The first thought that occurs to a visitor upon arriving at Tamarack Hollow Farm is, "Where are the pigs?" There is no sign announcing Corinth, Vermont's premier pork-producing establishment. And beyond the house and the old barn, nothing even says working farm. No animals. No tractors or abandoned equipment. Just the house and, around it, wild, waist-high meadow stretching to the forested ridges that circle Eagle Hollow like a bowl.
"I bet you'd never guess that there are 150 hogs here," says Mike Betit, who runs this farm with his wife Elsa. What he doesn't say is that the hidden livestock he's raising aren't just any pigs - they might very well be the best pork in America.
If the farm doesn't look the part, neither does the farmer. In his T-shirt, Carhartt shorts and rubber clogs, 29-year-old Betit could be a UVM student. He wears his blond hair tied in a short ponytail and his reddish beard cut close to his cheeks. A closer look reveals his tired, red-rimmed eyes and the bags that have begun to set in underneath.
"You caught me on a tough day," he apologizes. "My circadian rhythms are all thrown off."
That's because it's a Thursday. On Wednesday mornings at 2 a.m., Betit leaves Corinth in a white van loaded with pork. At around 7 he arrives at the famous greenmarket in New York City's Union Square. He stays there for 12 hours, selling his pasture-raised organic chops, shoulders and ribs out of various coolers. Then he climbs back in the van and returns to Vermont. If everything goes well, he gets home sometime between 1 and 2 Thursday morning.
Pork is one of the most adaptable of meats. It can be smoked and cured as bacon and ham. It's cut into chops or roasts, and ground to make sausage. Barbecued ribs are a Southern staple.
But pork's very versatility also works against it. It's so widely available - raised primarily at large commercial factories in the middle part of the country - that it doesn't have the same cachet in the food world as, say, lamb or beef. High-end restaurants, in particular, have not gravitated to small, organic pork producers in the same way they have to producers of lamb. Economies of scale make it difficult. The Yale Club of Manhattan wanted 200 tenderloins from Betit. With only 150 hogs at any given time, he couldn't meet the order.
Tamarack does have two established restaurant accounts in Manhattan. Seamus Mullen, the chef at Boqueria in Manhattan, buys suckling pigs weekly. For his bistro, he quarters the pigs, salt-cures them, and then steams them in apples overnight. "The meat has tremendous flavor," says Mullen, who is originally from Vershire. "It's great stuff. Free-range, of course. People love it."
At this point, the Betits don't have any Vermont restaurant clients. They make more money selling retail at local farmers' markets in Burlington and Montpelier. Tamarack pork is also available in Norwich at the Killder Farm Stand and at the co-op in St. Johnsbury. In addition, members of the farm's community-supported agriculture program pick up weekly deliveries of pork at drop-off points in Burlington and Montpelier 10 months of the year. The cost is $1125 for 20 pounds a month, or $575 for 10 pounds.
Winemakers like to talk about terroir, a French term for how the earth informs the character of the grapes. The pork from Tamarack Hollow is distinguished by an incredible depth of flavor without any gaminess. It's as different from commercial pork as Kobe beef is from a McDonald's hamburger. One can almost the taste the pasture - the clover and fescue, the wild grass. It's hard to mess up Tamarack Hollow Farm pork. Even cooked hard on a hot grill, it almost never dries out. With finer cuts such as tenderloin and rib chops, it's wise not to try to mask the natural taste with a gaudy sauce. The meat speaks for itself.
What makes it so good? Betit just shrugs. "I don't really know what anyone else does," he says, "other than the big commercial places, which I've visited. I do know a lot of people claim they are organic when they're not. Anyone can feed pigs scraps and call themselves organic."
Betit is a ninth-generation Vermonter, but a self-taught farmer. When he was growing up in Whitingham, in southern Vermont, his mother ran a general store over the border in Massachusetts. At Johnson State College, Betit studied theater and dreamed for a time of becoming an actor. He left before graduating, though, and for a few years worked at an alternative school, coordinating outdoor programs.
He came to commercial farming almost by chance. One year he and Elsa decided to raise a pig for themselves. Someone told them it would be better to have two pigs than one, so they raised a pair. They gave the meat away to family and friends, who raved about its taste. So Betit bought a book called The Small Farmer's Guide to Raising Pigs, and Tamarack Hollow Farm was born.
Today, the Betits live with their two young sons a few miles from the farm, and lease the land where the pigs graze. The high pasture's hidden location initially appealed to Betit for reasons of bio-security. "So many farms have livestock right on the side of the road," he points out. "Someone stops in their car to see them. Maybe they raise a pig at home. Or even not. They reach out and pet a pig, and that pig catches something, and suddenly it runs through the whole herd. You can't control it. But being up here, I've never had a sick animal."
Betit is particular about control. "Mike comes from a long line of puritanical, work-ethic people," says Elsa. "He thinks there is only one way to do things: the right way. What he loves about the farm is that there is always something to do. He can come out here any time and find work."
The ordered world of Mike Betit is evident in that pasture above the tree line, hidden from outside view. The pigs run around in large paddocks, playing and nipping at each other like dogs. They drink water from the garden hoses that run from barrels Betit brings up daily, and eat directly from the pasture, and from the organic grains Betit scatters around on the dirt. Small wooden huts provide shelter from the heat and the rain.
The animals are remarkably clean. Although a few of them are muddy from a roll in standing drinking water, most of the spots on their white hides are natural. Besides being clean, the animals are amazingly uniform in size. When they're brought to slaughter in a week or so, each will hang at around 200 pounds. They look fit, without the usual distended bellies of hogs raised for slaughter. They also look - there is no other way to say it - content.