One of my favorite parts of my job as Chef at Down House is getting to know all of the people who supply us with food. Lots of people like the idea of buying local and want to support it; our producers are people who have actually committed their lives to making that possible. The chance to work with people like this – people who see what they do as a passion first and a job second – is as important to me as the environmental benefits of buying local.
Felix Florez, owner of Black Hill Ranch, is one of these people. Four years ago he saw a need for locally produced meat and changed his whole career path to make that happen. We have been buying his incredible pork since we opened, and he has been an invaluable resource to us as we have grown. Last Monday we snuck out of the kitchen and took a trip out to Katy to visit his farm and find out more about what he is doing, why he is doing it, and what the future holds for Black Hill Ranch.
How it all Began
Felix has been in the service industry his whole life, starting with his first restaurant job at 15, but his move to swine is more recent. “I started raising pigs while I was a sommelier at Brennan’s. I got tired of watching chef’s order shit from out of state, you know? Seriously, I really couldn’t believe it, every time someone was opening something it was from Sonoma, or New Zealand, or Colorado. It was really irritating, there was no reason why it should be that way,” he explained when we arrived at his ranch.
He started with two acres in Cypress and a handful of pigs just under four years ago. Now he has what may be the largest collection of heritage breeds anywhere in the US on a ten-acre farm and a network of small independent growers who raise pigs to his strict all-natural protocols. He processes between 20 to 30 pigs a week for delivery to restaurants in Houston, Austin, New Orleans, and Miami, and is bringing on new accounts constantly.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep one person busy Felix is also launching a new venture – a butchering and distribution company. “Its going to be called TRN, Texas Rancher’s Network, because its just that – it’s going to be a network of all my ranchers. I’m buying their stuff and it’s filtering through me and into the restaurants. You have a lot of guys out there who really want to be using the local stuff, but they can’t because of space or because of butchering know-how. [Through TRN] I’ll do it all and then I’ll sell it to them cryovacced and cut the way they want.” He has already secured a lease on a butcher shop and expects to be selling locally grown pork, lamb, goat, beef, rabbits, and more to restaurants across Texas very soon.
The Heritage Breeds
“What you see here right now to you may look like just a bunch of little pigs running around,” says Felix as he gestures to the feeding pens, “but to me what I see is — you won’t see this anywhere else in the entire United States. Nobody has the amount of breeds we have and it’s for a reason. It’s very difficult to keep up with all of it.” He’s referring to the heritage breeds he is raising, which currently include Hereford, Red Wattle, Berkshire, Meishan, Ossabaw, Large Black, Swabian, and Mulefoot pigs, in addition to the more common breeds including Duroc, Iron Age, Blue Butt, Poland China, Yorkshire, and Hampshire. He is also working on his own cross breed, a new pig he is calling Black Hill Swabian.
These are old breeds that have dwindled over time as farmers have focused on pigs that grow quickly and are disease resistant, although these conventional pigs are not necessarily the pigs that taste the best. “Those common breeds, the reason they are common is because they are genetically bred to grow fast and they are also bred to not hold a lot of intramuscular fat. The reason for that is because people decided years ago that fat is bad, you shouldn’t eat fat. So that’s what they did, they bred them in such a way that they were lean,” Felix tells us as we look over his heritage pigs in the final holding pen. The end result of this conventional breeding process is the pork we are all familiar with, the dry, tough and flavorless chops in the shrink wrap at the grocery store.
Many of the heritage breeds only have one or two genetic lines left and raising them presents a host of challenges. These pigs have not been bred for rapid growth or disease resistance, but rather for fat and flavor. When you add in the fact that Black Hill doesn’t automatically medicate all of their pigs like a commercial producer the situation gets even harder. Says Felix, “There’s a reason why the big producers heavily medicate their pigs, because they lose a shit-load of money to mortality rates. The guys in suits say ‘why lose so much money, we’ll just drug the hell out of them so they can’t die. Who cares if that’s what people eat? We’re making money!’” Black Hill takes a much different approach; the pigs are not given medicated feed, growth hormones, or antibiotics.
All of this adds up to more work, more costs, and smaller margins for Felix, “You gotta understand, everything we do costs money. I mean everything, every possible thing costs; labor, materials, gas, all of that, and as you know I don’t charge a lot, so there’s only so much money,” he explains. Other farmers don’t even understand what he is trying to do. “If other pig farmers were to come out here and look at all these pigs,” laughs Felix, “they would say ‘what the hell is that? What’s that one with them big ole ears? Why the hell would you want a pig that takes two years to grow?’”
But for Felix there is a larger goal, he is a man with a mission. He is dedicated to keeping these rare breeds alive and growing, “If there aren’t enough people doing this, then it’s going to stop. We won’t have these breeds anymore,”
The Black Hill Difference
As anyone who has ever had our pork hash or one of our steaks knows, Felix’s pork is not the like the pork you get at the grocery store. It is succulent, well-marbled, and deliciously… porky. This is partly due to the heritage breeds, but also due to Felix’s all natural diet and free range set up. “In a commercial setting they get [a pig] ready in three months. And that’s from a baby. That’s all growth hormones and antibiotics,” Felix explains as we tour the outdoor breeding pens. Black Hill pigs take anywhere from 10 months for the common varieties to up to 2 years for some of the heritage varieties. The pigs are fed a healthy and non-medicated diet of grains, fruits, and vegetables and they have space to roam around outdoors. The pens are already spacious with grass and shrubs to eat, shelter, and mud to wallow in and Felix is actively building more fences over the 10 acres so the pigs have more room to roam freely.
That difference means more money and less profit, but for Felix it’s worth it. “You obviously aren’t doing this because you make tons of money. You do it because you have a love of doing it and you want to preserve the animals and do things the right way. It should bother people what they feed their kids, the amount of hormones and antibiotics and shit that they are feeding their kids. That’s the main reason for doing all of this.”