A dozen miles southwest of Chico, CA, along some of the prettiest and most untamed banks of the Sacramento River, sits one of the largest private ranches that predates the State’s famous Gold Rush. Eighteen thousand acres of wetlands, native grasslands, old growth Oak forest, walnut groves, and ancient grain and bean fields are shaped by the meanderings of rivers, creeks, and undulating canals and levies that ripple through the property. This is Rancho Llano Seco.
The ranch is so old, granted in 1841, that it was originally measured in leagues (four square leagues to be exact). In it’s long history, the ranch has seen sheep, cattle, and pork on its lands with an array of animal husbandry techniques. Now it’s home to some of the best pork in California, maybe the country. In fact, at Electric City Butcher, we refer to Llano Seco pork as our “gateway meat” because folks immediately taste the difference when compared to the stuff peddled at most grocery stores.
So I thought it was time to let ranch owner, Charlie Thieriot, give me the skinny on his piggies. He started our phone conversation with a history lesson.
“Fifty years ago we were raising pigs very differently on the ranch.”
But like many family farms, Ranch Llano Seco couldn’t compete with industrialized factory farm practices or CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations.
“Basically, the pork farm went out of business because we were trying to produce the most amount of product at the cheapest cost,” says Charlie. “The current state of our food system is a product of that race to the bottom.”
It wasn’t until Charlie changed his ranch practices, and started offering sustainable and humanely-raised pork, that he became one of the most successful independent farmers in the region.
“I’d like to say we are the gold standard,” Charlie boasts.
So, what makes Llano Seco pork so great? According to Charlie, it comes down to clean living, low stress, and time, oh and money. Sounds a bit like a self help book to me?
So let’s get started…
Clean living starts with good land, and Llano Seco has plenty of it.
The ranch is big by California standards—17,767 acres to be exact. But half is set aside for a partnership with US Fish and Wildlife and conservation groups to create wetlands and native grass sanctuaries. The pork operation uses only about 90 additional acres. The rest has remained a bit of a time capsule, agriculturally speaking, relying on annual flooding of the Sacramento River to refortify the soil, limited irrigation, and draught-tolerant species of grains, beans and nuts.
“A pig eats three times its weight in feed,” explains Charlie. “People don’t realize that even organic feed has to come from China, Argentina, Brazil, the Midwest, depending on the time of year. Carbon footprint on that feed is HUGE!”
To combat the cost and environmental impact of feeding their hungry piggies, Llano Seco stuck to their roots, literally. Rather than import corn and soy—what 99% of all factory farm pigs munch on—Charlie had a nutritionist work up a special formulation of the grains grown on the ranch. The result is that 90% of their animal feed is raised on the property, and with very little water.
Ironically, feeding their pigs these lower calorie “ancient grains” (durum, farro, spelt, etc.) has another, tastier benefit. The animals grow more slowly than corn-fueled CAFO hogs. That means Llano Seco has to raise them for almost twice as long—about 9 months—to get their pigs to market weight. Allowing the pig a few more months of maturity means intensified flavor and texture of the meat, offering a much more interesting pork chop.
“Keep the pig low stress, that’s key.”
For Charlie, keeping things chill for his porkers is the biggest concern. Now, before you roll your eyes, this ain’t any hippie San Francisco woo woo stuff. I’ve even written about how stress can negatively impact meat flavor. It’s the real deal, and Charlie has plenty of scientific-looking papers to reinforce his point. Stress hormones secreted during inhumane raising, transporting, or processing can change the acidity levels in the meat, and negatively impact pork flavor and texture. Not good if you tout the “gold standard.”
To mitigate stress, Llano Seco starts with genetics. “Some heritage breeds are not comfortable in close quarters with humans,” says Charlie. By taking the positive traits of more common pigs (like the Large White), and combining them with more flavorful heritage breeds (like Duroc), Llano Seco gets “the best of both worlds.”
The pigs are also raised in humane conditions. Outdoors, they can root in pasture or lounge in the shade of open-air hoop barns. The pigs are also kept in small herds (about 300 head) of the same age. Kinda like keeping kindergarteners off the upper grade playground. Llano Seco also sends their animals to a USDA processer less than 20 miles away. This minimizes stressful tractor-trailer travel.
In general, at Electric City Butcher, we like to say our animals only have “one bad day,” that being when the animal heads off to be “processed.” But in the case of Llano Seco pigs, that might even be an understatement. After a short trip to the slaughterhouse, pigs are ushered into an elevator six at a time, and lowered into a carbon dioxide-rich room. The lack of oxygen lulls the animals to sleep just before they’re processed.
It’s “mind-boggling” how other farms are “torturing these animals,” says Charlie. “Of course a pig’s never been in an elevator before, but it’s a lot better than the alternatives I’ve seen.”
Doing the Right Thing
“If we really want to change the way people think about meat, prices need to go up, or we need to change the way we eat it.”
Charlie really lights up at this point. “I see a food pyramid where [meat is] at the top. I think it should be in the center of the plate for dinner,” he adds. “The rest of the time it should only be used to flavor things, or as one of many other diverse ingredients.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to that Llano Seco pork chop on my plate tonight.