Earning the chops in sustainable agriculture at midvalley’s Rock Bottom Ranch | AspenTimes.com

Earning the chops in sustainable agriculture at midvalley’s Rock Bottom Ranch

Jason Smith, director of Rock Bottom Ranch, prepares to quarter half of hog harvested the prior day at the sustainable-practices farm operated by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

Jason Smith isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty — or greasy and a bit bloody — as farmer, rancher, teacher and even butcher at Rock Bottom Ranch.

On a recent evening, Smith used two sharp knives, a cleaver and meat saw to demonstrate how to process half of a hog. Two days prior, the 7-month-old pig of the Large Black heritage variety was rooting around in a field at the midvalley ranch. It was humanely “harvested” Monday, split in half with a special saw, scraped of its hair and stripped of the few inedible parts and hung in a walk-in cooler.

On Tuesday evening, Smith turned half of the hog into 80 pounds of delicious-looking tenderloins, pork chops, Boston butt, fresh hams, boneless picnic roasts, 10 pounds of belly bacon and the like. Some parts will be ground into sausage. Tough shoulder cuts will be simmered in a crockpot to tenderize them. Leaf lard that peeled off the size of a small loaf of bread will be used for cooking and baking because it doesn’t retain a pork taste.

Little of the pig will go to waste. This one had a live weight of about 210 pounds. The hanging weight is about 70 percent of that, after the head, hair and organs such as the lungs, kidney and stomach are removed. Smith has educated himself on putting almost all of the hog to use. He figures if a person raises or hunts an animal, they have an obligation not let it go to waste.

“It’s a huge responsibility to take an animal’s life,” Smith said.

Classes prove popular

Rock Bottom Ranch, owned and operated by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, started providing classes in its commercial-grade kitchen this year. Once a month Smith or another staff member will demonstrate how food can be processed, prepared or both. In January, attendees learned how to use a whole chicken. February’s guest of honor was a pig. The classes are $30 for ACES members and $40 for non-members.

Smith doesn’t expect the audience of 14 that attended his pig-processing class to go whole hog and start butchering their own meat. He wanted to educate them on cuts. A group of four women from Aspen and one from Basalt attended the class together to learn more about buying and prepping various cuts. They call it their Mommy’s night out.

One woman explained she attended to gain greater knowledge of “what you bring to the table.”

Another paying customer, B.J. Schmidt, of Carbondale, explained, “I’m just fascinated by sustainable agriculture.”

He wants to see areas such as the Roaring Fork Valley grow more of its own food, and he wants customers to realize what options are out there.

When asked what he learned by watching Smith, Schmidt replied, “A lot of stuff you could do yourself.”

Using the natural breaks

Smith made processing the hog look easy — not in a physical sense but tactically.

“A lot of butchering you can do with your fingers,” he said as ran his fingers lengthwise along the crease halfway through an inch-wide ring of fat between the pig’s hide and the meatier interior. He suddenly yanks on the fat and starts pulling a big strip out of the belly. It yields a 10-pound hunk of meat that will later be cut into bacon strips — for many people the prize of a pig.

Smith, a former chef, said he worked at a number of places that performed their own butchery. He uses the natural breaks to quarter the half hog. Many big butcher shops are in a hurry to process meat so they use an electric saw and cut where it’s expedient, following a pattern. He takes his time, explores the bones and cartilage, and cuts where it is convenient. He uses the two sharp knives most of the time. Occasionally he gets out the small meat saw to get through bigger bones.

He likens it to demonstrating “old world kind of forgotten techniques.”

There is no smell. The hog bled out so it’s not a particularly messy process. The saw doesn’t spread many cuttings.

Despite his skills, Smith doesn’t butcher most of Rocky Bottom’s hogs. Colorado law requires them to be processed in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected facility if the meat is sold to the public. That requires a drive of two or four hours one-way to the nearest processing plants.

Smith said Rock Bottom Ranch’s operation is approved by animal welfare organizations — from the time piglets are born to the practices of the processing plants.

“All the things a pig needs to be happy are happening here,” he said.

Happy pigs

The 113-acre ranch is a combination nature preserve, education center and shining example of sustainable agriculture. Smith and ACES Executive Director Chris Lane have focused on bringing Rock Bottom Ranch back to its roots by promoting the farming and ranching. Hogs are a big part of the focus.

There are seven Large Black sows producing litters. The ranch also invested in two Tamworth gilts that are about to farrow for the first time this month. Tamworth’s are another heritage breed that is longer and leaner than the Large Blacks.

Rock Bottom will start producing some hybrids this year. All the nine females will be paired with Sugar, the lone Large Black boar on the ranch. (The boar and sows receive names; the pigs raised for meat are not. Tinkerbell is one of the staff’s favorite sows.)

Smith and his staff are aiming to raise about 60 pigs for meat this year. The pigs forage for roots and bugs on the ranch and receive daily rations of non-genetically modified organism grains raised and milled for the ranch by a family in Montrose

Rock Bottom Ranch chooses to process the hogs at about seven months and 210 pounds because they have less fat.

The pork is sold at Rock Bottom Ranch and at the summer Farmers’ Market in Aspen.


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