Two Unlikely Farmers Craft World-Class Charcuterie for Conscientious Carnivores

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Photo Credit: Robyn Wishna
Photo Credit: Robyn Wishna

Heather Sandford and Brad Marshall never expected a life of swine.  They weren’t born of butchers, farmers or chefs. During their years at Cornell, they studied in the engineering and biology departments, respectively, not the University’s famous ag school. In fact, Heather was a vegetarian. But today their scrappy self-built farmhouse is permeated with porky scents, thanks to the smoker in their basement—the last stop before their magnificent meats take a ride down to the Piggery CSA’s pickup point in the East Village.

One bite of their spectacular meat, whether it’s right off the grill, smeared as pâté or finely ground into their all-pork hot dogs, tells you great care was taken from piglet to plate. And every bite thereafter will tempt you to personally thank them for following their gut and dropping their 9-to-5 desk jobs.

After graduating from Cornell in 1997, the couple followed the expected paths of young professionals. They moved to Manhattan where she worked in the record industry; he, molecular biology. They say the upside to their “shitty, expensive” apartment a few blocks from Union Square was the unbeatable access to heirloom tomatoes, coffeekissed Ronnybrook milk and conversation with farmers. Indeed it seems all of their free time was spent in pursuit of real food. In between shifts at the office, Brad even took an intensive 12-week La Technique course at the French Culinary Institute, where he learned everything from deboning duck to making perfect pastry dough.

The booming economy drew them out to San Francisco, where they spent five years as dot-comers, realtors and obsessed frequenters of the famed Ferry Plaza market. If there was a first day of the rest of their lives, it came when Heather spotted a whole hog for sale on Craigslist.

“It was just bouncing around the back of my head,” Brad recalls of the listing. “A whole hog…huuh.” In a classic West Coast story, a Northern California co-op of farming friends were picking up and moving on, and needed to quickly find a home for one unwanted pig. Brad bought it, arranged for its slaughter, then called up an area butcher and told him exactly how he wanted it cut—with nary a scrap to enter the grinder, not even the head. What followed was a well-stocked freezer and a crash course in ways to wring maximum flavor and value out of every morsel of pork.

The first standing rib roast was an epiphany: “I was like, ‘Wow, that was really good.’ I never had pork like that.” Contrary to the Other White Meat ads, well-raised heritage pork looks like any other red-blooded animal—it’s dark red and brown and way juicier than typical supermarket stock, which most often comes from the lean White Landrace, bred to have very little fat, and raised in such tiny pens that they never develop real muscles.

Themselves yearning to escape their cubicle-pens for a life on open pasture, Heather and Brad decided to purchase a one-acre plot just outside Berkeley. But when permits proved problematic, their thoughts turned to the gorgeous countryside near Cornell, where, despite the long winters, a serious sustainable food scene had taken root. Over a beer they thought, “Why not?”

So in 2007, several books on homebuilding and agriculture under their belts, they began a new life as novice homesteaders in a tiny hut on the nearly 70-acre land they bought in Trumansburg, a half hour from the famed Ithaca Farmers Market—where the two committed customers would soon become vendors.

As if anyone has to ask “Why pork?” Brad replies, “Because pork is awesome?” with an implied “duh!” Plus, he says: “I just like the personality of pigs. They make me laugh.”

The original back-to-the-land plan was to make hard cider and rear a healthy smattering of livestock, but they soon discovered that chickens, ducks, turkeys, standoffish Scottish Highlands and a milking cow named Daisy all required far more maintenance than their easygoing pigs. “For some reason, our cows were fencejumpers,” recalls Brad. “But our fences were pretty half-ass at that point, so it wasn’t really their fault.”

The real rewrite came after their milking cow got fever and dropped dead, leaving one male calf (that is, non-milking) and a quite-literally raging bull: “He was bucking around the neighborhood,” remembers Heather. “It was dangerous,” says Brad, “and I didn’t have any way to pen him up.” A neighbor saved the day but, “the whole cow experiment really ended on a bad note,” Brad laughs now, with the kind of “what-can-you-do?” humor that keeps this couple lighthearted and looking forward. “That was kind of the end of that.”

Pigs, on the other hand, were almost too productive. “A cow takes two years to breed again,” explains Brad, making for a slow-growing herd. “And a pig is like, ‘pshh’—six months, they’re ready to go!” “Like, tomorrow,” laughs Heather.

“Yeah, you have to keep them apart,” says Brad. “Chunck [their main boar] jumped the fence one night and got five sows pregnant.”

