How pig farming saved Carl Blake's life
“I’m a pig farmer; you gotta have some goddamned humor.”
Carl Blake, once a computer network engineer for Apple, now spends his days in mud that creeps up past his knees on his farm in the Ozarks in Missouri, trying to develop the best pigs in America.
Blake created Iowa Swabian Hall pigs, a cross of the Chinese Meishan and Russian wild boar, based on a 19th-century German breed that dates back to the time of King Wilhelm I.
He bought a few Meishan pigs from Iowa State University and a Russian wild boar “from other means,” Blake said with a chuckle.
The wild boar would be too lean and dry on its own, but Meishan are one of the fattiest breeds in the world. The offspring have the right amount of thick fat and dark meat, making it ideal for both fresh and cured pork.
“It’s almost like you’re eating steak,” Blake said.
In addition to computer engineering, Blake previously ran a business making aquariums out of old Macintosh computers. Blake was sitting around eating pizza with his friends in 1988 when they made fun of him for having a Mac 128K computer. The next week, he came back with his new creation. His buddies, stoned and drunk, thought it was a screen saver. Blake sold about 800 to 900 Mac aquariums over 6 or 7 years until he sold the business.
Blake’s journey to pig farming took a sharp turn in March 2007, when Blake nearly died in a car accident. He was driving when he went off the road and struck a culvert. He broke his femur and three bones in five places in his neck. Blake had no feeling from his neck down after the crash; he was internally decapitated. Blake twisted his neck back into place.
“I could have snapped my neck, I could have died,” he said. “But I didn’t. I’m here now.”
Blake relearned how to walk and move his arms. Instead of paying for costly physical therapy, Blake, who grew up raising pigs to present at the county fair, turned toward the farm once again.
Blake read about a farmer raising Hungarian Mangalitsa pigs in Washington, which piqued his interest. But Mangalitsa pigs would take too long to reach full weight and had low reproductive rates, so Blake determined they weren’t commercially viable. By comparison, Swabian Halls can reach full weight in about seven months and produce larger litters.
In 2010, two years after the first Iowa Swabian Hall pig was born, Blake’s pig won Cochon 555 in San Francisco—his first of six victories at the heritage pork festival.
Just as he did as a child, Blake presented his pigs at the county fair. The other pigs had one-eighth to one-quarter-inch of back fat. Blake’s pigs had two inches of fat. Other competitors tried to dismiss Blake’s pigs as oddities, but Blake said their tones changed when he told them he got about $5.80 per pound for his pigs, rather than the 58 cents per pound they were getting.
“Then they all shut up,” Blake said. “It’s stupid to raise conventional, but they’re doing it.”
The self-proclaimed math nerd, who as a child modified a moped to top out at 65 mph instead of 11 mph, now receives international attention.
Blake and his hogs appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, The Colbert Report and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, among many others. Mario Batali and Jimmy Fallon have raved over his pork. Korean tourists who tasted the Iowa Swabian Hall pork spent three days trying to get ahold of Blake. Eventually they got his number and through a translator, told him that his pork was the best they’ve ever tried.
“It’s surreal at times,” Blake said.
Blake also created a stainless steel cooking box can cook a 100-pound pig in four hours. He named his creation the American Hot Box. Blake has shipped six boxes so far and said Menard’s hardware store has already contacted him about stocking it on its shelves.
Blake released a book on pig roasting this winter and is working on a second book, Accidentally Epic, about his life, beginning from when he got into the car accident.
When Blake isn’t making new hardware, he’s making new pigs.
Both Blake’s new breeds—Iowa Black Beauty and another still unnamed—will be leaner than the Iowa Swabian Hall and ideal for roasting. The new breeds are fast growers—Blake says they hit the 100-pound mark in weeks, rather than months. Blake’s goal is to have the new breeds ultimately replace standard confinement pigs in the U.S.
“I don’t want to sit on our laurels and raise the Swabian Hall and call it good.”
Blake said Andrew Zimmern called to let him know he’d be coming down in a month or two for a sample of the new hog.
Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2016.