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Carl Blake is holding a tiny nugget of wiggling, squealing, culinary gold in his massive hands. Either black or brown, the piglets he scoops out of a pen on his northeast Iowa farm will dine on hydroponically grown barley and oat seedlings, sweet molasses, whole milk, as well as some grain for seven months. Blake tosses rectangular mats of green barley shoots and their tangled root mass into the pen where pigs scramble for the meal.
"Right there is the future of everything I've done for several years," says Blake, holding out a piglet that nips his finger. "It feels like I'm on the right track."
At the end of seven months, a list of chefs at high-end restaurants will clamor to buy Blake's pigs at nearly 4½ times the price paid for most of the pork you'll find in the grocery store. This breed of Blake's, known as the Iowa Swabian Hall, is special.
Dozens of the animals, from piglets to those nearing finished weight, now populate several old pens and shelters ringing his Rustik Rooster Farms. The chefs and other individuals from coast to coast who buy Blake's hogs swear by them.
"This is my favorite pig on Earth," says Kevin Nashan, the executive chef at Sidney Street Cafe in St. Louis, Mo. "His is the best pork I've ever had." Nashan takes delivery of one of Blake's Iowa Swabian Halls about every two weeks, paying up to $4.25 per pound for a 175-pound animal, complete with head and often the skin.
Nashan first met Blake more than two years ago at a Cochon 555 event he was judging in Chicago. Cochon 555 competitions are held around the country and feature noted chefs cooking a variety of so-called heritage pigs.
It was at such an event in 2010 in San Francisco that the Iowa Swabian Hall came out of nowhere to take top honors. The win put Blake on the "foodie" map. He won the competition again in 2011 and 2012.
The notoriety landed Blake on Andrew Zimmern's "Bizarre Foods America" show on the Travel Channel. Earlier this year, he appeared in a story on the front page of the The New York Times. Then Blake visited Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," where host Stephen Colbert ate prosciutto made from Blake's pigs, nuzzled an Iowa Swabian Hall piglet and cooed: "You are delicious."
The National Geographic Channel has already completed segments of a reality show featuring Blake tentatively called "Little Pig Man." The show, a kind of "Duck Dynasty" for hog farmers, has not yet debuted.
This adds up to a pleasant enough tale of one man's niche market. But it's nowhere near the end of the story as far as Blake is concerned. He has set about trying to transform the commercial pork market by breeding back real flavor with desirable levels of fat in pork that anyone can afford.
He hasn't always gone about his mission diplomatically. "U.S. pigs suck," says Blake, who, with his 6-foot-2-inch frame and ponytail, and weighing somewhere north of 300 pounds, makes an impression in more ways than one. "'The other white meat' campaign is one of the worst things that ever happened to our pork industry," he says. "This is a red meat."
Ironically, Blake has used a group of Chinese Meishan pigs he acquired from Iowa State University (ISU) as the basis for most of his breeding work.