In It For The Money: Whole Hog

If a spider is up in the rafters writing nice things about him, he has no clue, because he's illiterate and happily snorting up mud and knocking over his brothers and sisters.

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

You might choose to disintermediate your meat consumption for a variety of reasons.

Maybe you’re a local organic kinda gal. Maybe you want a niche product (e.g., heritage pork, halal goat, bilingual llama) but can’t swing the upmarket prices at Whole Foods and their ilk. Maybe you want to keep the government out of your meat purchasing decisions.

Maybe you thrill to the challenge of using the whole hog, one piece at a time. Maybe you want to eat meat as ethically as possible, personally verifying that the animals are treated kindly in life and compassionately in death. [1]

Whatever your motivation, as Michiganders, you are perfectly situated to enjoy the most deliciously ethical domestically raised meat available in this modern world.

Who do you have to thank for this boon? Lazy deer-hunters, fickle farmers, conspiracy theorists, gun “nuts” – the usual folks.

Deer and Farmers and Butchers Galore

The average Ann Arbor Chronicle reader lives smack in the middle of one of the deer-huntingest states in the Union: More than 95% of Michigan’s hunters are deer hunters. In terms of raw number of hunters, we’re ranked third, behind Texas and Pennsylvania (states with appreciably larger populations).

As of 2006, about 700,000 resident hunters populated Michigan, about 45% of whom bag a deer in a given year. [2] So, that’s 315,000 dead deer. In case you haven’t hung out with many deer, a 150-pound buck is about average. In other words, butchering a deer is much more akin to butchering a welterweight boxer than it is to cleaning a fish or dressing out any other popular game animal (i.e., turkey, rabbit, squirrel, or pheasant). You can imagine that a certain percentage of our 700,000 hunters – especially those who have to be up early for work on Monday – would be happy to pay someone to take care of this for them. Subsequently, rural Michigan is peppered with mom-and-pop processors ready to break down deer at a breakneck pace between now-ish and January 1.

In case it can’t go without saying, hunters aren’t looking to sell their venison. Considering the time and capital they need to invest in the hobby to bag a buck, the price would be insanely exorbitant. Because there’s little risk of interstate commerce coming into play, small processors don’t need USDA approval. They’re often called “custom exempt,” which means they’re inspected by the state, not the feds. Everything they hand back to the hunter is stamped “NOT FOR SALE” or “NFS,” and the hunter is expected to abide by that.

It’s a tidy little boutique, service-oriented business. But what, you wonder, do these intrepid businessfolk do for the other three fiscal quarters, when no deer need butchering? Well, they don’t sit on their hands – ’cause that wouldn’t be sanitary. Also, they’d go broke. Instead, they hook up with the caretakers of our second largest industry: Farmers. [3]

Michigan’s farmers are very special farmers, because they specialize in not specializing in anything. Michigan is home to 56,000 farms, 95% of which are family owned, and most of which are “small farms”. [4] Lots of small players, and no single dominant cash crop, has resulted in Michigan rising to be the nation’s second most diverse food producer, right behind California. If you haven’t traveled these great United States much, you can take it from me: Local farm markets in the rest of the country are notably lame compared to what we’ve got going on. [5]

We have the fixings for a classic synergy: A group of suppliers eager to experiment with a little of this and a little of that, a group of manufacturers with an idle production line nine months out of the year, and a government happy to basically stay out of the way provided everyone keeps it clean. It’s highly practical for lots of our small farms to raise a few cattle, sheep, or pigs, and profitably get them to consumers, who in turn enjoy a good value. That good value is defined in terms of price relative to quality – because no family farmer is ever going to beat the going prices from a factory farm churning out commodity-grade flash-frozen meat in the Mountain Time Zone and trucking it to Sam’s Club thrice weekly.

While 80% of our nation’s meat production infrastructure has been gobbled up by just four mega-corporations, Michigan has maintained a robust, jackstraw quasi-network of rugged individualists and surly guys in blood-stained aprons.

