Encina Farms Brings Iberico Pork to California

November 12, 2021

Prized for its quality and flavor, Iberico ham (jamón ibérico) has been a much sought-after delicacy exclusive to Spain, representing a long tradition of animal care and sustainable land stewardship. The Bay Area can now find locally raised Iberico pork and charcuterie at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market from Encina Farms, the first ranch in California dedicated to raising Black Iberian pigs using regenerative practices.

Named for the oak trees in which the acorn-loving pigs forage, Encina Farms is situated in Lake County on 650 acres of native oak groves and certified organic pasture. For the farm’s co-founders, Alberto Solis and Helmut Drews, bringing Spain’s agricultural traditions to the Mediterranean climate and thriving food scene of California made perfect sense. We spoke with Alberto about what makes Iberico pigs special, and what it takes to raise them humanely and sustainably, the Iberian-meets-Californian way.

CUESA: Tell us about your background and how you and Helmut started Encina Farms?

Alberto: I arrived in the United States from Spain in 1980, and after a few years in international banking (which I didn’t like), I started working in the food business, introducing to the US market specialty foods from Spain and other European countries. Eventually, I worked with the first Iberico ham producer that was authorized to bring hams from Spain into the US. 

I managed that company for about three years, then I developed an interest in local and regional foods, so I co-founded a food incubator called KitchenTown. Eventually I sold my share, then I was hired by the company Acornseekers in Texas, which brought the first Iberico pigs into the US. I realized that the best market for this meat was in California, so eventually I left Acornseekers to start my own business here. 

In the process, I met Helmut Drews. He is a native of Columbia, who came to the United States at the age of 15. He made his career in tech and finances, but like me with banking, he wasn’t satisfied. His family in Colombia had owned cow farms, and he wanted to go back to farming. When we met, we both had the same idea about raising Ibericos in California, and the same philosophy about how to do it. In 2019, we managed to buy a herd of Iberico pigs, which are rare in the United States. There are only about 4,000 to 5,000 Ibericos in the whole United States, and we are the only farm in California that has them. It has been an interesting learning experience for us. We are a vertically integrated company, so we do everything from raising the pigs to selling the meat, with just four employees.

Since you started the farm in 2019, how did the pandemic change things for your farm?

About 3 to 4 months before COVID, we started getting really good traction with restaurants. Then COVID hit and of course all the restaurant sales went away overnight. We had all these pigs and we had to feed them, so we made the decision to go direct-to-consumer, which involved doing farmers markets. Farmers markets saved us, not only because we have achieved a nice level of sales, but they have also given us better knowledge of our market. You can have a direct conversation with the customer.

Can you tell us more about the pigs and how they are raised?

The Iberico pig is, by nature, an outdoor animal; they live outdoors 24 hours a day and sleep under the trees at night. It’s important to us to raise these pigs in a way that protects the environment. These animals love to forage and eat acorns (bellotas), so we need oak forests to raise them. Oak forests in California have a marginal value; they are threatened by vineyards and commercial and residential development. Raising these pigs in oak forests gives the forests an economic value to help keep them protected. 

Our mission is to practice regenerative agriculture, which means not only protecting the land, but actually leaving it better than it was. In Spain, these animals are raised in an environment called la dehesa. It’s a sustainable ecosystem of oak forests where pigs and sometimes cattle and wildlife live together. That ecosystem has been in Spain for thousands of years, and the oak forests are plentiful and very valuable there. 

Our goal at Encina Farms is to use the best of what the traditions in Spain give you, but to also do things the California way, so there are things that we do here that they don’t do in Spain. For example, these animals like to root by nature. In Spain, in some cases, they put rings in the pigs’ noses to prevent damage to the land. We decided not to do that because rooting comes naturally for them. Instead, we control the effects they have on the land by rotating the pigs, so they don’t do any damage. The rooting benefits the land because they aerate the soil.

During acorn season, the pigs go from tree to tree eating the acorns. Each animal eats between 15 to 20 pounds of acorns per day, which means they need to have access to about 60 to 70 trees each. As they forage for acorns, they walk a lot, about 8 to 9 miles per day. That walking helps the fat penetrate the muscle and create the marbling in the meat. They’re also eating grass, herbs, roots, mushrooms, and flowers. All of that goes into the flavor of the meat. During the off-season, we supplement with all-natural animal feed—no soy, no corn, non-GMO.

What makes Iberico pork unique? And why does it cost so much more than most pork?

This is the ham they use to make the famous jamón ibérico, which is the highest priced ham in the world. Some people call it the “Wagyu of pork.” The meat from the Iberico pig is very different from regular pork that comes from the more common white pig. It is more red, and the flavor is more intense. In a way, it looks closer to beef. The fat, especially during the acorn season, comes mostly from the acorns. Acorns have 70% content of oleic acid, so it is basically the same fat that comes from olive oil. In Spain, they call these pigs “olive trees with legs.” 

Sometimes we get resistance about why this meat is more expensive than regular pork. It’s not just that it’s a higher quality meat, but by nature, it is more expensive to produce. These pigs are slow growing. A regular industrial pig gets slaughtered between 4 and 6 months, while our pigs are slaughtered at 14 to 16 months. Because they are older animals, they need access to a lot of land to roam and forage. All of that makes it more expensive, the result is a much better tasting product that is also better for the environment.

How can sustainable animal agriculture like the kind you are practicing with these pigs be an environmental and climate solution?

Animal agriculture gets a bad rap because pigs and cows are often raised using intensive, unsustainable ways. But what we are doing at our farm actually has a benefit for the environment.  We rotate animals on the farm, so there’s no impact on the land. You cannot raise Iberico pigs in an industrial way, because they need a certain amount of land. Not only does this kind of farming help protect the forest, but because these animals graze, they help prevent wildfires as they eat the underbrush.

There is a big story that you can tell about these pigs, what’s behind them, and how they’re raised. The farmers market allows us to tell that story and have conversations with our customers. It allows us to get the message about why these pigs and this meat are so special. 

Find Encina Farms at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Farm photos courtesy of Encina Farms.