First comes a sudden rustling of leaves, followed by soft grunting and the patter of dozens of unseen hoofed feet hitting the Platte County earth. A stampede of 30 pubescent Meishan piglets darts out of a wooded area at the base of a rolling hill covered in native plants, legumes and organic maize.
“They look like elephants,” joked Molly Diven, who runs Odd Bird Farm alongside her fiancé, Jonathan Kemmerer — an unconventional farmer whose years of research and passion for sustainable agriculture is driving innovation within the fields and pastureland of Weston, Missouri.
“We love to encourage people to reconsider what normal is,” she added.
The 22-acre farm — with some of the highest elevation in the county, rich with deep loess soils and isolated from runoff contamination — is the perfect setting for Kemmerer’s against-the-grain approach: antibiotic- and hormone-free, non-GMO, sustainably raised Meishan pork, he said.
About 100 pigs — descendants from four Meishan piglets and two bred sows Kemmerer bought in June 2018 from a breed preservationist in Tennessee — grace the land, which includes a small organic vineyard, as well as all the corn, alfalfa, acorns and tasty foraging plants needed to feed the heritage hog breed in the self-contained environment.
Click here to learn more about Odd Bird Farm, which boasts meat featured at such restaurants as Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen, the Antler Room, Restaurant at 1900, Freshwater and Noah’s Cupboard.
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Meat the neighbors
As adorable as the 5,000-year-old breed of Chinese pigs might be — with their long snouts and elephant-like floppy ears — they’re a product, Kemmerer said of the harsh reality that despite their unusual appearance and soft temperaments, the animals aren’t pets or playthings.
Click here to learn more about Meishan pigs.
And they couldn’t produce a more different meat than their traditional oinking counterparts, which in modern times are raised most often on factory farms that leech taste, texture and character from the meat, Kemmerer said.
“There’s a reason why there was that marketing campaign of the ’90s: ‘Pork, the other white meat,’” he said. “[Farmers] figured out how to get pigs to grow really, really quickly. But as a result, you end up with this very lean, taut, flavorless white meat.”
Mieshan pigs, by contrast, offer an alternative — a reminder of centuries-old quality made possible by a renewed interest in ethical and sustainable processes rather than convenience, Kemmerer said.
“They are naturally inclined to produce this very red, very steaky, marbled meat,” he added, detailing differences rooted in the lardier animals’ slower growth rate — a key reason why traditional farmers have refused to raise Mieshan pigs and one factor that led to Odd Bird Farm’s status as home to the second-most genetically diverse herd outside of China.
The impact for Kemmerer and Diven’s farm: stronger, more resilient genetics, larger litters and a breed that can thrive on a diet of only 20 percent grain — with the supplement of Odd Bird Farm’s on-site grazing greenery and byproducts from such fellow businesses as Crane Brewing and Ibis Bakery — as opposed to 100 percent grain in many commercial operations.
Reduced dependence on farm machinery for harvest is an additional benefit of Kemmerer’s throwback processes, he said.
“There’s actually a method called ‘hogging down,’ which was very commonly done in the early 1900s in the Midwest where you grow a stand of corn and then you just send the pigs out there,” Kemmerer said, also referencing a French farming guide published in the 1980s. “If you have an animal that’s capable, why spend all the money and time harvesting and processing, storing and feeding back to an animal that can just go out there and take care of itself?”
Click here to explore Odd Bird Farm’s meat products, which are available for local pickup or delivery, and at the Overland Park Farmer’s Market.
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Bacon and balance
Up the hill from teenage pigs enjoying cool lowland temperatures and wooded shade, a dozen Mieshan adults relaxed under cover of a repurposed trampoline in the middle of a dirt pen. Others basked in the midday sun, half-covered in mud — their nostrils flaring as Diven and Kemmerer approached with a handful of fresh-pulled, wild-growing plants.
Raised on area farms themselves, Odd Bird Farm isn’t the couple’s first rodeo. But it is a journey that grew, in part, out of another lifestyle that proved less sustainable, Diven recalled, noting she and Kemmerer were once vegetarian.
“With the idea of veganism being the only option for sustainability, which isn’t true, people are just looking to be more conscious about the things that they consume,” she said.
Odd Bird Farm and its straightforward approach stand to offer an entry point to new ways of thinking about meat production and farming, Kemmerer added, noting the novelty factor plays hand-in-hand with the operation’s mission.
“I think that’s incredibly helpful. Being a small farmer, you can tell people about how the animals are raised differently, how your methods are sustainable — if not regenerative,” he said.
Such transparency is a benefit that has done the farm well on trips to the Overland Park Farmers Market, the duo said. They debuted their Meishan pork this spring, quickly selling out of their most popular products, which include shoulder/cottage bacon and jowl bacon.
“There were a couple of vendors who decided to retire [this year]. They had a bacon monopoly on the place,” Diven joked. “We were originally just going to have a Wednesday spot, and we do Wednesdays and Saturdays now.”
Click here to read more about how COVID-19 has impacted farmers market vendors.
Instagram and other social media platforms have also helped draw attention to the modern farming operation with a yesterday-style twist, making it a can’t-miss product for farmers market regulars, Kemmerer said.
“We’re doing regular deliveries direct to consumers via social media. … People like to ask us questions, and that’s kind of why we love farmers markets as just an institution,” he said. “It’s like having a direct relationship with the people who produce your food.”
Changing the way animals are treated is another important part of the couple’s farming path, Kemmerer said, noting cruelty was the primary source of his and Divine’s vegetarianism.
“[The mainstream pork industry] has been so focused on efficiency and growth rates,” he said of common practices in hog farming, which quickly yield butcher-weight pigs at the expense of their living conditions. “They’re just confining them and feeding them. And as a result, if you take a commercial pig and put it in a setting like this — it’s not going to do well because all of the inherent animal-type traits that pigs used to have essentially have been dried out of them.”
Though they’re ultimately headed to market, cultivating an environment that gives the pigs a high quality of life is among the most critical steps toward ensuring the balance and efficacy of a truly ethical and sustainable operation’s life cycle, he said.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.