The sign at the beginning of the road to Sara Joe's reads "Primitive Road," but it really should say "Beautiful Road." Through the softly rounded Palouse Hills not far from St. John, the dirt road cuts its way into a rough canyon, between towering rock formations and steep cliffs. Pheasants shuffle around the yellow, sunburned grass before they take to the air in loud explosions. There's a weak trickle of water in the ditches. Overhead the sun burns relentlessly, and the only thing floating in the blue sky is the dust cloud raised by a faraway tractor.
"We haven't had a good rain since what, May?" says Joe DeLong, as we walk among the outdoor hog pens, some of which look like they're paved with asphalt. "We had to get the hogs out of there. It got too hard and too dry, and we couldn't plant anything that would take to cover the ground."
A gang of piglets zoom out under the electric wire and take off down the path ahead of us, oblivious to the fact that sometime around Christmas, they'll be ready for roasting
DeLong laughs: "Yeah, you can say they are free range."
Together with his wife Sara DeLong, Joe runs Sara Joe's Pork Products, delivering USDA certified organic meat to restaurants in Seattle and Portland, and to markets in Sandpoint (Winter Ridge), Moscow (Moscow Food Co-op), Kettle Falls (Meyer's) and Spokane (Huckleberry's).
"Yeah, it's a lot of driving," he says. Since there are no pork processing plants left in Eastern Washington, the DeLongs have to take their hogs 346 miles away -- nearly to Seattle -- to get them slaughtered. For now, most of their meat ends up on the coast.
"They put it on the menu at the restaurants in Portland and Seattle," says Sara. "You know, Sara Joe's pork chops or whatever it is. They mention where things are from, like the greens and the potatoes or what it is. It's a niche."
The small farm consists of a handful of buildings nestled at the bottom of a valley sheltered by a cliff wall, a scattering of steep hilly fields and the Palouse River at the far end of the property. It's been there since 1863, when it was homesteaded by Joe's family.
"His great-great-uncle homesteaded this land. It was one of the territorial farms, before there was a state of Washington," says Sara. "That great-great-uncle smoked the peace pipe with Chief Joseph and traded and dealt with many of the tribes."
But don't be fooled by the quaint surroundings and the lack of factory-size hog halls. Year round, the DeLongs care for about 400 pigs at any one time, raising 300 piglets to around 280 pounds, at which point they're ready for slaughter.
"To get the restaurants to take your meat, you have to be able to supply them year-round," says Joe. "We process every two weeks."
The farm has been certified organic for 10 years, and the DeLongs are completely committed to organic and sustainable farming. They balance a sound business with the best interests of the land and the well-being of their hogs.
"We raise organic alfalfa and wheat to sell, and we buy organic barley, corn and peas to feed the pigs," says Sara. "A lot of the feed comes from Montana and other places -- there just aren't that many organic farms in Washington."
Joe and Sara know their hogs personally, so to speak.
"Yes, some of them have names. They are all different -- they have very different personalities, like that black one [she points]. That one has some attitude," says Sara. "We had one boar that was about four foot tall and seven foot long and weighed about 1,500 lbs. He thought he was a dog -- he'd come right over and rub up against you, and the kids would ride him, holding on to his ears."
No antibiotics, pesticides or fungicides, hormones or animal by-products are ever fed to the pigs or used in their environment. Old-fashioned cleaning and bleaching keeps the stalls and shelters free of pests and fungus, and the pigs live in small herds -- each with plenty of space -- reducing aggressive and stressful behavior.
And the meat, of course, is as close to heavenly as ordinary pork can get.
"We can deliver any cut, any packaging, any product you'd like," says Joe. "The restaurants really like that. But it's tough getting the meat to the stores. Why? They'd rather deal with one distributor than with the individual farmer. They tell me it's too hard to pay so many little bills, that they'd rather have one big bill from one place. We are working on getting a deal with a distributor." That would also cut down on the driving; currently, Joe delivers all the meat himself.
Yes, it takes a lot of determination to make it as a small-scale organic pig farmer.
"We're doing fine," says Joe. "I try to take on only what I can supply, and right now we have enough to supply locally."
He laughs and says, "No, we don't supply any restaurants in Spokane, but we sure would like to."