HOME ON THE RANGE: CALIFORNIA KUROBUTA

How a Hollister family bet its farm on a
pig and wound up raising world-class pork

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY LARRY GERBRANDT

“You can never outrun an angry sow.”

This is one of the many things Jack Kimmich will tell you he has learned since he and his family saved their San Benito County farm by starting their acclaimed California Kurobuta, one of the state’s few sources for pasture-raised Berkshire pork.

In 1998, the Kimmichs bought 16 acres of organic farmland in Hollister. At the time, there was no plan for pigs. Jack was working construction and running a landscape supply company, Soils To Grow LLC, which specializes in making compost and soil amendments. The company eventually expanded to include trucking and equipment services and is still in operation today.

But after an injury forced Jack to undergo back surgery, he was told he couldn’t return to construction. With Sara also battling cancer, the family came under financial strain and their bank threatened to take the farm.

“The prospect of losing our family farm to the bank provided a strong incentive for us to pool our family’s strengths and talents,” says Sara, who herself grew up on a farm. So the family thought hard about what to do, and the Kimmichs’ youngest daughter, Katie, then just 12 years old, suggested getting a pig. After much research, they decided that purebred Berkshire pigs were the only option for their family.

Berkshire is an English heritage breed that was developed more than 300 years ago in the United Kingdom’s Berkshire County. The premium pork Berkshires produce is renowned for its marbling, tenderness, juiciness, deep color and rich flavor. The term kurobuta— which chefs commonly use to refer to the meat—comes from Japan (kurobuta means “black pig” in Japanese), where it is the most highly prized pork, comparable to Kobe beef in reputation.

As farm animals, Berkshire pigs are hardy, and their black coats and hair allow them to adapt to varying weather conditions.

They also have friendly dispositions—unless you get in between a sow and her piglet, as Jack will tell you. In fact, Berkshire sows are known for being wonderful and fiercely protective mothers who rarely need the interference of their owners.

“They are so smart, but they are also willful and very strong,” Sara says. Growing to between 500 to 800 pounds, “they certainly aren’t like training a lapdog,” she adds.

Purebred Berkshire pigs are also relatively rare on the West Coast. When the Kimmich family started their pig project in 2010, there were only seven Berkshire pig owners in the state of California, and only four of them were willing to sell.

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The Kimmichs ended up purchasing two Californian gilts (sows that haven’t yet had babies), and a boar from a different bloodline in Arizona.

The herd grew quickly, and so did the idea that the pig project could become the family’s livelihood.

“We wanted to build a community,” Jack says. “We wanted to share the most delicious and clean pork we’ve ever tasted with a customer base that shared our same ideas about food and health.”

There is a crucial link between a pig’s diet and the quality and flavor of the pork it produces.

The Kimmichs allow their pigs to roam freely on their farm’s woodlands (the natural habitat for pigs) and pastures, enabling the animals to forage for all sorts of plants as well as soil and grubs. They are never fed hormones, antibiotics, corn or soy. Instead, the Kimmichs supplement their pigs’ diets with more healthy vegetable waste from local farms and spent grain from local breweries and distilleries. An heirloom organic farm next door provides the bulk of the pigs’ vegetable feed.

“Our pigs eat seasonally! Walnuts in the fall, squash and pumpkins in the winter! They just finished asparagus and apricots,” Jack exclaimed with amusement last July. “They’ll eat the fruit and then come back later to finish off the pits!”

This kind of care is about as far as you can get from the cramped, unsanitary conditions and abysmal diets that pigs are typically subjected to at the factory farms that produce most of the pork consumed in the United States, and chefs from Big Sur to San Francisco have taken notice. “I love the flavor of the fat. It’s just so much tastier than commercial pork because the diet of their pigs is so much more varied,” says Jonathan Roberts, aka the PigWizard, a local charcuterie maker, referring to the Kimmichs’ products. “I use their pigs exclusively for pig roasts, and they are always delicious.”

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Family farming: Sara and Jack Kimmich with their Bacon Bus

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Jack and the Kimmich’s beloved Berkshire pigs

The entire Kimmich farm is off the grid—a decision that Sara describes as an “environmental as well as a sensible economic decision.” A windmill pumps the farm’s water and a spring-fed waterway runs through the property for the pigs to enjoy. Due to the ongoing drought, Jack often trucks in clean water to manually fill the waterway. “The drought is one of the hardest things the pigs have had to endure because the pastures aren’t irrigated yet,” he explains.

In addition to whole foods and fresh water, the pigs of California Kurobuta are kept healthy and strong with the nutrient-rich compost Jack makes at the farm.

