If you call Jack Kimmich on his cell phone, don’t be surprised when his voice answers: “This is Jack Kimmich, I’m either on the road or out with the pigs.”
He means it. He’s most likely out with the pigs.
All 200 of them.
A few years back, when Kimmich was serving four years in the Air Force, probably the last thing on his mind were pigs. Today, that’s pretty much all he has time to think about because he and his wife, Sara, are experiencing an overabundance of pigs on their 16-acre farm in San Benito County.
The couple proudly stated that their farm is “off the grid” for a number of reasons. It is, in fact, off the grid when it comes to meeting their own water, electricity and sewage requirements, through windmill and solar panels, wells and septic tank.
And they’re off the grid when it comes to letting people know exactly where in San Benito County their farm is located. This is for two reasons. The first is because their Berkshire pigs are basically free-range and are not fed or injected with antibiotics, so they’re highly susceptible to contamination brought in by curious strangers who want to see a real pig farm. The second reason is poachers who sneak in during the night to kill one of their valuable pigs.
Sara’s family moved from Chicago to Grass Valley when she was 5. Jack grew up there, and that’s where they met. Jack’s family was business-oriented and it was natural for him after he left the military to go into business for himself.
“He became a soil fertility consultant and had a landscape supply business in Salinas, which was basically a trucking business,” Sara said. “When we bought property in San Benito County, we wanted to move the business here.”
In 2009, Jack was working in construction and hurt his back. His doctor told him he needed to be in a different line of work. While recuperating he researched other options. Out of this research, along with suggestions from their daughter, they decided to raise pigs.
Jack said the idea, at first, was to grow specialty crops consisting mostly of herbs.
“But once we looked at the resources and what was available and realized it would take seven years to get the first crop, we started looking at something that would grow faster,” he said. “My daughter suggested we raise pigs. We looked at pasture-raised animals, which is much different (than mass-produced). They’re not confined. They’re out in the open. With our particular situation, we’ve got a lot of water and forest, so it’s a good area for pigs.”
With his trucking company background, Kimmich had a lot of experience composting food waste. He figured that local growers and packing facilities often needed to get rid of blemished or spoiled food.
“When you talk to chefs about the quality of meat, everything in the flavor is based upon the contentment of the animal,” he said. “When you put animals in a confined areas they have high disease issues, which means a lot of antibiotics and medications to keep them healthy. And the feedstuff that goes to these confined animal feed operations is not that good. It’s filler and not a good quality food.”
“Like grinding up feathers or adding dehydrated chicken waste and calling it protein,” Sara added.
Sara explained the reason for the taste and demand for their California Kurobuta branded pork is because of the Berkshire pigs, which she said is classified as the premiere table-meat breed because of what they eat and how content they are.
The Berkshire breed was originally from England, but Kimmich didn’t have to go quite that far to get his “start-up” pigs.
“It’s actually a little hard to buy them,” Sara said. “People in California who have Berkshires do not want to sell breed stock.”
Jack explained this is because they are prized by chefs and breeders don’t want to share the wealth.
“There are Berkshires in other parts of the United States, but at the time there were maybe five pure Berkshire producers in California, who only had a few breeding sows,” he said. “We ended up finding a nice guy in 2010, whose daughter had gone off to college, which meant 50 percent of his workforce disappeared. He had two pregnant gilts (pigs that have not had a litter) that he was willing to sell to us. About a month later, we ended up with 20 piglets. We had a lot of interesting experiences with that first litter.”
One of those experiences involved misunderstanding how fierce a mother pig can be.
“Jack wasn’t as familiar with farm animals as I was,” Sara said. “I grew up on a small farm and had been around them all my childhood. He didn’t realize how extraordinarily protective a mother animal is of its offspring. The sows were a little wild when we first got them and he would bring them treats out in the pasture and they just adored him. They were big animals by that time and would practically sit in his lap. He thought that relationship would continue after they gave birth. One day, he picked one of them up. It was fine, but then it started squealing and the sow charged at him.”