If you’re a hippie with a penchant for ethical pork, beef, or foul, it’s a helluva lucky break. So let’s get started. Step one: Go get a pig.

Get a Live Pig

But, for the love of God, don’t bring it home. According to the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s office, it’s more than a stretch to claim that a 250-pound pig you’re just keeping around for a few months prior to its execution and dismemberment qualifies as a small animal commonly classified as a pet.

But, for legal reasons, it’s important that you purchase the pig when it’s technically still alive. The private transfer of a live pig – much like the private transfer of a firearm – is a very straightforward transaction (Pure Michigan!). Conversely, the transfer of a dead pig – especially one that the seller has any reason to suspect the buyer intends to eat – is a legally fraught transaction, and liable to trigger Uncle Sam’s meddling.

So, you’ll need to contact a farmer and reserve one of his or her live pigs. This is usually done a couple-three months prior to the pig reaching “market weight” (i.e., something like 225 to 300 pounds). [6]

Weights and Measures

Three kinds of weight come into play, when you are dealing with domestic animals you intend to eat: Live weight, hanging weight, and processed weight. Live weight, you’ll be shocked to learn, is the weight of the live animal. Hanging weight is the weight of the dead animal, drained of blood, and minus the parts you don’t have any use for (such as the intestines, stomach, head, feet, skin). The processed weight is the final weight of all that meat (aka, the “cuts”) neatly wrapped in butcher paper (or, more likely, vacuum sealed in plastic).

Sharp tacks have already surmised that live weight is greater than hanging weight, which in turn is greater than processed weight. Things vary by breed, individual pig, and butcher, but in general the hanging weight is about 75 percent of the live weight, and the processed weight about 66 percent of the hanging weight. So when all is said and done, if you start out with a 250-pound live pig, you’ll end up with about 125 pounds of cuts.

Most of the negotiating you’ll do revolves around hanging weight – although a pig might be priced based on its live weight, its hanging weight, or just as a pig. Per-pig pricing is the equivalent of wholesale in most cases: The farmer is just asking for you to reimburse him for the feed (which, at today’s corn prices, means around $240).

In terms of hanging weight, the price currently seems to hover in the $2 to $2.50 per pound range. So on a hypothetical 250-live-pound hog, that would amount to $375 to $470-ish. If the farmer quotes well below that, then he’s probably doing so on live weight, and you should clear that up. I’m not saying anyone is being nefarious, but the difference between hanging weight and live weight on your average hog is something like 62 pounds. A buck-fifty per pounds sounds like a tremendous deal, but actually amounts to the same thing as paying $2 per pound hanging weight.

At the end of the day, you should budget around $375 for your pig. But that only gets you half way to the dinner table.

At this stage, you’ve dropped almost four bills on a live pig that, we’ve established, is of very little use to you within Ann Arbor city limits. It lives its happy piggy life out in the mud somewhere many miles from a Starbucks. It runs around under the pine trees listening to AM radio and rooting for fat grubs. If a spider is up in the rafters writing nice things about him, he has no clue, because he’s illiterate and happily snorting up mud and knocking over his brothers and sisters. He is a pig, just as God and evolution and human meddling in natural selection made him.

Connect Up With A Processor

Once your little piggie hits market weight, it’s time for processing. The likelihood that the folks who’ve been raising the pigs also processes them is essentially zero – much as the odds are essentially zero that the folks who designed your car can also fix it. Fortunately, pretty much every farmer raising edible animals already has several processors he/she has worked with many times, and is certainly willing to drive your pig anywhere you want it (within reason; you may need to buy the tank of gas).

Mark Sponsler of Parmanian Acres (a prominent breeder of mulefoot pigs, and the guy I’ve most often bought whole animals from) referred to this first and final trip in the pickup as the pig’s “ride of a lifetime.” The pigs tended to enjoy the ride, but I suppose that’s because they are not, as a species, known for readily picking up on word play.

You’ll need to make arrangements with the processor in advance, which means calling them with your “cutting instructions,” making sure they’re able to connect with your farmer so the two can sort out drop-off arrangements, and maybe giving a credit card number.

