LUKE CONYAC grew up on a farm in western Kansas. He went to law school after college mainly because he got a full scholarship. His specialty was environmental law, which landed him a job in Seattle as in-house counsel to a biotech firm. Today, he’s a hog farmer.
Ten years ago, he bought 10 acres in Marysville zoned for agricultural use and started breeding and raising heritage hogs, mostly a mix of Hereford and Gloucestershire Old Spot, with some Berkshire. Three years ago, he moved his family there from Seattle because he wanted his two young sons to have the kind of childhood he had.
Hogstead Family Farm lies 30 miles north of Seattle, just off Interstate 5, behind the vast commercial strip anchored by Tulalip Resort Casino. Conyac raises about 150 hogs annually from farrow to finish. That’s a big operation for Western Washington, but minuscule compared to commercial feeder pig producers who raise pigs from birth to about 10-60 pounds and sell them to finishers who fatten them, mostly on corn, to slaughter weight by packing up to 1,000 hogs at a time into Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) for more than 45 days.
Conyac’s hogs live outdoors from birth to slaughter. Chickens meander through the farrowing shed, where sows recline in roomy pens with their suckling piglets. Once weaned, the hogs graze on pasture for seven months, getting plump on a diet of locally grown, non-GMO grain; spent grain from nearby breweries; and vegetables from Hogstead’s organic garden. The result is meat with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acid (fat that’s good for you), more marbling and a unique flavor that chefs clamor for.
One of those chefs is Seamus Platt, who sourced hogs from Hogstead for The Shambles, a whole-animal butcher shop, bar and restaurant, where, up until early last year, he headed the kitchen. When The Shambles eventually fell victim to the pandemic, it was a catalyst for Platt “to step back and analyze my place as a chef in the food system.”
Meat is part of Platt’s DNA. His great-grandfather Walter Platt Jr. was a butcher at Murray’s Meat Co. in Pike Place Market until the 1940s, when he opened his own butcher shop in White Center. Starting a salumeria on a pig farm has been Platt’s dream for years, but it was Conyac who suggested doing it at Hogstead.
By the end of this year, they expect to complete construction on a 600-square-foot meat-processing facility near the entrance to the property. Once they clear local permitting hurdles and obtain USDA approval (they hope early next year), Platt will ramp up production on a line of traditional, Old World-style cured meats marketed under the Norcino brand name. The processing facility also will be available to other small producers in the area whom Conyac doesn’t view as competitors. On the contrary, “We need way more of us,” he says.
Federal grant money designed to expand small farmers’ access to meat processing is key to the project. “At the federal level, there is a big push to create food processing for locals,” says Conyac, who still practices law on the side, mostly advising other small farmers. Because of industry concentration, meat-processing facilities are dominated by the big producers, and it’s hard for small farmers to get access. Mobile processing is available in Western Washington through the North Cascades Meat Producer Cooperative, but the capability to produce value-added products such as bacon, ham or salumi is not readily available to small producers. “There has to be more infrastructure to pick up demand,” Conyac says.
The Hogstead facility will allow room for hanging, cooling, curing and fermentation. Plans include a small retail farm stand, but most Norcino salumi will be destined for restaurants at first.
Platt first cured meat at the Salish Lodge in the mid-aughts, working under then-executive chef Roy Breiman. He got tips in those early days from Armandino Batali, who mentored many Seattle chefs after he opened Salumi, his sliver of a salumeria in Pioneer Square. Platt went on to refine his salumi skills at the Culinary Institute of America; at Mollusk, the now-closed South Lake Union spot where founding chef Travis Kukull installed a curing room; and in Italy, where, like Batali, he worked with skilled norcini, Italian butchers who specialize in pigs. Norcino is named in their honor.
At The Shambles, Platt learned to be “a salesman for the rest of the pig,” educating customers about lesser-known cuts. He’ll do the same for Norcino, which will use every muscle. Most people know salami; fewer are familiar with culatello, made from the large hind leg muscle removed from prosciutto and aged separately. Also in the works are coppa (neck), lonza (loin), speck (front shoulder), guanciale (jowl), pancetta (belly) and lardo (back fat), along with niche items such as fiocco, a younger, fresher version of culatello, and strolghino, a soft, spreadable salami that’s ready to eat in 10 days.
Certain salumi require much lengthier aging: at least 15 months for culatello, and 18 months for lardo di Colonnata, among the most prized of Italy’s many variations on cured pig fat. There are roughly 30 lardo producers out of a population of about 300 in the small hamlet of Colonnata, where they cure the slabs of fat in seasoned brine in coffinlike bins made of marble, which the village has in abundance because it sits amid the famous quarries of Carrara. While truffles, calvados or apple juice are sometimes used to flavor lardo di Colonnata, Platt is using herbs and plums from his mother’s Bitter Lake backyard.
I sampled some Norcino salumi at the farm this summer. Though only about halfway through its total curing time, Platt’s lardo already tastes fabulous: faintly herbaceous, a little sweet and delicately porcine. Supple slices of coppa revealed traces of mandarin orange, fennel and chili flakes. His robust, red-wine-enriched finocchiona salami is made with wild local fennel and organic garlic from Hogstead, which plans to grow more ingredients for Norcino’s products.
There will be dinners on the farm, too, because “doing the chef thing” is something Platt says he can’t walk away from. A Fall Fete is scheduled for Sept. 25, featuring guest chef Sara Harvey of Alderbrook Resort and wines from Walla Walla-based Three Rivers Winery. Tickets are $300 per person (including food, wine pairings and gratuity), available through Eventbrite. It’s a sure bet that dinner will involve a whole pig roasting on an open fire, and that salumi will be served.