Llano Seco drops organic label

Local pork producer says health of herd and rising feed costs are behind recent changes

Rancho Llano Seco’s Saturday morning farmers’ market stand advertises the last of the organic pork the farm has for sale. In November, Llano Seco abruptly dropped its organic certification.

Rancho Llano Seco’s Saturday morning farmers’ market stand advertises the last of the organic pork the farm has for sale. In November, Llano Seco abruptly dropped its organic certification.

photo by christine G.k. lapado-breglia

Rancho Llano Seco online:
Go to www.llanoseco.com to learn more about Rancho Llano Seco. Llano Seco meats are available at the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative (818 Main St.) and S&S Organic Produce & Natural Foods (1924 Mangrove Ave.), and at the Llano Seco booth at the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market.

Charlie Thieriot, the sixth-generation owner of Rancho Llano Seco, is a vocal advocate of food certifications. So it came as a big surprise to many customers when the 17,700-acre rancho just south of Chico—one of the biggest organic pork producers in the country—abruptly dropped its organic certification in November. By January, Llano Seco products—pork chops, Italian sausage, etc.—trickling into local stores like S&S Organic Produce & Natural Foods and the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative were no longer stamped with the USDA organic label.

“We always had a hard time charging what we need to. I defended the organic protocol for a very long time, when I thought we could figure out a way to keep the pigs comfortable and stress-free under the organic certification,” said Thieriot, via phone from his San Francisco office, adding that he has struggled to maintain organic certification since Llano Seco began raising organic pigs about seven years ago.

Given the rising cost of organic feed, Thieriot was looking at an increase in prices “as much as 30 [percent] to 40 percent [higher] than they are now,” even though 80 percent of his pigs’ feed is grown on the farm.

Additionally, the herd was struggling health-wise, he said. Organic certification forbids the use of chemical medications, including antibiotics, hormones and chemical dewormers, according to the USDA’s standards. The Llano Seco pigs were “constantly struggling with a parasite in their stomach. It wasn’t killing them, [but] that stressed them,” he said. Organic-approved remedies like diatomaceous earth did not sufficiently work, either. Now, the pigs receive a chemical dewormer after weaning. The farm will continue to prohibit other chemical medications, though.

“It’s not that I don’t think [organic certification] is a valuable thing. I do think that it doesn’t fit our system,” Thieriot said.

The ramifications of Llano Seco’s move away from organic certification are being felt throughout the country. “We’ve had lots of calls from interested people, curious chefs and curious customers” wanting to find a new source of organic pork, said Jude Becker, farmer at Becker Lane Organic in Dyersville, Iowa—possibly the largest single organic pork producer in the country now that Llano Seco has dropped out.

Becker Lane, on the surface, appears to be a Midwest mirror to Llano Seco. Becker is the sixth-generation farmer there, too, harvesting roughly the same number of pigs per month as Llano Seco. But he says that he hasn’t struggled against parasites for some time.

While the organic certification provides some guidance in how a certified-organic farm must operate—with stipulations that the feed must be organic and non-GMO, for instance, and pigs must have access to the outdoors—each farm’s style varies according to location, tradition and philosophy, which may point to the differences in parasite levels.

Becker credits a “closed system” of breeding—which Llano Seco also shares, in which sows are chosen from within the herd—for reining in parasites on his farm. Becker uses a rotational grazing method in which pigs are moved to fresh paddocks regularly, a style of animal husbandry popularized by famous Virginia farmer Joel Salatin. Llano Seco’s system of large permanent barns and outdoor paddocks is not pasture-based. Other factors, such as the effect of colder Iowa winters, and Llano Seco’s proximity to wildlife as a result of its conservation easements and preserved riparian habitat, might also result in differences in parasite presence.

Thieriot points to the notable absence of large organic pig farms in the U.S. as evidence of the difficulty in maintaining a healthy large herd without the use of deworming medications while covering the higher costs of feed. He does not believe changes in herd size or grazing strategies are necessary at this point in Llano Seco’s system, saying, “What’s important to me is managing the pigs’ environmental stress.

“I think of ‘too many pigs’ as: Are they stressed by the proximity to one another? And they’re not,” Thieriot assured. “There’s plenty of room for them to fully express their needs to root, and to play, and to define their social hierarchy, which is a very important part in herd dynamics.”

Without organic certification to back him up, Thieriot is spending a lot of time describing the farm’s techniques to customers (the Llano Seco website describes its pork as “responsible and humanely raised”). He stands behind deworming once when young pigs are first weaned, as the website states, but said he wouldn’t throw out the idea of administering a second dose of dewormer should older pigs struggle with parasites again.

And Thieriot’s pigs are now eating 20 percent of less-expensive, nonorganic feed grown off the farm, which Thieriot explains will be “clean” and GMO-free, but not protected by the organic label.

But in January, the farm’s pig herds did pick up a new label: Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a five-step label (six steps, if one includes GAP’s “5+” distinction) whose standards were initially developed by Whole Foods, which then handed it off to the independent nonprofit to manage the standards. The majority of Llano Seco’s beef herds had already dropped organic certification last year, and were GAP-certified, after they discovered GAP-certified beef fetched as good a price as organic at auction, likely due to Whole Foods’ buying power.

The Llano Seco pig herd has received GAP Step-2 certification, which, according to the website, means the ranch “prohibits cages and crates” (Step 1) and “requires environmental enrichment for indoor production systems” (Step 2), in addition to other requirements regarding animal handling, management, breeding, feed, health and housing. Steps 3 through 5+ go from providing “enhanced outdoor access” to “the entire life of the animal spent on an integrated farm” (only two pig farms currently have a GAP 5+ rating). Llano Seco’s weaning practices restrict them from moving to Step 3 certification, despite meeting other requirements in the third step, said Thieriot.

The farm plans to explore additional labels that announce the humane treatment of its herd, as well as certifications of its green practices (such as maintaining riparian habitat and operating more than 10,000 acres under conservation easements). But, Thieriot hopes that he can find certifications that reflect the work already being done on the farm, rather than the farm changing its practices to fit the certification. That said, minor adjustments to the farm’s techniques that would not stress the pigs would be considered, he said.

In the meantime, Thieriot is thrilled with the changes he immediately saw in the herd upon moving away from organic practices. “The pigs are more robust. Their fat-to-lean ratio is better. Their weight is better,” he explained. “Imagine if you were constantly struggling with some parasite in your gut.”