Cutting is basically a flat fee of something like 50-cents per pound of hanging weight. So, for your hypothetical pig (which weighed 250 when it was still trotting, and will thus be something like 180 pounds hanging) you can expect a base processing fee of $90. But that’s just cutting the fella up into chops, butts, hams, steaks, etc. You want some ground? That’ll be an extra nickel per pound. You want sausage [7] (which could be brats, or italian, or kielbasa, or breakfast links, or some special awesomeness the processor has concocted)? That’s another buck per pound. You want the bellies sliced for bacon? That’s a quarter per pound. You want anything smoked (which you do if you want bacon; by definition it’s a smoked meat)? That’s at least a buck per pound, and more if you want nitrate-free smoking. [8]

There’s a lot to know, and to be frank, many mom-and-pop processors will make you feel like an asshole as you stumble through this. Remind yourself that you are going to be paying them at least $150, and ask all the questions you damn well please.

The last time I got a pig processed it ran about $185. My cutting instructions were something like this:

  • both hams (that’s the thigh/butt) kept whole and smoked
  • all the bacon, including jowl bacon, cut and smoked [9]
  • the neck bones and hocks (which is sort of the knee/lower leg of the pig) smoked (I make a lot of beans and jambalaya, both of which are vastly enriched by a good smoked pig bone)
  • both shoulders whole (pork shoulder is used to make slow-roasted deliciousness like pulled pork and tamales)
  • the loin cut in half (this is a big, lean, boneless hunk of meat off the back; it’s generally roasted whole and then cut into medallions and served)
  • the spare ribs (you often want to specify this, as the rib meat will otherwise go into the ground meat)
  • sausage of every stripe (breakfast links, brats, kielbasa, spicy italian, some in casings and some as bulk ground meat)
  • the remainder cut into bone-in pork chops, steaks (some smoked), and ground

There’s clearly lots of room for variation here. If you wanted, you could get the whole damn thing as kielbasa, or chops and steaks. Don’t like loin? Get it sliced and smoked as Canadian bacon (also called “back bacon”).

The last time around I also got a few surprises. Because I’d specified the hog’s heads should be left on (I wanted that tasty, tasty jowl bacon), I also ended up with pork tongue (which I’d never had, but it’s like beef tongue, which I like just fine). And, for reasons unknown, I ended up with the liver (in two portions; pigs have big livers, I guess) and heart. [10] Surprise!

But aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? Your farmer sold you a live pig – although you may never actually have met that pig in person – but your whole conversation with the processor revolves around the treatment of a gutted, exsanguinated, hanging carcasses. Seems like we’ve glossed over something.

Many processors also handle slaughtering. (It’s an additional fee of $45 or so, which covers the small work of killing and the big work of cleaning the carcass and properly disposing of its guts, head, blood, etc.) If you want the jowl bacon, make sure whoever handles your killing knows that, so they leave the head on. If you want to be sure to get the heart, liver, or God forbid, the “sweetbreads” (shudders), now is the time to make that clear. If you have any questions about how your pig is to be dispatched, this is the moment to ask.

So, on that hypothetical pig (which started out weighing in at a lively 250, and ended up as 125 pounds of frozen yummies), you can expect to pay a grand total of about $570: $375 for the pig, $45 for someone to kill it, and $150 for some other folks to break it down, slice it up, smoke some parts, grind up others, and cram some of that into some animal’s scrubbed intestines. This amounts to $4.50 per pound of edible meat. That’s actually pretty competitive, plus you get to have phone conversations with new and interesting people of varied and diverse political leanings, and a nice drive (or two) out into rural Michigan. (Processors don’t deliver.)


If you’re going to meet your meat while it’s still fit to root and snuffle, I suppose I should warn you: Pigs, in general, are intelligent animals. They have big ears and small damp eyes, and the nature of clumsy dogs. A pig is a pretty charming brute – and this goes doubly so for family-raised animals and heritage breeds: They each have distinctive markings, which makes it easier to assign them personality. A life in outdoor paddocks makes them lively and inquisitive. Out in the open air they are significantly less offensively smelly than you’ve been led to expect.

