At Langley, BC's Laurica Farm, Cathy Finley's heritage breed pigs are living the good life, roaming free and getting belly rubs, all while "marinating from within" on organic food delights. But—just like us—they are also put to work tilling and fertilizing the land, and helping to minimize human food waste. By doing so, Finley's "carbon-positive pork" is not only helping the planet, but becoming incredibly tasty doing it.
Originally from the UK, the self-dubbed "accidental farmer" was just looking to feed her family after moving to Canada's west coast and becoming disenchanted with the nation's factory food industry. With her husband working full-time in construction, the mother of two says that her initial plan was just to grow organic vegetables. Soon, however, she began questioning how to take on what she calls a "truly permaculture" approach. For Finley, it just wasn't doable without animals.
"The principles of permaculture talk about reducing waste, protecting resources and building soils for future generations. The animals on a farm are the solution to those objectives," she says. "After two years of farming, I wouldn't know how to do it sustainably without animals ... their primary purpose is to work on the farm; the meat is just a byproduct of that, and a bonus!" And that byproduct is as palate-pleasing as it is practical. In addition to grazing, Finley's pigs are supplemented with human grade food waste (receiving zero commercially produced animal feed), including excess organic granola (from the beginning or end of the production line and not quite right for sale), along with spent grains from breweries, and fruits and vegetables, all otherwise destined for landfills. As an interesting result, Finley explains "if a pig eats excessive amounts of one food source, the meat will start to take on that taste." Hence, her pigs are "marinated from within." It's something her loyal clientele are great fans of, including chef Chris Whittaker of Vancouver's sustainable dining restaurant Forage. "I only consider Laurica's pigs for my home and restaurant freezer because of the ways she treats and feeds her animals," he says. "Finishing these types of animals on certain types of foods like nuts, corn, wine, and what have you makes a noticeably exciting difference in the flavor, so I am a big supporter. I can't wait to cook them this August!"
Finley says buyers are becoming increasingly interested in what their meat is eating. "I had one customer tell me she had purchased a half pig from a farmer that fed wheat flour, and—surprise, surprise—the meat was bland, dry, and tasteless." So, what is Finley's favorite flavor combo? "I like apple, sage, and pecans for the pigs that I personally eat," she says. "Sage is a great herb with pork, so I grow a patch specifically to use as pig feed." Finley also believes that the spent brewery grain gives the pork a particularly rich flavor, so she keeps that as a constant in their diet.
And when it comes to texture, she credits the organic granola, made up of 70 percent nuts, for contributing to her pork's uniquely decadent mouthfeel.
Dan Nosowitz, a writer for Modern Farmer, explains that studies have shown that meat flavor is in fact linked to feed, but "the link is complex." It has to do with feeding animals foods that are fat-soluble, making them more likely to stick around within the marbling of the meat.
Nosowitz looks to one of the most well-known luxury pork products, jamón ibérico from the black Iberian pig, as an example:
"The black Iberian pig isn't kept in pens but is instead encouraged to roam through the Spanish oak forests, gorging on fallen acorns. Acorns are quite fatty and rich in various tannins and other potent flavonoids, and it's believed that the diet has a direct impact on the flavor of the meat."
For Finley, however, the flavor of her pork is far from her top priority. "We've heard and read a lot about flavored pork, everything from pigs being fed whiskey to pot, and I think some of it is hogwash—excuse the pun," she says.
"To me, the welfare of the animal while it is here is of paramount importance. I don't want to see my pigs drunk, stoned, or gorging on the same foods day in and day out, and I don't believe that many of those things do flavor the pork."
Finley's focus on animal welfare is just one part of her overall greater goal, of educating the world on ethical and sustainable farming. It is her hope that the growing number of eco-conscious consumers will recognize the major divide between conventional factory farming and the type of work she does. "I get tired of hearing about how damaging meat animals are to the environment," she says. "We must start differentiating between factory farmed animals and an ethically raised animal."
Although her ethical treatment of both land and animals has made Laurica Farm meat products so popular in the region, Finley says she still faces backlash from animal rights groups, which she finds frustrating and sad.
"When the more extreme groups attack a small ethical farm, I believe they are being counterproductive," she says. "I understand we have different belief systems, but we have similar goals. On farms like ours, the animals are treated well until their death. In factory farms, cruelty thrives. If they close down an ethical farm, they drive customers back to factory farms; it makes no sense."
Finley hopes farmers like herself might one day be able to work alongside animal rights movement. "If we—the ethical farmers and consumers—and them—the animal rights activists—united, we could be a powerful voice against abysmal farming practices."
At Laurica Farm, producing food that is both tasty and ethical is not just a business; it is a way of living in harmony with the environment. "From the buildings to the crops, through to the animals we have here, it all has purpose other than the end product, and it's all led by nature," she says.
"It feels like a very unobtrusive way of farming the land." Plus, as Finley notes, being the exclusive operator of the small-scale farm, "I have to let nature do some of the work, which it will, if you enable it."