“We used to have our big compost piles fenced off from the pigs, and they used to endure the zap of the electric fence to break through and root in the mounds,” Jack recounts.

Now he trucks in wood chip bedding each summer to make compost piles around the farm, and the pigs will spend the next year furrowing and grazing until the piles have been spread and Jack can plant a cover crop that will then become more feed. He believes that the beneficial bacteria in the compost are the biggest aid to keeping his pigs disease free.

There have been no instances of mastitis in the sows, for example, and roaming chickens clean up the rare sightings of intestinal worms. “People believe pigs can live in any conditions,” Jack explains. “But happy pigs constantly need a lot of care and attention. And keeping the pigs happy is our main concern.”

With a herd of about 150 covering 30 acres of land, keeping the pigs happy is also a never-ending job.

The family has hosted some travelers who trade labor for accommodation through the volunteer site HelpX, but California Kurobuta has essentially remained a family endeavor. Jack handles the labor and transporting while Sara runs the office, and you’ll meet both of them at any Kurobuta event or Meat Club pickup location. Their three grown children also remain heavily involved.

“We have been amazed at the generosity of our offspring in helping us save our home and in shaping how we make our living,” Jack says. “Each of the three has given their unique abilities to help make this start-up business successful.”

The eldest Kimmich daughter, Anna, runs the website and online marketing from her home in New Jersey. Thomas, their son and a meatcutter by trade in Grass Valley, does barbecue and helps with special events. Katie, who at 13 delivered the Kimmichs’ first set of piglets, is a college student today and helps however she can.

“Without the input of those three, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Sara boasts. “We see more of them than we might if we were all merely involved in our separate careers. And the new generation brings a fresh, hip perspective to our operation.” This is especially helpful as California Kurobuta tackles one of its biggest challenges—expanding its customer base.

When the Kimmichs first began marketing their pork, Jack turned to chefs at restaurants and resorts where he’d already formed relationships through his garden amendment business. These chefs bought the animals whole, making it unnecessary for the pigs to be processed at USDA facilities, which are in notoriously short supply but are required if an animal is to be sold in parts.

Buying pigs whole is the most economical and sustainable way to purchase pork.

But it’s difficult for the average consumer—and many restaurants— to take on a whole pig, and the Kimmichs knew that for their business to grow, they would need to start selling individual cuts of meat.

So after a few years of searching, the Kimmichs found a USDA facility in Fresno that met their high standards. J&R Natural Meat & Sausage in Paso Robles handles the butchering and packaging. With packaged cuts of California Kurobuta ready for sale, the California Meat Club was formed.

“Meat Club was our way of making people feel like they’re part of a community that in turn can help spread the word,” Jack says. “The first rule of Meat Club is: Tell everyone about Meat Club.”

Meat Club doesn’t require membership and there are no fees. Instead, it’s a series of regular pop-up appearances by the Kimmichs where customers can meet the family and purchase Kurobuta pork from the “Bacon Bus”—a repurposed school bus from Kentucky that they won in an auction last year.

Meat Club events are all listed conveniently on California Kurobuta’s website; currently there are one to three per week in Monterey, Hollister, San Jose, Los Gatos and Morgan Hill.

Importantly, doing direct sales with consumers rather than using distributors allows the Kimmichs to limit the markup on their products, which are inherently more costly to produce than inferior and less healthful and humanely raised pork.

Prices range from $10–$12 per pound for cuts and roasts. Sausage links (chorizo, spicy Italian, German, Vermont maple, to name a few) are $14 per pound, and bacon runs $8 per package. Bones for broth and pigs feet for dog treats are $5.

Discount cards are also always available, and the Kimmichs plan to start quarterly culls at the farm that they can sell at a reduced price. “I want everyone to be able to afford good pork!” Jack exclaims. “We want this to be affordable so people can truly eat healthy!”

The Kimmichs are also serving their sausages and roast and pulled pork at more and more events. For example, this past 4th of July they were part of the Hollister Independence Rally at Corbin where they partnered with Farmhouse Culture, the Watsonville sauerkraut maker.

“Meeting customers, especially those who share the same ideas about food and health, and hearing how eating well has changed their lives—that’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of this endeavor,” Jack reflects. “Watching the herd grow and knowing that they’re healthy and happy, and then being able to share that with a community is amazing.”

“It’s a lot of work, very challenging,” Sara adds. “But you always grow through challenge.”

California Kurobuta
Hollister
info@californiakurobuta.com
californiakurobuta.com

RECIPE

SIMPLE KUROBUTA PORK ROAST

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