On a 40-acre farm in Yale, more than 60 miles north of Detroit, Melody Nye beckons to Hermann, a Berkshire pig, and his female companions.
“Hi, peppas! Sweet peas, come on out,” she coos at the hogs who look warily at the two strangers standing before them. After they size up the guests, they venture out from their wooden shed and joyfully nuzzle up to Nye, each other, and this writer.
“For us this is what pigs should live like; they’re their own herd,” says Nye of the 75 pigs who live at Melo Farms, which is committed to natural farming practices such as grass-based animal husbandry.
Later in the barn, she pulls up a bale of hay (“my viewing platform”) and watches a few piglets interact with their mother.
“When you have a pig in confinement, you don’t get this good cohesive social structure” and the pigs aren’t comfortable in their own skin, she says.
It’s a world apart from how most pigs in this country live. In his recent book Pig Tales, Barry Estabrook wrote more than 100 million hogs are raised in the U.S. every year, with 97 percent on factory farms where pigs are crammed into pens. They stand on hard floors where they live in their own waste for about a year before going to slaughter.
To survive in such conditions, pigs are given antibiotics, which lead to “superbugs” that are unhealthy, even deadly, for humans.
Industrial agriculture prompted the Nyes to start Melo Farms, which began as a dream a few years ago and turned into a $100,000 a year business. They say Melo Farms is the region’s largest heritage breed pastured pork farm.
The former Oregon residents were living in Hong Kong because of their corporate jobs (Melody still works in the corporate world when she’s not farming) when they decided to start a farm.
When they were looking for a location, Lynn, a native Michigander, said, “Why don’t we just look for a farm in Michigan?”
“It made sense because we could actually afford to buy a farm here,” Nye says. “And we needed to be near Detroit because that’s where the food scene is and the market.”
Aside from pork, they also offer pasture-raised chickens, bringing 1,400 to market last year. They’ve also partnered with another family farm to bring lamb to Eastern Market, where they sell their meats on Saturdays.
This past spring they launched a crowdfunding campaign because “everything that could have died” broke down, like their tractor and their big freezer. “It was literally we get funded or we have to change how we do business,” Nye says. “There would be no Eastern Market. People would have to come to the farm [to buy].”
Midway through fundraising an investor stepped up but had to back out in June. But they’re pressing on. “We have just awesome support, and now it’s just connecting the dots,” Nye says.
Support from the chef community has helped build Melo Farms’ reputation. It provides products for a variety of restaurants and establishments in Detroit, from pop-ups, Selden Standard, and Roast to larger operations such as Ford Field.
Jonathan Kung, who operates the pop-up Kung Food and works for other chefs such as Kate Williams and their pop-ups, says the fat content in Melo’s breeds makes for a more luxurious cut of meat.
“American farmers have spent decades breeding the fat out of pigs and as a result, they’ve bred out the flavor as well,” says Kung, who uses Melo’s pork belly for his five-spice roasted pork belly steamed buns and the shoulder for a Hong Kong-style barbecue dish called char sui.
Other than the quality of the meat, Joe Nader, executive chef for Levy Restaurants at Ford Field, says it’s important for him to support local farmers even with the large scale of his operation; he’ll feed 65,000 people on game day.
“The great quality flavor in addition to supporting local agriculture is a win-win,” he says.
He tries to source from small producers when he can to show his support. For example, he does a chef’s table dinner on game day where he’ll work with local farmers, including Melo Farms whose pork was featured in a porchetta dish.
Nye’s vision is to be the “next Niman [Ranch, which works with the largest network of U.S. family farmers and ranchers].” She’d like to see Melo Farms “empower all these small farms to do what they do” and to provide a good, safe environment in which farmers’ products will be brought to market where they’ll get a good price, not a commodity price.
Melo Farms’ pork is pricier compared to the supermarket’s offerings, but chefs say it’s worth it.
“I respect my customers enough to give them something that I know is clean and raised well,” Kung says. “So much of what you enjoy in food comes directly from the ingredients. You’re never just eating pork, or beef, you’re eating what it eats. … Meat isn’t seen as the luxury that it is anymore. We’ve cheapened it and disassociated ourselves from the process our food goes through. It’s heritage farmers like Melo that make us remember what meat actually is.”