Folks of a certain nature might have trouble eating someone they’ve met. In my humble, such people shouldn’t eat meat. The pigs you meet at a small family farm in Michigan are going to be the happiest food animals you will ever meet. Animals in the wild live a life that is marked by continual fear and danger of violent death; it is distinguished by being solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

As for animals bred as a food commodity: Their lives are worse. I once inadvertently drove through the ConAgra feedlots in eastern Colorado. If you’re mostly familiar with Colorado from screens, large and small (as I was until that day), then you likely think it’s all mountains and vistas. That’s western Colorado. Eastern Colorado is basically just an extension of Kansas: Countertop flat, and monoculture as far as the eye can see, countless acres of corn or wheat or, in this case, cows. It was breathtaking and nauseating, cows packed shoulder-to-shoulder out to the literal horizon, as thick as flies on mid-August shit. This was all out in the open, with no obstruction to the wind, and I was driving past at 70 m.p.h., but nonetheless the smell was like being locked in an over-full summerfest Porta John.

Up near the road there were calves, each trapped in a little pen maybe only four times as big as the calf itself, with half that space taken up by a huskie-sized igloo-style plastic dog house (Why? I haven’t the foggiest; to hide in? None of them seemed to be taking shelter in their domes, if that was the intended purpose.) Behind that, it was cows.

I want to stress that this is not hyperbole: There were literally cows packed without gap from the calf pens all the way to the outbuildings, and around those buildings as tight as the tile around a kitchen island counter. From there it was motionless cows right to the edge of the sky. I could have pulled over, climbed the wire fence, hauled myself onto a cow’s back, and walked for hours, out past the horizon, without ever touching the churned, dead mud, hopping from cow to cow like Eliza fleeing Uncle Tom’s cabin.

The sheer number of bodies, the close proximity, was inherently nauseating. More cows than there are kernels on an ear of corn, or maggots on a dumpster-bottom hamburger patty, or stars in the sky. Each weighing about as much as the car I owned at the time. Each as live as me, none with anything very much resembling a life.

In short, it wasn’t a process I really wanted to participate in. I didn’t touch a Hebrew National for a decade.

All of that said, as charming as family-farm pigs are, they are still rough beasts. The first time I visited Mr. Sponsler’s farm, one of his sows had just had a litter. One of the newborns found its way through a loose section of wire fence into a neighboring pen. There, another sow killed it, for no other reason than that the piglet was there, and she could. So, let us have no delusions about these animals. We – as a species – bred them – as a species – to a purpose. If that purpose itself disturbs you, I can’t fathom why you’ve read this far. If you are fine with that purpose – but only so long as you don’t have to look at it head on – then maybe it’s time to reconsider your diet. Say what you like about these pigs, but at least they come to their reputation honestly.



  • Byron Center Meats. This is my processor of choice. They don’t handle slaughtering, but do synthetic nitrate-free smoking, are USDA inspected daily (!), process deer, and have a pretty extensive retail operation with beef, pork, poultry, in a vast panoply of cuts and preparations; if you happen to be in West Michigan, you can pop in and just buy some cuts of whatever you’d like on the spot.
  • Caledonia Packing. This is a small family-run slaughter operation, the people I use when I’m getting processing done at Byron Center Meats.
  • DeVries Meats. They specialize in pork processing, handle both slaughter and processing, and are fully USDA inspected. I haven’t dealt with them personally, but I’ve had plenty of pork sausage and bacon that they’ve processed. (They are one of the few full-service USDA-certified processors in the state, so many farmers selling pork cuts go through them.)
  • Mark Sponsler of Parmanian Acres. Mark has been very active in preserving and expanding an especially delicious variety of heritage pig, the mulefoot (I wrote about this a bit for the Current back in 2010; here’s a version of that article, with an overview of heritage pigs vs. conventional factory pigs). A few years back the mulefoot herd numbered only a few hundred nationwide, and was on the brink of being delisted as a viable breed. Thanks to a network of farmers like Mark, it now numbers several thousand and is again robust (and in high demand). Mark’s shifted primarily to raising hogs for breeding (rather than eating), but knows most of the mulefoot breeders in Michigan. (About 90 of those mulefoot are descended from his breeding groups.) He is generally happy to connect farmers and buyers. (Or email me and I’ll connect you to Mark; he’s a really nice guy).
  • Old Pine Farm. If you want to dabble in ethical meat without getting quite so nitty gritty (or driving across the state), I advise getting in touch with Old Pine Farm. I’ve had chicken and ducks from them, and they were great. They’ve done meat CSAs in the past, which is something I find pretty tempting.


