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An Iowa farmer’s quest for the perfect pig

IONIA, Iowa » There once was a young boy who built motorcycles with his father, raised pigs for Iowa county fairs and eventually fell in love with computers when his fingers first tapped a Teletype portal in middle school. He would write programs to help him with eighth-grade algebra and use ASCII code to create images resembling Playboy centerfolds.

When he grew up, he would parlay his ingenuity into a career of building Internet portals for cities and computer networks for big companies. He would spin another business from a whim and a joke — building aquariums out of old Macintosh computers.

And when he reached his mid-40s, right when one might expect his entrepreneurial flame to dim, he instead embarked on a new unconventional endeavor, one he hopes will revolutionize an industry.

Carl Edgar Blake II has tried to breed the perfect pig. Fatty, yet smooth. Meaty, yet flavorful.

He crossed a Chinese swine, the Meishan, with the Russian Wild Boar — emulating a 19th-century German formula created when King Wilhelm I imported the fatty Meishan to breed with leaner native wild pigs in what is now the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. They called that one the Swabian Hall. Dark and juicy, it assumed a place among Europe’s finest porcine.

Blake, 49, has bet that his 21st-century U.S. version — the Iowa Swabian Hall — can be equally delectable.

The early reviews have been promising.

Two years after his operation began, his pig won a heritage pork culinary contest in 2010, Cochon 555 in San Francisco.

"It was great meat," said Staffan Terje, the chef and owner of Perbacco in San Francisco, who prepared Blake’s pig for the competition.

"It was rich in flavor and well-marbled in its consistency," said Michael Anthony, the executive chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York, who cooked dishes for his restaurant with an Iowa Swabian Hall.

At a glance, you would hardly consider Blake part of the upscale culinary culture. His 6-foot-2-inch balloonlike frame, beard, ponytail and signature overalls with the left strap unslung (he owns a dark pair for funerals) scream more Andre the Giant than Jean-Georges. He shoots guns and soaks in hillbilly hot tubs (dig a hole, lay a tarp, fill with water and dive in).

Then again, Blake long has taken pride in his unconventionality.

"I can build a motorcycle, I can fly a model airplane, I can throw somebody out of a bar, I can wrestle a pig, and I can program a computer," he said. "I’m a strange duck, that’s for sure."

His leap into the heritage pork business started when he read an article online about a popular breed, the Mangalitsa, that a businessman was raising in Washington state. Unable to buy any of the businessman’s stock, Blake began researching heritage pigs and said he discovered that the Swabian Hall regularly outperformed other fine swine in taste contests.

After asking around, he eventually found Meishan hogs that Iowa State University was using for research and bought several of them. He bought a Russian Wild Boar named Hercules from a hunting reserve. In November 2009, the first Iowa Swabian Hall pigs were born.

They are floppy-eared with black fur, broad jowls, a thick rump, creased foreheads, and long bodies. When butchered, they have a broad slab of ivory fat to go with deep red meat, the antithesis of the "other white meat" craze when the pork industry moved toward leaner hogs.

But Swabians have not been universally admired.

Herb Eckhouse, the owner of La Quercia, a cured meat manufacturer near Des Moines, made prosciutto from one of Blake’s pigs and said he would not work with them anymore because they were too fatty. He said he was having difficulty selling them.

"We found that we preferred other breeds to that breed for their flavor," he said.

Criticism is among the smallest bumps in Blake’s porcine journey. He has had to wrestle aggressive pigs and even shot one. State inspectors have visited, demanding to see his wild boars out of concern that he possessed them illegally.

The police have responded to accusations of maltreated pigs. The gaunt backs of his Meishan pigs were normal, the result of their belly fat stretching the skin, he said he told the police, who were initially skeptical.

"You ain’t taking them over my dead body," Blake said he told the authorities, who, after further investigation, let him be.

There was even a suspected case of poisoning, Blake said. One morning in the middle of 2009, two men — one tall, one short — showed up in a black truck at a farmstead where Blake kept his pigs, he said. The family living there thought the men were friends of Blake’s, and they entered the barn with a black satchel. About a week and a half later, Blake said, his sows were birthing dead piglets.

At one point, Blake said, his herd had grown to more than 1,200. But the numbers have since dramatically decreased through sales, samples he gave away and some hitches in the raising process. There was one instance, he said, when an elderly man he had hired to raise the pigs botched a castration, leaving one testicle attached.

Blake also struggled to finance his operation, which he calls Rustik Rooster Farms. He went to banks, the government, angel investment groups and individuals but could not get anyone to invest. Things became so dire that he had decided to quit one day last summer, only to receive a call the next morning from a producer of the Travel Channel’s "Bizarre Foods," saying they wanted to feature him in an episode. The episode was broadcast Monday, and Blake said he has been inundated with calls from people across the country wanting pigs and bacon.

Over the past year, Blake has stepped back from his operation to regroup. He has hired Amish farmers in eastern Iowa to raise his pigs so he can focus on the marketing and sales. Several times a week, with a Rockstar Energy Drink in hand, he slides into a red, rusted 1994 Toyota pickup truck to make the five-hour round-trip journey from his headquarters here to the Amish’s rolling pastures.

In the meantime, he has supported himself by selling bacon, beef sticks, novelties like bacon floss and bandages, and roasting pigs for special events. By March, he said, he hopes to have about 50 of his Swabians market ready — he sells them for $3.75 to $4.50 per pound. Within the next seven months, he said, he hopes to have enough pigs to begin selling them weekly.

But Blake is never quite satisfied. He speaks giddily of the hydroponic chambers (not "hippie hydroponics," he says) he uses to make barley to feed his pigs, and of a "super pig" he is breeding — one with the tasty qualities of the Swabian but that can be raised at the speed of commercial pigs. For now, he is not saying much more than that.

"I think we’re on the verge of something," he said.

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