These local piggies go to market
These local piggies go to market
From Blackbird Farm to Daniele Inc., local businesses cooperate to produce high-end product line
By GERRY GOLDSTEIN
Valley Breeze & Observer Correspondent
SMITHFIELD - Campaigning to improve long-distance rail service in the 1940s, industrialist Robert R. Young caught the nation's attention with ads exclaiming, "A hog can cross the country without changing trains, but you can't."
Young was right: Coast-to-coast passengers had to switch in Chicago or St. Louis, while market-bound porkers sped through non-stop.
These days, local businesses are cooperating in a venture that keeps hogs much closer to home.
They start out on the hoof at Smithfield's Blackbird Farm, are transformed into gourmet food products at Daniele Inc. in Burrillville, and end up back where they started, in Smithfield - on the shelves of Dave's Marketplace.
Their only detour in between is a one-way, 75-mile ride from the farm to a plant in Athol, Mass., where they're ... well, let's downplay that.
The local-farm to local-table angle matters to family-owned Daniele, despite its growth from humble beginnings in postwar Italy into today's multi-million-dollar enterprise that employs 300 people and ships millions of pounds of Italian-style meat delicacies worldwide.
Currently, the firm's 150,000-square-foot complex off Route 102 is undergoing a $55-million expansion that will more than triple its space.
Concurrently, the company has introduced a new line of products, similar to the existing ones, but made from small-farm local pigs.
That's where Blackbird Farm, known more prominently for its black angus cattle, enters the picture.
A few years ago you could find only two pigs at Blackbird, but the porcine population today is about 100 and growing steadily.
"These are very contented pigs," says Ann Marie Bouthillette, who owns the 150-acre farm with her husband, Kevin.
They have entrusted management of their Heritage Berkshire pigs to their 21-year-old son Brandon, who decided after graduating from Smithfield High in 2009 that farming was the career he wanted.
Now he's in charge of a population that ranges from 18 brood sows and two boars weighing hundreds of pounds, to 220-pounders ready for market, to squirming, week-old piglets each about the size of a sausage sandwich.
Blackbird Farm's pampered pigs aren't your stereotypical garbage mouths, says Brandon, noting that their diet of corn and soybeans - with Pepperidge Farm bread thrown in to add body - provides tasty, pinkish-red meat that's instantly recognizable.
"They are the black angus of pork," says Ann Marie.
Hogs grew in importance at Blackbird when Daniele called a year or so ago seeking a local meat supply for its new line and wanting about 20 animals a month; that's a goal Brandon is still working to meet.
It's hardly impossible, because American Berkshires reach breeding age at a year or less and can produce a litter of eight to 10 piglets every four months.
After six weeks or so in the farrowing barn, cleaned at least twice daily and offering heat lamps for the newborns, the growing piglets are eventually released onto half-acre plots where separate groups can forage without being crowded. They go to market at about 6 months old.
"It's a lot of work, but I enjoy it so much that if I take a day off I get bored," says Brandon, whose goal is "to give Daniele the best product we can - the best piece of meat you can get."
That's exactly what the firm was looking for in the close-to-home line, which resembles its traditional offerings but is being marketed under the slogan "Made Locally, Enjoyed Globally."
Daniele is noted for its prosciutto, dry-cured Italian ham; and other Italian-style meats including the dry salami sopressata; capocollo, meat from the neck and shoulder; and pancetta, bacon that's cured instead of smoked.
The company enlisted teachers at Johnson & Wales University to come up with recipes for the recently introduced and higher-end line, and the labels are also local, created by students at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Distributorship is likewise close to home, involving Farm Fresh Rhode Island, the nonprofit that supports the state's local food industry.
Prosciutto, a company mainstay, isn't yet available in local origination because it takes an entire year to cure, but it will get here in its own sweet time, says Stefano Dukcevich, 41.
He and his brother, Davide, 39, are the third generation to run the family business, rooted in an enterprise their grandparents, Stefano and Carolina Dukcevich, started in Italy after they fled Yugoslavia as refugees in 1945.
Carolina cooked pork sausages and Stefano delivered them on his bicycle to local restaurants.
A second family meat business, today operated by the Dukcevich's uncle, sprouted in San Daniele, Italy - hence the corporate name in Burrillville.
The present-day Stefano and his brother were children when their father, Vlado, now 73 and still active, emigrated to the U.S. in 1977 and started the Rhode Island business off Route 100 in Pascoag. The firm still uses the building today in addition to the expanding main plant that was built just eight years ago.
Stefano says the family's gratitude for their success made them consider turning to small local producers like Blackbird and Burrillville's My Blue Heaven Farm, to supply meat for a fancier and tastier product, made more slowly and traditionally than their already savory standard offerings.
"People are always bad-mouthing this state, but we don't see it that way," he says.
"We see in our world a value and a positive vibe in Rhode Island as far as food is concerned."
The company's traditional products are sold in supermarkets including Stop & Shop, but the local line so far is largely confined to Dave's, which maintains two of its nine Rhode Island stores in Smithfield and prides itself on its own local connections.
"You'd be amazed at how many local people we deal with," says Robert Fabiano, Dave's director of store development.
It's to his company's advantage to buy from Daniele, he says, because when it comes to their product. "I'd put them up against anybody in the world."
Daniele's reputation carried the company through a dark period in 2010 when it had to recall more than a million pounds of meat products after pepper supplied by outside vendors was identified as the source of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
"People understood it wasn't us and they knew how hard we worked," says Stefano, noting that by the end of the year "sales were better than ever." Daniele sued over the incident and last year received what he termed a substantial mediated settlement.
Meanwhile, back where it all starts at Blackbird Farm, Brandon Bouthillette leans on a fence and sizes up a group of grunting porkers enjoying the first whiffs of soft spring air.
"You want a wide pig, a deep pig," he advises, noting that while his work day can occasionally stretch to 14 hours, the labor is necessary because "I want everything perfect."