[1] Disclosure: This whole discussion makes me sound a lot more carnivorous than I am. In the years we’ve bought live pigs and had them processed, our 50 pound share of the pig constituted most of my meat eating for that year – and that’s for a family of three (at the time). On average, a single American will eat that much meat in a given season. Just to make it crystal clear: The average American annually eats four times as much meat as my family of three. And I’ve never considered myself a vegetarian of any stripe, nor do I mean for this to constitute a criticism of those Americans. We’re just whistling different tunes, is all.

[2] I know that percentage sounds bad, but it’s actually just a touch below the national average – like so many things in Michigan. (Data courtesy of this 2011 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Deer Hunting in the United States: Demographics and Trends Addendum to the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation)

[3] If you’re from Detroit Metro, like me, it might be hard to think of Michigan as an ag state, but check it out: Michigan agriculture is a $90 billion industry employing more than 10% of the population. We ship apples to Mexico and soybeans to Asia. For all you know, the Kikkoman in those little packets came from our Michigan soy fields.

[4] The USDA defines any farm of less than 179 acres as a “small farm.”

[5] FUN FACT: Michigan currently rears every domesticated comestible worth eating; to hell with citrus and bananas! Besides, give us a few more years of climate collapse, and we’ll harvest those, too! And Asian carp! And ocelots! And delicious fresh-water river dolphins! Pure Michigan! Pure Michigan FOREVER!

[6] Incidentally, you know how you wiggle your baby’s big toe and say “This little piggie went to market, this little piggie stayed home”? Odds are, if you are an average 21st Century American, when you say that you vaguely imagine the little piggie trotting off to market with a grocery basket slung over one arm and a shopping list held in the other trotter. At this time, I invite you to meditate on this term “market weight” a little further, and then rethink why the plumpest toe goes to market and the skinny one next to it gets to hang around the farm for a while longer.

[7] Pro-Tip: The word “sausage” is really imprecise in this context. Many times it just means “ground pork” or possibly “ground pork with some fennel in it.” So, avoid this word. If you want the kind of sausages you cook on a grill or serve on a bed of kraut, say “brats” (which, more confusingly, refers to both a sausage size/shape and a preparation). If you want breakfast sausages, you want “breakfast links.” If you want to make your own sausage patties, say “ground sausage” or “bulk sausage.” If you want pre-made patties, say so, but that’s often pricey (at a buck per pound) and a waste, in my humble.

[8] Which not every processor is keen on doing; the synthetic nitrates help the meat maintain a meat-ish color and texture during the smoking process. Folks accustomed to Oscar Meyer products are often thrown off by the color and texture of raw “natural” smoked meat (which, incidentally, is still processed with nitrates, just “natural” nitrates in the form of concentrated celery juice; it’s a slightly more labor intensive process, and thus slightly pricier). It still cooks up the same, but you may need to reassure the processor that you understand that “natural smoked” bacon might look a little funky pre-frying. FYI, the scientific consensus on the dangers of nitrates (synthetic or otherwise) in processed meats seems to have shifted toward “Mehn – who cares?” over the last several years. That said, I still go for “natural” smoking, because it makes my family happier.

