This Whole Hog Went to Market

by Katherine Sacks
Will Blunt
December 2014

Restaurant

In the age of farm-to-table fascination kicked into over drive, how do you encourage your guests to go even further and bring the sustainability approach into their own kitchen? For Butcher Ben Thompson, owner of Arlington, Virginia’s The Rock Barn and a 2014 StarChefs.com Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star, the answer was easy. Inspired by both the community supported agriculture model and a desire to encourage guests to explore cuts and flavors beyond what they found at the meat counter, Thompson started his Porkshare program back in 2011, a CSA-like offering focused on bringing whole hogs into customers’ kitchens. “By teaching our customers to eat from all over the animal, Porkshare encourages them to explore beyond pork chops and breakfast sausage and really enjoy the rich culinary tradition of the pig,” says Thompson. “At the same time, the program pushes us as butchers to innovate and constantly improve.”

The program, which has nearly 300 members and averages about 30 shares ordered per month, provides a mix of seven to eight selections of fresh cuts, sausages, and smoked meats to its members, as well as recipes and cooking suggestions. Each month, Thompson decides on his “butcher’s choice” combination of half raw-half cooked pork products, highlighting cuts like bone-in rib chops and the pork skirt and cooked items like hickory-smoked bacon and their house “Daisy Della,” a mortadella-like preparation made with Virginia peanuts. Members can order weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly shares (each order costs $80), but the mix of meats only changes monthly, so during that month, everyone gets the same thing. “Because shares are built in proportion to whole hogs, it lets us bring customer buying habits in line with the natural resource itself,” he explains. “That’s a critical step for any sustainably-focused meat processing operation.” Thompson and his Rock Barn team originally raised the pigs themselves, but the program eventually outgrew their capabilities. They now work with a network of pig farmers, including a pig farm in Charlottesville, Virginia and the North Carolina Hogs Growers Association, to source the best products. They break down between 10 and 20 pigs per week (that’s 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of pork), and encourage further customer interaction by offering the shares both at The Rock Barn as well as at several local farmers markets.

While Thompson is thrilled to be making his whole-hog ideology “palatable and affordable for a couple at home,” he does admit running a program like this takes a lot of organization and administrative work. “Where meat is involved, ‘farm-to-table’ belies a much more complicated system: farm, transport, slaughter, further processing, storage, distribution, preparation, table,” he says. “The quality of your product can only be as good as the weakest link in that system.” For butchers looking to replicate a meat-share program, he stresses the importance of taking time to make every link in the system work.

But Thompson truly believes that time and effort is worth it. “Porkshare continues to be our best tool for engaging with our most committed clients,” he says. “If we do our job right, soon we’ll be struggling to sell our tenderloins. Folks will be lined up at markets for pig knuckles and jowl bacon.”

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