife), and Nick Jones (Eden Natural Operations Manager), they were continually focused on the quality of their pork, in conversation with me, with each other, and with their producers. At Pine Ridge Farms on Thursday mornings, when Eden Natural’s pigs are being cut into the meat that will ship to their wholesalers, Nick and Kelly stand on the line and inspect every single loin, verifying it for color and marbling before letting it ship. It’s my belief that very few meat producers have their CEO and Operations Manager in the cutting room looking at each animal before it ships. That’s a benefit of being small, of course, but also a measure of commitment to quality.

Biensen Farm

In some ways, Eden Natural has similarity with Niman Ranch, in that it is a co-op that aggregates producers emphasizing higher-quality meat, more traditional farming practices, and better animal welfare than factory farms. Key difference include that they are smaller, with only about 30 producers, and — most significantly — raise only 100% Berkshire pork, whereas Niman farmers use a variety of breeds (my understanding it that they mostly use the heritage breed Farmer’s Hybrid, which is definitely tasty.)

Additionally, as a newer operation, Eden Natural is still working with its producers to transition from factory farming methods to more ideal natural methods. Kelly described to me the process by which the producers at first switch from methods completely dependent on antibiotics, to a system where some farms still give antibiotics to the young pigs but not to adult pigs (and other farms never at all). In order to help get everyone to the next step of no antibiotics, Eden is introducing a line of what they call “Never Ever” pork, that is verified to come from farms that don’t use any antibiotics at all.

Now, it’s easy for me as a city kid to tell Kelly that he needs to get all his farms to go to antibiotic free production, and that our community would gladly pay the premium for that. But some of his producers raise pigs on property adjacent to a large confinement farms. Confinement pig farms are inherently productive hosts for pathogens (that’s why they have to use antibiotics all the time), and those pathogens can find their way to Eden Natural farms. As a result, only some farmers lucky enough to not have a lot of pig-farming neighbors can easily switch to antibiotic-free farming.

Biensen Farm

Animal welfare is a big issue for producers of high-end pork, because it translates more or less directly to meat quality. The chemistry of meat is such that, to oversimplify, happy animals taste better. Eden Natural is of course focused on that. As an example, Nina Biensien is working with a group called Practical Farmers of Iowa to determine if there’s a relationship between the number of miles an animal travels to the processor, and the pH of its meat (an indicator of both quality and stress). The most simple measure Eden Natural takes in decreasing animal stress is to require its farmers to give each pig 50% more space in the pen than the factory standard — 12 square feet per pig rather than 8.

Of course, 12 square feet per pig, while not the worst of confinement, is also not exactly a free ranging animal. Eden Natural’s farms vary from a kind of “thoughtful industrial” which do use more modern methods tempered with a concern for the animal and stewardship of the land, to fully integrated farms with multiple crops and animals, where the animals range on multi-acre lots.

My mantra of the week — I told this to Kelly, and to pretty much everyone else we met — was that I was there in Iowa as part of our continuing quest for the Holy Grail of pork:

  • breed-specific
  • farm-specific
  • totally antibiotic-free
  • sustainably raised on pasture at an integrated farm
  • regularly available to be distributed to us in San Diego at 150+ lbs, or about a pig per week

Of all the (now fairly numerous) pork operations we’ve talked to, Eden Natural is clearly the closest to being able to provide this. I believe that when we finally get to this point, it will offer our community a completely new category of meat to be eating, and that we will happily pay an appropriate premium for it. I know that as an eater, it would absolutely be worth it to me, and I’m confident I’m not the only one. Over the last couple weeks, we’ve been working with Eden Natural and with our local distributors, and I think we’ll be able to make it happen sooner rather than later. We’ll of course keep everyone up to date.

Biensen Farm

Through Kelly, I met a lot of interesting people and saw some pretty cool stuff, some of which I’ll write about in the next couple posts. I don’t have much insightful to say about the charming downtown of State Center (Iowa’s rose capital); the delicious tenderloin sandwich I had from “The Steak Center”; the swinging beef and pork at State Center Locker; the tiny egg farm we visited in Rhodes, IA; the CrossRhodes and Road Hog bars; or sitting in with the West Marshall High 4-H club to learn how to judge classes of market sheep and breeding ewes — but I enjoyed all of them.

Another treat of the visit to State Center was watching the documentary King Corn at Kelly’s house, over a steady stream of Shiner Bocks. King Corn is a really entertaining exploration of the rather disturbing grip that commodity corn has on our diet, something introduced to a lot of us by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (Michael Pollan appears in King Corn, as well.) In King Corn, two close friends and recent college graduates from the East Coast move to a small town in Iowa (where, by coincidence, they both have distant relatives) and farm a single acre of corn for a year, while learning about both corn’s means of production and its role in our current food production system. Kelly lent me his copy to share with folks back here, and I’ll host a viewing for interested Linkery folks soon. If you’d like to join us when we watch it, send me an email and I’ll let you know.