Jack picked up the story: “She was about 250 or 300 pounds and she knocked me over,” he said. “I had tossed her baby back to her, but she knocked me down and pushed me through the forest like a Dixie Cup in the wind. I ended up with my back against a tree and about three inches of leaf litter down my pants, and I’m holding her face and she’s trying to savage mine. I hit her several times and nothing was working. Then she backed up enough where I could stand up and she charged at me again. I kicked her twice and she turned around and went to lay down with the babies. I was laughing, thinking it was funny, but my poor daughter, who saw the whole thing, was really stressed.”
Later, he discovered the sow had bitten him in the stomach.
“And she gave me about a thousand tic-tac-toe marks in my rear end,” he laughed. “It was a good learning lesson in not letting the babies squeal. That night, though, I was feeding that same pig apples out of my hand.”
In 2011, in order to buy a boar of a different bloodline they had to travel to Arizona.
“He was younger and smaller than the sows when we first brought him home and they pretty much beat him up,” Sara said.
“But he was game for it,” Jack said. “I was concerned about his welfare because we had just spent quite a bit of money on him. But pretty soon it was just fun and games for him. He’s been our lead boar ever since.”
Kimmich said the American Berkshire Association is diligent in making sure the breed is kept pure.
“We’ve found that when someone contacts us about buying a live pig to raise, they soon call back wanting to buy a male and female and we find out that they’re breeders,” he said. “So, we don’t sell live pigs because we’ve worked hard to improve the stock and the quality of our pigs.”
He said people will cross-breed the Berkshires with other breeds and then sell them as if it’s Kurobuta.
“Kurobuta is a term the Japanese gave the Berkshire pigs that they really enjoyed when Queen Victoria sent some over to the Japanese royal family,” Sara said. “Kurobuta means ‘black pig.’ Kurobuta is a name that means something to chefs and foodies.”
Back when they decided that pigs were the way to go, they were told they would need investors to come up with $150,000 to start the venture.
“We thought we didn’t want to go into debt to do it,” Jack said. “We decided to start small and grow and see where it goes. The infrastructure is good, but the drought changed things. We never had to irrigate before. I’m trucking water from our well to the pigs.”
Because of the trucking contracts he once had, as well as contacts with growers, he arranged to set dumpsters at packing plants to take unmarketable vegetables. From this he developed a ration for the pigs that met all requirements for good, healthy growth. The end results were very contented pigs.
And contented pigs tend to breed more prolifically. With a gestation period of a little over three months the goal is to have two litters a year.
“It’s regulated by heat,” he said. “If it’s overly hot they will have smaller litters.”
“Temperature control is important to them,” Sara said. “And they have to have access to water to cool off. That’s why the water with all the trees is really a good environment for them.”
Of course, breeding and raising healthy, happy pigs is only part of the equation. There eventually comes the day when they have to go to market.
“We have a friend, Jonathan Roberts, known as the 'Pig Wizard,' who is a chef in Carmel Valley. He helped get the word out. Soon other chefs were finding out about it and we started selling to resorts,” Jack said. “Everything is USDA approved.”
He explained that in order to sell pork the pigs must go to a USDA kill facility, and then a USDA-approved cut-and-wrap facility.
“We have to drive the pigs to Palace Meats in Fresno, and from there they go to J&R Natural Meats in Paso Robles,” he said. “They cut and wrap to our specifications. They also smoke it or make sausage to our specifications.”
They’ve also catered food and wine festivals in Pebble Beach, as well as events at the resorts for National Geographic and Google. The word began to spread that the meat tasted different. And it looked different than mass produced pork, being a red meat rather than white.
“The nutritional content is also different because of their diet,” Sara said. “Our pigs eat with the seasons. They have walnuts in the fall, apricots in late spring, winter squash, and vegetables year-round.”
Because of what Jack says is a “glut of piglets on the ground,” a steady supply of vegetables is crucial.
“Phil Foster of Pinnacle Farms is helping us out,” he said. “I just called him up and he said he’d help us out for a bit. Our neighbor, Vintage Farms, puts vegetables in our bins by the fence and we transfer them directly to the pigs. It works out real well. We’re always looking for those solutions, because anybody can compost their stuff, but this is sort of a higher calling. And most of our growers are organic, so we know they’re getting good food. We’d love to tap into a couple more growers.”
They also have a working relationship with Lost Spirits Distillery in Castroville, to pick up waste comprised of barley.
