In all of my 10-plus years as a writer for Local Flavor, I’ve never been asked before if “I’d smelled the place” as I arrived for the interview. But I suppose pig farmers are particularly sensitive about that sort of thing, and Robert Kyzer of Kyzer Farm—in the agrarian-driven South Valley of Albuquerque—is no exception. Indeed, I hadn’t (and let it be known for the record I have a particularly keen sense of smell)—quite the opposite; Kyzer Farm is organized, clean and full of happy Berkshire, Red Duroc, Old English Spotted and York hogs. Robert’s father bought the farm in the 1970s to be in the horse business, raised six acres of alfalfa and ran it as a horse property until Robert took over in 1996. In those days, he says, everybody was growing alfalfa, and in order to make the farm more competitive and create a niche market, Robert bought 15 heritage sows and began the hog farm that he and his wife, Pauline, still run today.
It was clear from the beginning they wanted the hogs to be raised in a more natural, sustainable manner—this practice, however, required research and ingenuity. Most piglets are weaned and put in a small pen once they reach 25 pounds in order to begin a grain diet, which quickly fattens them before processing and distribution. In farming, Robert says, “Time is money––so for most industrial farming, the faster you can grow the animal, the better.” Because these pigs are weaned early, they need to be given a battery of antibiotic shots to combat diseases and strengthen their immune systems (which is normally the job of their mother’s milk). But Robert and Pauline believed healthier, cleaner pigs would produce a more tasteful, nutrient-dense product, so they wanted to raise hogs that were free of antibiotics, early weaning and the stress of confinement. But they had to figure out how to get those first 15 to a place where they were strong enough not to need the antibiotics.
Robert walks me over to a large shed and points to a 10-foot-by-10-foot stack of bags that look like they weigh at least 50 pounds a piece. “See those over there?” he points. “That’s goat’s whey. If we have a piglet going down, we put it on a goat’s whey diet and have found that it’s a much better product than an antibiotic shot.” This, he explains, requires the farmer to be on his game 24 hours a day, seven days a week—more like a scientist, constantly monitoring the livestock. With a weathered smile, he nods toward the 75 pigs happily snorting and squealing.
“This is not a haphazard job where you just throw food out there and expect the animals to pop up and grow,” Robert says, “because it doesn’t work that way. We check our hogs three times a day; morning, afternoon and evening, to make sure they have plenty of water and nobody is upset or getting dehydrated or overheated. We make sure that their life is comfortable because that’s what supports the farm.”
The Kyzers also needed to figure out how to breed and develop sows that would nurse and take care of their offspring until they weighed 45-55 pounds. Not only do they allow the piglets to nurse longer (which in turn makes them stronger, healthier, happier and more nutrient-dense), but once they are weaned, the fattening up to “top hog” status (when the pig weighs approximately 260 pounds) is slowed as well. Most industrial pig farms take only 150 days to reach this weight, but at Kyzer Farm they extend that to 230 days, which is why, Robert explains, their meat is a little more expensive. He also feeds the pigs a No. 1 grain (close to edible for humans), and each bag of grain is meticulously scoured with black lights to check for mold and other undesirable things.
“What we’re trying to teach people, when you buy pork from us, you are buying fresh pork that’s usually been processed within the week,” he explains. “When you get somebody else’s brand of pork that’s been out on the trucks and the warehouses for much longer periods of time and so the flavor is not there.”
Currently, La Montanita Co-op is Kyzer Farm’s largest distributor, and a smattering of restaurants around New Mexico feature Kyzer pork, such as Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm (Los Ranchos de Albuquerque), Radish and Rye (Santa Fe) and Love Apple (Taos). I spoke with Joel Coleman, Owner and Chef of Fire and Hops, a gastropub in Santa Fe that opened about two years ago, who says he’s always been a big supporter of local products (as evidenced in their tagline “Local. Sustainable. Quality, Friendly”). Joel notes that as soon as the restaurant switched to Kyzer pork a year ago, they began to receive positive feedback from patrons. “You can taste and see the difference,” he explains. “First and foremost, you can taste the freshness of eating a product raised 60 miles from us, and you can see it in the marbling, the vibrant color, the fat content.” All of which adds vivacity to dishes like the beer-brined pork for the Cubano sandwich, or depth to the BBQ ribs done gochujang style (the restaurant goes through 80-100 pounds of ribs per week), which Joel can’t seem to be able to take off the rotating menu.
In addition to making his products available at more restaurants, Robert is looking to diversify in creative ways that highlight the local gems of our agricultural community without compromising his “hand raised and healthy” practices. The industrial mantra “bigger is better” cannot apply to small farmers and ranchers, and so they must also be innovative entrepreneurs in addition to all of their other roles. He is looking to obtain a USDA certification to set up a “mobile matanza” on the property and access some of the more Old World European traditions––unique dishes that grandmother used to make––in order to tailor and personalize orders from customers.
Robert shows me a photo on his phone of what he calls a tomahawk chop, a unique cut created one day when a few butchers were over at the farm; the “blade” is the loin, the “handle” of the tomahawk is the rib. The skin remains, as this creates a protective cover that forces the fat into the muscle tissue, which retains the flavor they work so hard to create when raising the hogs. Robert envisions wiener schnitzel for German customers (which makes my Bavarian tastebuds tingle), blood sausage à la Italian and French style, or cured hams done in the onsite smoker––really any cut or mode the customer prefers.
Robert has a lot of respect for his relationship that he’s spent years cultivating with La Montañita, and believes being able to process onsite will allow them to customize and increase distribution at the Co-op’s end. But he’s clear that he wants to stay on the farming side of things, despite the myriad challenges—water, or lack thereof, being right there at the top of the list. Although Robert loves the South Valley, “agriculture is not like it was 20 years ago,” he states plainly. Further development in the city, he explains, has had tremendous impact on the farmer.
Although Kyzer Farm has ditch rights, this year they’ve had to switch to a generator and well system of watering because they’ve received notice from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District that they were allowed to irrigate at two cubic feet of water, down from nine cubic feet, making it impossible to raise a decent crop on that slow of a water flow. “We hand-raise all of our animals—we’re not big and fancy like a corporate farm,” he says, “and I’ve got 35 acres to work with, so the land is not the issue. The issue is being able to bring the land with the product.” Kyzer hopes to continue to receive support for his efforts from the entire community––from the policy makers to you and me, standing in front of the refrigerated meat section, wondering which brand to buy.
Story by Emily Beenen