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Ron Jost breeds Mangalitsas and American mulefoots on his farm near Cleveland, Wis.

Harley Buchholz

December 8, 2017

5 Min Read
RARE BREEDS: Ron Jost, a former soldier and Department of Defense contractor in Afghanistan, raises Mangalitsa hogs, a European heritage breed known for high-quality meat, and American mulefoots, another high-quality heritage breed.

What do you do if you have in hand a “well-thought-out” business plan, paddock plan and marketing plan for high-quality, grass-fed beef and then come across a bargain price for a herd of hogs?

Would-be beef rancher Ron Jost, Jost Farms, became a pork producer instead, raising the highest-quality pork sold for premium prices to high-end restaurants like The American Club in Kohlers, Wis.

“Good pork isn’t cheap,” Jost says, chuckling, “and cheap pork isn’t good.”

Back to the farm
Raised on his parents’ farm near Cleveland in Manitowoc County, Wis., Jost swapped a well-traveled life as a police officer, soldier, teacher, sports writer and Department of Defense contractor in Afghanistan for a return to his farming roots in 2014. He says he found farming in his DNA, and his dad did everything he could to help and advise.

“[Still], this is the most psychologically and physically taxing thing I’ve ever done,” Jost says. “If it wasn’t for the rewards, I’m not sure I would.”

He bought his dad’s farm and began to build it up as soon as he returned to Wisconsin.

“I planned my paddocks. I wanted to sell [beef] to restaurants,” Jost says. He had one paddock not immediately needed for his beef plan, so he thought he would try a few pigs — emphasis on “a few.” He researched and discovered the Mangalitsa breed, a European heritage pig known for high-quality meat.

“Restaurants on both coasts were going crazy for them,” Jost says. “They are nicknamed the Kobe beef of pork.”

He located a woman near Madison with “really nice pigs.” Only problem: She wanted to sell all she had. Jost wanted to buy 15, not 80. “I had no infrastructure,” he notes. “I basically did not have a post in the ground. I had never raised pigs ... [but] she kept lowering the price to the point where she almost made me buy them.”

Jost recalled an old adage he had learned: “When presented with a great opportunity, say yes, and learn to do it later.”

“So in December 2015, the truck pulled up as I was tightening the last high-tensile wire for the pig paddocks. I counted 56 pigs,” he says. Another load of 32 came, and he wound up with about half Mangalitsas and half American mulefoots, another heritage breed with high-quality meat.

With lots of research, self-teaching and experimenting, plus help and encouragement from the Veteran Farmers Coalition and continued building of infrastructure, Jost is now up to 150 pigs. He built weaning and early-growth pens in the barn and set up birthing shelters outside.

He currently sells only to high-end restaurants and commands high prices ($14.50 a pound for bacon), but plans to retail limited quantities in 2018 after securing additional licensing and building more infrastructure.

“It’s the highest-quality pork in Wisconsin, maybe in the country,” Jost claims. “I’ve had interest from chefs across the state. I’ve had a lot of individual consumer requests, especially for the hams.”

Another potential value-added end product planned for 2018, charcuterie (French for dry-aging pork), is in the production stage. He avoids selling breeding stock, however.

Heritage hogs
“I’m not in the business of increasing my competition,” Jost says, laughing. He keeps seven to 10 primary sows for breeding, with one mulefoot boar and three Mangalitsas — one for each of the breed’s colors: red, blonde and swallowbelly (named for its underbelly color). Inbreeding, he says, is not an issue. “They’ve been doing it for centuries.”

Both breeds are classed as lard pigs and were in danger of extinction due to the “fat is bad” messages of the 1960s and 1970s. But diets have changed, and fat has lost its unsavory reputation. The breeds are making a comeback, specifically because of their higher fat content — 45% to 60%, with 3 to 5 inches of back fat. The marbling makes their meat more flavorful, according to Jost.

“The marbling is second-to-none,” he says. He cites European studies that claim the fat from the Mangalitsa is 65% polyunsaturated. “My goal is to produce the absolute best dining experience for my customers,” Jost says. 

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HIGH-PRICED PORK: Ron Jost currently sells pork only to high-end restaurants and commands high prices — $14.50 for a pound for bacon.

While the breeds he raises are still among the rarest in the world, Jost is doing his part to propagate them. He admits, though, that caring for 150-plus pigs by himself is taxing. Two daughters live nearby but are in college, so he is his only employee, living alone since his parents moved off the farm. “I’ve had major challenges over the last two years,” he acknowledges. “I screw up at least twice a day.” 

Sows are pasture-bred and farrow in birthing shelters. Piglets are carefully guarded by their mothers for a few days until they are taken out to be introduced to the rest of the herd. By then, boars and other larger paddock mates are no longer a danger to the new piglets. Litters average about seven piglets, and there are losses along the way since farrowing happens year-round.

“There’s about a 50-50 chance of making it,” Jost says. “On average, I end up with about five per litter [reaching market weight]. And that happens later than with traditional market hogs — two to three times later.” Jost says it takes the hogs 12 to 18 months to reach his market weight goal of 325 to 375 pounds. The extra time dramatically increases intramuscular marbling. Plus, he adds, these breeds create a deep-burgundy muscle color with little shrinkage during cooking.

“Thanks to genetics and the way they are raised — outside where they play, walk, run, root — it pushes hemoglobin through the muscle and produces a distinctly red final product.

“I don’t worry so much about growth rate,” he notes. “If I did, I would not be raising these breeds. I worry about top-end quality.”

Jost feeds no corn or soybeans. “Swine will grow fast on that traditional ration, but it ruins the flavor,” he says.

Indoor confinement occurs for eight weeks after weaning; then the young pigs are put in pens with outside access. At 150 pounds, they’re moved outside to both pasture and wooded paddocks, where oak trees give them something to root for.

“Every detail is critical when you want to produce world-class pork,” Jost says.

Harley Buchholz writes from Fond du Lac, Wis.

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