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Burlock Coast's Paula DaSilva and Palmetto Creek's Jim Wood.
Burlock Coast's Paula DaSilva and Palmetto Creek's Jim Wood.
Courtesy of Jim Wood

Florida's Best Pork Producer Hangs It Up After Hurricane Irma's Devastation

Jim Wood's Palmetto Creek Farms in Central Florida is shuttering, leaving some Miami chefs scrambling to find a substitute for his top-quality, heritage breed pork that has been lauded statewide and around the country.

"We're grasping to find something as good," says Edge Steak & Bar executive chef Aaron Brooks, who used Wood's Hereford pigs for everything from whole hogs for Sunday brunch to the heads and other parts for the restaurant's charcuterie program. "He'd drive down every week from Orlando to deliver us a pig, and that care translated into the pork. We tried other pork but nothing tasted as good as Jim's."

Wood, who is 63 and speaks with a calming Southern drawl, grew up on his father's dairy farm and earned pocket money as a teenager working there before dawn. Despite wanting to farm for life, he went into real estate after school. Business went well, and in 2001 he was able to purchase a 30-acre tract in Avon Park to scratch a longstanding itch. He bred about ten varieties of pigs to show at various agricultural shows throughout the state. In 2007 the University of Florida invited him to a meeting on heritage meat pigs.

"They demonstrated to us the difference between commodity pork and heritage breed meat," Wood says. "I immediately knew this is what I needed to focus on."

By the time the financial and real estate crisis began taking hold in 2007, Wood was well off and fed up enough to give the building business the boot. He decided to pour himself into raising pigs.

His preferred breed was the Hereford — a hefty, dark-skinned, thick-haired breed that boasted a meat-to-fat ratio few chefs could resist. Michael Schwartz was one of Wood's early champions, and the pig farmer has sold to Loews Miami Beach, 3030 Ocean, and the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale. Wood was widely lauded for his vertical pig production. Part of the reason mass production prefers pink pigs is because they have softer hair that's easier to remove during slaughter. The Hereford's bristles don't come out as easily, and in the pig-slaughtering business, time is far more important than quality.

"A white pig takes about three to four minutes to dehair; mine take 15 to 20 minutes and they wanted to triple my price," Wood says. "The first plant I was in tossed me out twice; another friend's plant tossed me out, so I decided to build my own."

His commitment to care drove him to build his own slaughterhouse at the center of his farm and helped give him a sterling reputation as a vertically integrated heritage pork producer, bucking the trend of industrially processed meat raised on industrial feed at some far-flung ranch.

"It's all mathematics," Wood says. "If it takes three pounds of feed to grow a pound of meat, what makes the most sense: to move the hogs to the feed or the feed to the hogs? That feed comes out of Iowa and Indiana and you're shipping four times the poundage. The economics aren't to your advantage. We were lucky to be able to find that niche where people were willing to support us at a premium, and we normally kept customers for years and years."

All of that came to a screeching halt last year when Hurricane Irma knocked out power to his ranch, allowing his pigs to hop their electrified fences and breed all at once as opposed to the slow pace Wood usually enforced, which ensured he always had a supply of hogs for customers. When he found himself out of pigs, Wood decided, for the first time in his career, to buy pigs from another rancher. Unfortunately, the lot a friend him sold him was infected with a virus that quickly spread to many of the newborns.

"We lost nearly 80 pigs," Wood says. The loss was too much to sustain financially, and the farm is currently selling off its last few pigs to several longtime customers before closing for good.

"I still have my real estate license, but I don't know if I want to do that," he says. "I just don't know what I'm going to do. I pastor a small church, but I'm going to need some additional income."

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