WEST BRANCH, Iowa — Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear — and Sally — can be found in a hog pen on the edge of West Branch, Iowa.
The hogs, for the most part named after the emotions in the Pixar Movie “Inside Out,” make up the latest pack of pigs in Emily Harold’s small, niche farming operation.
The 17-year-old producer is on a mission to bring a Spanish-style meat to Iowans, one group of hogs at a time.
Harold started the West Branch business with her father while in middle school. Now a senior in high school, she runs the operation with a bit of help from her brother.
The hobby-turned-entrepreneurial venture has earned her some money she’s tucked away for college. But the driving force behind the work is a passion for the product, and for agricultural work in general.
“They’re eating my product, and it’s nourishing their bodies,” she said. “Then they have this better understanding of agriculture, which is what my passion is: advocating for people who are out in the fields and barns.”
Her business takes Berkshire pigs, a breed heartier than most that are mass produced, and feeds them a diet of acorns. The resulting meat is unlike much of the meat found in area grocery stores; it has a rich, buttery taste.
“Even when you are cooking it, it smells different,” she said. “The acorns kind of mix with the fat — and it just smells really good.”
The product is much like acorn-fed pork products out of Spain, but sourced in Iowa. The pigs are bred near West Branch and the feed is purchased in Solon.
The experience of running the business has forced Harold to learn on the fly. She and her brother have loved raising pigs for quite some time — Harold notes that it’s not uncommon for her and her brother to linger after they’ve fed the pigs at night. It’s also not uncommon for the pigs to roll over, expecting belly scratches.
The real challenge, said Harold, is the logistics of marketing the product.
Iterations of the company name were tinkered with until they settled on something that conveyed the right message, Natural Oak Pork. Harold created a website, a means to pay for the products and a quick program for estimating how much meat a customer can expect.
“When I was 14, I definitely did not know how to sell a product,” she said, adding that this situation has changed.
She had to quickly learn the different cuts of meat. Most prospective clients wanted one thing above all: bacon. Harold, who herself particularly likes the bacon cut, said most people don’t understand that bacon, and the nearly-as-popular ham, are a very small portion of a giant pig. But she seems to relish the opportunity to walk people through the cuts. It’s good practice for the senior. Next school year, she will head off to Iowa State University, where she will pursue a double-degree in agriculture and agriculture communications.
“I just like sharing a part of who I am,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of athletes and kids who can kind of show what they’re good at in front of a whole town. And what I’m good at you show to a county fair or state fair observer — and my clients.”
She would like to keep up her hobbyist business when she has a degree in hand. She talks about ramping up production to 100 pigs per year, up from the five to eight pigs she can handle at a time with her coursework and extracurricular activities.
In the meantime, whether it’s one pig sale at a time, Harold wants to keep showing the community around her that a farmer doesn’t look like “a man in a straw hat, overalls and boots.”
“I’m a farmer,” she said, “and I don’t wear boots.”