at Grabbish Farm
BY ERIK FERRY | PHOTOS BY KYLE SHIBUYA
“Meet Gidget,” invites Amy Grabish, an affable, elfin woman whose rapid-fire dialect betrays an urban East Coast upbringing. Gidget, a coal-black brood sow about the size of Pennsylvania, sighs heavily and shifts in her earthen bed under the canopy of eucalyptus trees. The earth shakes slightly.
“All the pigs live outdoors year-round,” Grabish continues as we resume our circumambulation of her leafy half-acre pig paddock. “They never get sick, even in the winter when the rains are in or there’s a frost. The trees buffer the worst of the weather, but these guys are tough anyway. They’re really some of the lowest-maintenance animals we have.”
As if to back the claim, a gang of robust-looking adolescent hogs trundles our way, bent on mischief. Soon my bootlaces are untied and everything below the knee is slathered in mud, bristles, and porcine saliva as we are nosed, nipped, and rubbed upon by this crew of raven-haired 100-pounders. Then they’re off, galloping in a line between the tree trunks. A sinus-clearing bouquet of swine and eucalyptus hangs in the November air.
Welcome to Grabishfarm, a small but lively couple of acres run by Amy Grabish and hardworking spouse Larry Fox in the farm country outside Dixon. While this peaceable Lilliputian kingdom, as Amy calls it, nurtures everything from Spanish Black turkeys to some very tasty guinea fowl, it’s the black Mulefoot hog that anchors the enterprise. A once-endangered heritage breed from the Southern United States, the hog is noted for its slow growth and consequently thick lard, which makes the richly flavored meat appealing to discerning carnivores.
Back at the spacious pig paddock, we stop to pay homage to a pair of matronly hog elders named Florence and Emily and then wade through another couple of sounders of their swaggering offspring. We also greet Boss Hogg, the local paterfamilias, who looks like he could upend any medium-size piece of earth-moving equipment that might fall in his path.
“Being a small-scale, humane producer is really rewarding but also tricky economically,” Grabish explains as we stroll back to the house through a diverse throng of clangorous guineas, rabbits, self-absorbed turkeys, and the Anatolian guard dogs that watch over the kingdom. “We can produce pretty efficiently in terms of animals per-unit-area, given the fecundity of the Mulefoots, their toughness and high survival rate,” Amy says as she describes the amount of space a truly humane, free-range approach demands. “But the trick is in finding the wholesalers, restaurateurs, and other customers who are oriented to a steady-but-modest supply.”
With mucky shoes off and some fine (very) local prosciutto, cheeses, and port arrayed in front of us in the warm Grabishfarm dining room, my hostess continues to describe her target customer.
“More and more, they’re out there . . . but making the connection takes time, research, and legwork. A small producer can get stretched pretty thin, but the payoff is in building personal connections that lead to long-term business relationships.”
One of Grabishfarm’s best long-term business relationships is with Chris Pastena, the culinary entrepreneur behind Oakland’s Chop Bar, Lungomare, and soon-to-open Calavera.
“We get a Mulefoot hog from Amy about once a month, and guinea hens come about every other month, as they take longer to raise,” says Pastena. “The connection with Grabishfarm is one we really prize, as it allows us to support a small-scale farm and have a very close connection to where we source whole animals. Amy’s farm embodies all of the qualities that we think are really important in these types of relationships. It’s important that we’re getting really high-quality whole animals from an ethical breeder/farmer who approaches livelihood and slaughtering in a humane way.”