These days, the hut is used for storage, Brad has built a proper home complete with a tricked-out basement for butchering and crafting charcuterie, and the fields are home to nearly 200 pastured hogs. Out of trial-and-error chaos emerged not just a successful farm but something very rare in the meat business: a pig-to-pork operation that sees the slaughterhouse not as the finish line but just as a short break in the action—that’s because after the pigs meet their fate in a small USDA-approved facility across Seneca Lake, Heather and Brad bring the carcass halves back home and set to work transforming them into every imaginable incarnation. They butcher the meat into chops, ribs, loin, shoulder and sirloin, but also cut, cook and cure certain cuts into bacon, sausage, deli ham, baking lard, mortadella, pâté, terrine and whatever other concoctions their 800-plus Facebook fans deem worthy.

This is made easier by their insanely efficient bacon-slicer whose tray gradually lowers for optimum stacking, a European-style chopper (for grinding meat into sausage, pâté and mortadella), a smoker and a “vacuum stuffer” for sausages and hot dogs that pulls out bubbles for a better snap. “This is what I’d be taking over my shoulder,” motions Heather, if say, fire or flood were to come. In their makeshift walk-in sit pre- and post-smoked bacon and deli ham, leaf lard awaiting a shave, and other goodies bound for market-goers and shareholders. The pâté, by the way, is wrapped and untraditionally set in the smoker—not a bad signature twist.

“I love cooking with pork,” says Brad, who remains as excited as he was about the Craigslist pig. “There really isn’t another meat that gives you the same range of choices.” He then launches into a Bubba Gump Shrimp–style litany of favorite dishes. “Like, starting with a pork shoulder,” he says, lifting his hands as if he’s carrying the hunk.  “I can roast it, make it into sausage, make it into carnitas”—which he does, and tops with homemade smoked poblano sauce and pickled slaw in a soft taco—“I can make it into confit, make it into pulled pork. You know? Like, give me a pig, and the belly can be bacon or confit or fresh pork belly or a roast or pancetta. And then there’s the whole aging of meats.” Actually that was the initial plan for the pigs.

But Brad had called up legendary salami-master Paul Bertolli, who advised against the venture. “He actually talked to me, which was great,” he laughs. “And he was like, ‘Ugh, don’t start with cured meats. Just start with fresh sausage. People love it. It’s so much easier.’ When I got off the phone I was bummed, but in retrospect, it was the best advice I could’ve been given.” A quick six-session course in charcuterie back at FCI, further talks with butchering experts and pure curiosity while browsing meat counters laid the foundation for Brad’s mastery of pig anatomy and a quest to optimize its meat. “We were using tenderloin for our sausages at first,” says Heather, “which wasn’t too cost effective.”

Their first trip back to New York City as pig farmers was for a tasting they held at Green Spaces in downtown Manhattan, where they met the owner of Brooklyn’s the Meat Hook, who invited Brad to hold a class on pastured pork and lent them their first city spot for CSA dropoffs. They were later invited to the New Amsterdam Market (thanks to fellow Finger Laker and New Amsterdam Market vendor Bellwether Hard Ciders). There, fate sat them next to Jimmy Carbone’s booth. While the market stand didn’t last, the relationship with Carbone did.

Proprietor of the East Village’s trusted locavore hub Jimmy’s No. 43, Carbone was impressed with the Piggery’s rare all- inclusive farmer-butcher-chef performance. Today he serves their pork skillet-fried, braised and roasted alongside his superlative suds—and also proudly hosts their Manhattan CSA pickups out of the back of the restaurant: for an upfront or monthly purchase, portions of a half or quarter hog (three pounds each week for $360; or six pounds for $660) arrive weekly for pickup at Jimmy’s No. 43 (they also offer three pickup points over in Brooklyn). Each of their roughly 140 shareholders gets a mix of fresh cuts and charcuterie each week for 12 weeks, and each session kicks off with a porky buffet, a bluegrass band and a butchering demo led by Brad for a lowly ticket price of $35.

“Pretty much, when Brad starts breaking down the pig, everyone stops talking,” laughs Carbone, noting that the packed event usually resorts to a battle for better views of a whole hog being broken down into cuts and served up fresh off the cast iron.

Jimmy’s No. 43 tends to keep dishes simple, and with meat like this, that’s easy to do, explains Carbone. “There’s a little more fat, and a sweetness.” The kitchen uses the Piggery’s braising cuts for hearty roasts and stews or simply skillet-fries their sausages to serve with mustard and seasonal greens—which “makes a good beer dish,” says the founder of Good Beer himself. (Good Beer is a seal Carbone developed to recognize craft beer excellence—it quickly translated into Edible’s own annual Good Beer party and Mayor Bloomberg’s declaration that July should forever be Good Beer Month.) Piggery pork bellies get braised in Espelette pepper and served with parsnip purée, and the ham leg—an “under-appreciated” cut, says Carbone— needs only a simple roasting. “It’s great because I know they raised it, so I know it’s coming from a good animal.”

