Rock Bottom Ranch goes whole hog on sustainable agriculture education
Jason Smith grabbed an inch-thick layer of fat along the back of half a pig in two strong hands and gave several tugs until it ripped away from the carcass.
Smith, the director of Rock Bottom Ranch, explained to 14 onlookers that the fat would be ground and used in sausage.
The butchery class wasn’t for the faint of heart, but the chefs, restaurateurs, grocery store officials and frontline workers in the farm-to-table movement who watched him work were there to learn more about sustainable farming. Rock Bottom Ranch regularly holds butchery classes with consumers, but the gathering Tuesday was among the first for local workers in the food industry.
The audience included the owner and a chef at The Pullman, staff at Meat and Cheese in Aspen, and workers at Whole Foods Market and Skip’s Farm to Market in Basalt.
Smith said Rock Bottom Ranch has built its infrastructure and gotten its food-production systems in place. Now it is focusing on “getting information out to more people,” he said. “This was really a shift for us.”
During the butchery demonstration, Smith lamented that pork tenderloins are highly coveted by restaurants and their customers, but there are just two of the choice cuts per pig and they make up such a small fraction of the available meat.
Rock Bottom Ranch faces a challenge selling some of that other meat, but to be truly sustainable it has to go whole hog. It doesn’t make economic sense for farmers to raise a pig for only the most highly sought-after cuts, he said. So Smith, a former chef, offered advice on how less popular parts of the pig can be used.
“Typically they have 30 percent waste at the processing plant,” Smith said. “Here it’s about 8 or 9 percent.”
Smith won’t use lungs, brains or eyeballs. But other parts regarded by the processing plants as waste — stomachs, cheeks, tongues, jowls — are used.
The pigs raised at the ranch for over seven to eight months produce roughly 80 pounds of meat — tenderloin, pork chops, Boston butt, ham and bacon. Lesser-known pieces will be ground into sausage or used for soups and broths.
Pigs are an integral part of the sustainable agriculture mission at Rock Bottom Ranch, which is owned by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
“Pigs with their snouts are really good at rooting around,” said Alyssa Barsanti, agriculture manager at the ranch.
So they were enlisted to help rehabilitate the soil. The ranch started raising heritage breeds, Large Black and Tamworth, not so much for the meat, but to disturb the soil and return nutrients to the ground. Sheep, goats and chickens also are used in the process.
The pigs get to roam fenced parts of the ranch rather than staying confined in an industrial-sized building designed to make them put on weight as quickly as possible.
“It’s lived its life the way I think a pig ought to live,” Smith said.
He regards it as a serious matter to take an animal’s life, so he wants to use all the meat he can.
The message resonated with his audience. Dalene Barton, manager of Skip’s Farm to Market in Basalt, said so many customers just want pork tenderloin or bacon. She attended Smith’s class so she could learn more about other parts of the pig “to be able to serve our customers in a better way.”
Many customers yearn to know more about the food they are eating, so her goal was to pick up on suggestions of how customers could use other cuts. It helped to see in real time how Smith processed the pig and what he said could be done with various cuts, Barton said.
Taylor Wolters, chef de cuisine at The Pullman in Glenwood Springs and a midvalley native, said he wants to explore ways the restaurant can support small, local farms and restaurants.
“I really want to get involved with the relationship between restaurants and farms,” he said. “I think there’s a huge disconnect in the way that the industrial system is these days.”
There are challenges working with local ranches and farms, such as getting a regular supply and getting the consistency that diners expect, Wolters said. He’s determined to keep working to develop the relationships and find alternatives to business as usual.
“It’s hard to get away from,” Wolters said. “Restaurants are basically addicted to the convenience of being able to order cases of portioned meat and serve it just like that.”
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The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals this week affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit against the city of Aspen that challenged its zoning laws concerning Mill Street Plaza, which is home to locally serving businesses.