Florida's Best Pork Producer Hangs It Up After Hurricane Irma's Devastation
Zachary Fagenson, Miami New Times
March 7, 2019
Jim Woods' Palmetto Creek Farms in North Florida is in the midst of shuttering, leaving some Miami chefs scrambling to find a substitute for his top-quality, heritage breed pork that has been lauded statewide and around the country.
"We're grasping to find something as good," said Edge Steak & Bar executive chef Aaron Brooks, who used Woods' Hereford pigs for everything from his whole hogs for Sunday brunch to the heads and other parts for the restaurant's charcuterie program. "He'd drive down every week from Orlando to deliver us a pig, and that care translated into the pork. We tried other pork but nothing tasted as good as Jim's."
Woods, who is 63 and speaks with a calming Southern drawl, grew up on his father's dairy farm and earned pocket money as a teenager working there before dawn. Despite wanting to farm for life, he went into real estate after school. Business went well, and in 2001 he was able to purchase a 30-acre tract in Avon Park to scratch a longstanding itch. He bred about 10 varieties of pigs to show at various agricultural shows through the state. In 2007 the University of Florida invited him to a meeting on heritage meat pigs.
"They demonstrated to us the difference between commodity pork and heritage breed meat," Woods said. "I immediately knew this is what I needed to focus on."
By the time the financial and real estate crisis began taking hold in 2007 he was well off and fed up enough to give the building business the boot, and decided to pour himself into raising pigs.
His preferred breed was the Hereford. A hefty, dark-skinned, thick-haired breed that boasted a meat-to-fat ratio few chefs could resist. Michael Schwartz was one of his early champions, and he's sold to Loews Miami Beach, 3030 Ocean, and the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale. Woods was widely lauded for his vertical pig production. Part of the reason mass production prefers pink pigs is because they have softer hair that's easier to remove during slaughter. The Hereford's bristles wouldn't come out so easy, and in the pig slaughtering business, time was far more important than quality.
"A white pig takes about three to four minutes to dehair, mine take 15 to 20 minutes and they wanted to triple my price," Woods said. "The first plant I was in tossed me out twice, another friend's plant tossed me out, so I decided to build my own."
That level of care drove him to build his own slaughterhouse at the center of his farm, and helped give him a sterling reputation as a vertically integrated heritage pork producer, bucking the trend of industrially processed meat raised on industrial feed on some far flung ranch.
"It's all mathematics," Woods said. "If it takes three or pounds of feed to grow a pound of meat what makes the most sense: To move the hogs to the feed or the feed to the hogs? That feed comes out of Iowa and Indiana and you're shipping four times the poundage. The economics aren't to your advantage. We were lucky to be able to find that niche where people were willing to support us at a premium and we normally kept customers for years and years."
All of that came to a screeching halt last year when Hurricane Irma knocked out power to his ranch, giving his pigs the chance to hop their electrified fences and breed all at once as opposed to the slow pace Woods usually enforced, insuring he had a regular supply of hogs for customers. When he found himself out of pigs Woods decided, for the first time in his career, to buy pigs from another rancher. Unfortunately the lot a friend him sold him were infected with a virus that quickly spread to many of the newborns...
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