Indeed it is. The farm is home to nearly 200 crossbred Berkshires, Yorkshires and Tamworths in shades of black, red and white, a pair of breeding black Mulefoots, Chunck and Chunkette, and a white-and-black-spotted Gloucestershire sow named Pigsalad. Fans can follow their daily antics on Facebook— depending on the season, they’re partial to huddled napping, dandelion nibbling and snowdrift surfing.

But while the pigs are taking life easy, Heather and Brad remain hard at work, especially after opening a deli in Ithaca last November with a fresh meat counter—other than buying a CSA share or visiting the Saturday farmers market in Ithaca, it’s the only place to buy their goods—and ever-expanding to-go treats like pulled-pork tacos, breakfast burritos and addictively tender hot dogs with a neat slather of organic ketchup, spicy mustard and sweet pickles. Still, with a newly hired farm manager, two butcher- chefs and a butcher-curious deli employee, the days of prepping for market till 4:00 a.m. are over. The expanded crew banters from walk-in to packing counter, piling up NYC-bound bundles in bins to be sent out the next morning by a traveling musician.

Upstairs, the couple’s home kitchen owes a no-frills charm to exposed beams (from trees felled by Brad) and a Southwestern-style fireplace built with room to hang or rack roasts. Then there’s the ancient, drunk-purchased, crank-handled, copper-plated gas stove with an imbedded back burner Crock-Pot made for slow stews.

Heather, resident “people interactor by choice,” serves as the marketing and customer relations branch for the Piggery brand, updating the Facebook page with pig news, pictures and reminders of CSA pickups. “We’re just super enthusiastic about what we do,” she says. “So the other day I was like, ‘Wooo, my pigs just had sex yesterday!’” Social networking also saved her hide when a CSA distributor became unavailable at the last minute (“I had about five responses and a new coordinator nailed down in exactly three minutes”) and is great for polling patrons (“I kind of tricked Brad the other day and posted, ‘Brad has just committed to making scrapple!’ to see how people would react, and it just blew up, so I was like, ‘Well, there’s no turning back now!’”).

Brad, who prefers the herd and the kitchen to the computer, has tapped a bevy of old farm books—in particular, a gem from 1850 called Feeds and Feeding by F. B. Morrison. He’s also gleaned a stack of century-old agricultural studies on pig diet experiments, which he’d love to revive when he has the time. Meanwhile, Brad supplements the pigs’ wild salad bar with squash seed cake, a by-product from a local company that presses squash seeds into culinary oil.

Heather reflects, “It’s taken us a good three or four years to figure out a good pasture system and how to farm. We’re just so happy we finally know what the heck we’re doing.” And even better, Brad adds, they’re able to pass that knowledge on. Now they’re the ones in a position to give advice. “Other small farmers from other states call up,” says Heather. “And what Brad tells them is, ‘You have to understand that if you’re going to do this, you’re going to go from a full-time farmer to a part-time farmer and a full-time butcher.’”

“The farming is obviously the most important part,” allows Brad. But now that their systems are in place, they spend 90 percent of their time on processing, distribution and marketing. They rotate the pigs over a squared-off plot, glad for them to trample over whatever vegetation they’d rather not eat. “Because that becomes your mulch, and that’s what’s really building your soil.” Otherwise, the plants the pigs don’t like will eventually take over the field.

Spring through fall, the floppy-eared colony can be found napping and nibbling on 30 acres of clover, dandelion and oats, and drinking from the natural spring at the edge of the farm; they pass the winter on thick hay beds in an open barn, supping on a no-soy, no-corn feed mix of that squash seed cake, plus sunflower, oats and triticale (a cross of wheat and rye). On this fresh diet, Piggery pigs arrive at market weight (250 to 350 pounds) at around 8–10 months—much more slowly than their CAFO brethren, who are slaughtered at half that time.

Over tea and dried cranberries, the husband-and-wife team sit on barstools at their mega misshapen red kitchen island and pause to consider how they got where they are.

“We’re kinda scrappy,” says Heather. “I think it’s great that we didn’t grow up as farmers because when we first started, our friends were like, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t sell fresh meat at the farmers market.’ It didn’t occur to us that that’s not how you do things, and that’s been an asset. Like, ‘Why can’t you do that?’”

The pair sees similar startups as cohorts, not competition, and, as Brad points out, New York has many, many mouths to feed: “If we want a world with better food, it’s about helping other people figure it out. Even if we were sending in a tractor-trailer filled with pork every other day, that’s still only [enough to feed], like, one block of Manhattan. You could have thousands of pig farms just servicing New York.”

“We’ll see…or maybe we’ll just go back to homesteading,” he says. Either way, this pair will never be bored, thanks purely to the fact that they crack each other up—like over Brad’s idea for faux tofu cubes made out of pork; they are insatiably curious of an ever-more sustainable life and are proud to let the other do what each does best. And as long as they’re into this, there’ll be good meat for the rest of us.