[9] Jowl bacon is exactly what it sounds like: The pig’s chubby neck fat sliced into irregular hunks and smoked. As a rule, muscles that get used very little are tender and mild (see, for example, penned veal), while those that get used a lot are tough and flavorful. Thus, the jowl is great meat.

[10] A pig’s heart is the size and shape of a human heart – which is creepy – but it also works every minute of every day of that pig’s life, so it is tasty (if tough). Grind it up for stew. Am I grossing you out? Keep this in mind: If you’ve had a coney dog or chili at a diner, you’ve eaten plenty of cow heart. Get over yourself or eat more produce. I’m cool either way.

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  1. By Tom Sc
    September 20, 2013 at 8:06 pm | permalink

    Great article. For the really uninitiated, are you basically always signing up to have an extra freezer if you get into the live animal-buying way of life, or are there farmers/groups out there that split into shares small enough for a typical kitchen unit?

  2. September 20, 2013 at 9:11 pm | permalink

    There are meat CSAs now.

    But we bought a freezer when we decided to buy a half hog from Ernst. It is now full of quart jars of tomato puree, etc. Local food preparation is much easier with a freezer.

  3. By Eby
    September 21, 2013 at 10:41 am | permalink

    I’d expect more in the $3-4 / lb hanging with heritage breeds these days with food prices going up. We do GMO-free feed for our pigs though, which bumps it up, but in our area (Traverse/Leelanau) I see most people charging $3+

    But thanks for the write up. Chest freezers + buying sections of the animal is much better overall. There is a disconnect between what cuts you get out of an animal and what you tend to eat when shopping a super market. There was a paper that looked at grocery store shopping habits and found it takes many animals to feed someone the equivalent of what one animal could because people tend to choose the best cuts for things. There are limited number of tenderloins. Unfortunately causes a lot of waste and side waste streams. Christien Meindertsma has a book called PIG 05049 with 196 pages of products where pigs end up.

  4. By Eby
    September 21, 2013 at 11:02 am | permalink

    Should also mention, like many areas of agriculture there are those trying to bring back heirloom (heritage breeds) varieties, but also many working on keeping endangered varieties alive. They will cost you more as these pigs often even have “papers” certifying their heritage but if you care about such things there are multiple growers in michigan doing Mulefoot, Red Wattle, etc. Not all are easy to find, some are listed in breeder directories or the Slow Food Ark of Taste

  5. By Julie
    September 21, 2013 at 11:31 am | permalink

    This was a great article, Erik. I learned some stuff, and it was also a very gentle and humorous way of putting some hard-to-stomach truth out there. Thank you.

  6. By Mary Morgan
    September 21, 2013 at 11:48 am | permalink

    I was unfamiliar with the Ark of Taste. Here’s more info on that: [link]

  7. September 21, 2013 at 1:16 pm | permalink

    Here’s a bit of Instagram video from eby above: [video]

  8. By Jim Carty
    September 21, 2013 at 3:56 pm | permalink

    Great story.

  9. By Timothy Durham
    September 22, 2013 at 9:14 am | permalink

    Thanks for writing/publishing this. Very informative…

  10. September 23, 2013 at 9:28 am | permalink

    Nice article but you omit most of the processors closest to Ann Arbor (e.g. Dunbar in Milan and Boyer in Canton). Also if you only got 50% of live meat back as wrapped meat, was that because it was a Heritage breed hog? Most breeds being raised now would have yielded closer over 60%. If someone is ever paying anything based on “hanging weight” it’s important to clarify what that includes. It may or may not include head, skin, and feet. Finally, one nice way to buy a meat animal is the Washtenaw 4H Youth Fair held every summer.

  11. September 23, 2013 at 10:08 am | permalink

    Great story, David. We’ve been members of Old Pine Farm’s CSA for several years; our greatest initial surprise was the meat’s outstanding flavor compared to what we’d been buying elsewhere. (I actually gave up grinding our own beef because it couldn’t compete with Old Pine’s.) Although we’ve also observed that local grass-fed beef and outdoor-raised chicken can sometimes be less tender — due to less fat — than their industrially-raised cousins.