As word-of-mouth spread about their California Kurobuta Berkshire Pork (a subsidiary of their company, Soils to Grow LLC), they had to look for even more ways to market it.
Thus became the meat club.
“It’s sort of a no-frills storefront,” said Sara. “But we take the meat to the people in our 1999 International school bus that we’ve installed freezers. We have a meat club at Brigantino Irrigation on the second Monday of every month. On Aug. 17 we’re having a meeting at First City Crossfit in Monterey. We’ll drive to a location whenever we get a large enough group of people who know they want to buy pork and value it for its flavor.”
Anyone who wants to join the meat club can go to their website, www.californiakurobuta.com, pull up an packing list to order as much or as little as they want to have delivered. Anyone can join and there are no fees or monthly membership dues. They provide a discount card that will give $10 off after the fourth purchase.
“The idea of the meat club came about because people would say they liked the meat, but they don’t live around Hollister,” Jack said. “We wondered how we could get it to people outside the area. That’s why we bought the bus. It has a handicap lift on it, so when we go to events and pull the freezer out on it, set it out and take it into a store.”
He said they’re willing to drive to just about any city in California if enough customers are there at a given time.
“We have customers who want us to go to Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Jack said. “Our marketing right now is trying to set up with our database to get enough people. We just started our Twitter account and that’s probably where we’ll get most of our customers. We’re also meeting with a buyers’ club soon. The goal is to process, load up the freezer, drive up to San Francisco, and maybe make two or three stops along the way, stopping at each for about two hours to give people enough time to show up. It’s all preplanned and we have businesses that let us use their parking lots.”
The farm and the marketing company, California Kurobuta, were “started on a shoestring.”
“Eventually, we’ll make some money and recoup our costs,” Jack said. “It’s just very expensive, so when we can work something out with growers who are throwing food away, I tell them that’s perfect for my animals. Sometimes they say it costs them $600 to throw it away. I tell them if they pay me $400 I’ll take it away. They’re happy with that.”
It’s a bit of a quandary that they have more pigs than they can deliver at this time.
“Part of the problem is that it costs a lot to pay for all the processing,” Sara said. “Unfortunately, our pigs have been a little too happy and have increased like rabbits. I’ve got seven pigs that I could leave the ground right now, but it’s a matter of coming up with the funds. We do it a little bit at a time. It’s like every farmer who’s starting something new and we’re at the tipping point. The demand is building; we just have to work on our ability to deliver them.”
To help them get past the tipping point they’ve come to rely on an international organization called the Help Exchange or HelpX (www.helpx.net) that provides interns.
“It’s made up of a group of people that when they want to get work experience or learn a new trade, they show up at your place ready to go to work,” Jack said. “You just provide room and board and teach them. They may stay anywhere from a couple weeks to two months.
“Our last interns came from England. There’s another organization called Woofers, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.net) that does pretty much the same thing. You get a lot of people with different skills. Typically, they come from other countries and they love to travel cheaply and this is a way for them to do it. We had a veterinary student from Scotland who was interning and she helped us with a project to crate train some piglets that are going to be sent to Hawaii as breeding stock.”
As for their future plans, Sara said they’d like to see the meat club expand. They’re in talks with a buyer from Full Circle Farms, an organic producer, in San Francisco, which they hope will be an additional outlet.
“There are just a lot of people who want really good meat,” Jack said.
“We were talking to a customer last night who has MS,” Sara said. “Over the last few years she has completely changed her diet, including our pork, and her MS is actually reversing, according to her doctor. She buys a lot of our pork.”
“There are a lot of cases like that,” Jack added. “There’s a lot of interest in our pork around San Francisco with people who have allergies and have compromised systems and want good food.”
Jack said that factory-style pig producers would have issues with his approach because he can develop a relationship with certain pigs in the herd, like the original boar they bought in Arizona.
“He’s probably 900 pounds now,” he said. “He was neutered sometime back and every time we went to put him in the trailer to take him to Fresno for processing, he’d run away and hide. Now he’s just a peaceful presence in the herd and when two boars get into a fight he wades in and breaks it up.”
Anyone who would like to order meat, check the schedule for meat club events, or find out more about the company, should visit the website, www.californiakurobuta.com.
The California Kurobuta Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/CalKurobuta?fref=ts.
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