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Valerie Phillips
A baby pig at Christiansen's Hog Heaven in Vernon, Tooele County.
We found the quality of animals was phenomenal when we treat the animals humanely, and allow pigs to live as pigs.

Most of the time, pigs get no respect. Consider the terms, "Pigging out," or "Eating like a hog." Or,"Your room looks like a pig sty!"

But at Christiansen's Family Farm in Vernon, Tooele County, pigs do get respect. They are pastured with lots of room to roam and wallow. They have clean water and locally grown, all-vegetarian feed. Owners Christian and Hollie Christiansen even go out on "pig dates" at night, where they hold hands and walk around the farm, checking on their Berkshire pigs.

No wonder the farm, about 30 miles south of Tooele near the Sheeprock Mountains, is known as "Hog Heaven."

Chefs consider the Christiansen's all-natural pork a bit of heaven itself — tender and juicy with lots flavor.

Chef Ryan Lowder uses it at his restaurant, Copper Onion, because "they do the best job, and the quality is a better product all the way around," he said. The pork will also be used in Lowder's second restaurant, Plum Alley.

"We found the quality of animals was phenomenal when we treat the animals humanely, and allow pigs to live as pigs," said Christian.

Lowder and the Christiansens gave the public a chance to taste the difference at a pig roast held at the Utah Fairpark last month, as part of an end-of-season farewell for the Pioneer Park Farmers Market. The Christiansens donated three pigs, and Lowder and other staff made an outdoor roasting box where they cooked them. Many of the 200-or-so people who feasted on the meat noted that it was very tender, flavorful and darker than the usual store-bought pork.

Christian Christiansen says three factors made the difference: breed, quality feed and humane treatment. The Christiansens raise purebred Berkshires, a heritage breed also known as Kurobuta pork. The breed was popular before World War II, and produces pork that's darker, meatier and marbled with fat.

"Older people taste it and say, 'This is what pork tasted like when I was a kid,'" Christian said.

Over the past few decades, commercially raised pigs were bred to be leaner, as "low-fat" became the trend. Marketers called pork, "The Other White Meat" to compete with the hugely popular chicken breast.

Unfortunately, the lack of fat marbling resulted in meat that was more dry, with less flavor.

"Our meat is a darker color, and it has fat marbled throughout," said Christian Christiansen. "It's like the Kobe beef of pork. Berkshires are the least cost-effective to raise, because they have a slower growth rate. But the quality is phenomenal."

Other restaurants who use the Christiansens' pork include Pizzeria 712 and Communal in Utah County, St. Regis and The Farm in Park City, and Pago in Salt Lake City. People can buy the pork at Caputo's Market and Deli, or order it online at christiansenfarm.com.

"We take all the butchering hassles out of the equation, and it is a quick, humane kill," Christian said.

They have about 100 pigs at any given time, allowing for about 2,100 square feet per pig. That's a big difference from the 7 square feet per pig that some commercial pork operations allow, said Christian.

"If you cramp any animal up, even humans, it will start to stink," he said. "Our pigs don't have an offensive odor."

In the summer, the pigs feed on pasture. In winter, they eat a mix of locally grown grains and alfalfa. No hormones or antibiotics are used.

"We teamed up with one of our neighbors to mill all our feed," Christian said. "He contracts with small local farmers to buy their feed. So we have control over what's going into our animals."

Instead of using a big watering trough that quickly gets dirty, the water containers have nipples on them so pigs can drink when they want, but the water remains clean. The feeders are placed so that the pigs can help themselves.

Their pigs are not certified organic, "But we call ourselves 'beyond organic' because organic doesn't address the treatment of the animals. And there's so much more that goes into it. Giving outdoor access is so important. We are not going to put a label on it, but you can come out and see how they are raised and decide if this is what you want."

Although one would assume this is how pigs are raised on most small farms, Hollie said that's not always the case. She recalled visiting a Utah pig farm where the animals wallowed in their own filth and reeked of manure and urine. She witnessed another farmer routinely kicking his animals. She and her husband have rescued pigs who were malnourished from being fed only table scraps.

"We went through some trial and error to find what works best for us and what keeps the animals healthiest," she said. "Now we have a really good system down."

Christian works full-time as a business manager at Dugway Proving Grounds Monday through Thursday. Hollie manages the farm on those days. Attesting to her dedication, their farm blog recounts how she helped a struggling sow deliver 10 piglets, including reaching in and pulling four piglets out after the sow grew too exhausted to push. This was in 2009, when Hollie was eight months pregnant.

She grew up on a Lehi family farm with a fruit orchard, and earned a business management degree. Christian grew up in Denver, far from the rural life, but ended up earning a degree in agriculture. When his family moved to nearby Cedar Fort, their younger sisters lined them up on a blind date and things clicked.

"We wanted to get back to the basics and raised our kids on a farm so they would learn to work hard and have responsibilities," Hollie said.

So when they had the opportunity to move to Vernon in 2006, they jumped at it. They began raising a few pigs on their three-acre farm, keeping the meat from one pig for themselves and selling off the rest. As the word spread, they needed room to expand. They built a new house on a 20-acre parcel of land, where they keep about 100 pigs, and a few goats and turkeys. At the request of Chef Lowder, they recently began raising about 500 hens to lay fresh eggs for the Copper Onion. They also raise grass-feed beef.

They now have three children, Hans, 7; Dane, 6, and Shia, 2. Even at their young ages, "There are so many things we couldn't do without their help," said Hollie. "When we load up pigs, they help us get them into the chute, and one of them runs the scale and opens the chute to let them out. After school, they've gone out in the garden and spent two hours helping me dig potatoes. I'm impressed that they can do those things."

She said the couple's goal is to be self-sufficient in raising their own food, adding, "Everything tastes better when it's home-grown. You know where it's been and you know what's been on it."

Producers in Utah raising all-natural meat

Liberty Farms, Liberty (www.libertyfarmsllc.com)

Washakie Foods, Plymouth (www.washakiefoods.com)

Appenzell Farm, Cache Valley (www.appenzellfarm.com)

Morgan Valley Lamb, Delta (www.morganvalleylamb.com)

Paisley Farms, Lehi (www.paisleyfarms.com)

Leaning H Livestock, Vernon (leaninghlivestock.blogspot.com)

Star G Bar Natural Beef, Salt Lake and Summit counties (www.stargbar.com)

Summit County Beef, Summit County (www.summitcountybeef.org)

Taylor Made Certified Organic Beef, Emery (www.taylormadebeef.com)

Utah Beefalo, Riverton, Duschesne, Salina Talmage and Hanna (www.utahbeefalo.com)

Jones Creek Beef, Springville (www.jonescreekbeef.com)

Piedmont Ranches, Morgan (Fackrellfarms.com)

Utah Natural Meat, West Jordan (www.utahnaturalmeat.com)

Bar 10 Beef, St. George (www.bar10beef.com)

Canyon Meadows Ranch, Altamont (cmrbeef.com)

Lightning Springs Beef, Roosevelt (www.lightningspringsbeef.com)

MB Meat Packing, Tremonton (www.mbmeatpacking.com)

Pleasant Valley Beef, Mt. Pleasant (www.pleasantvalleybeef.com)

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com. Email: [email protected]