Butchers, chefs brace for bacon shortage in Sonoma County

The Golden State is expected to lose almost all of its pork supply in 2022 because the big producers have not yet complied with the state’s new law.|

What’s shakin’ with bacon?

Many Sonoma County restaurateurs and butchers are coming to grips with predictions that bacon and pork in general will be more expensive and harder to come by starting in 2022. The problem is an anticipated drop in supply brought on by California’s new animal welfare rules.

Starting in January, California will enforce the Farm Animal Confinement proposition (Prop. 12) passed in 2018, which requires more space for breeding pigs, egg-laying chickens and veal calves. Currently, only about 4% of the nation’s hog operations, most of them in Iowa, comply with the new rules, according to the Associated Press. Although the pork industry has filed lawsuits, it has been loathe to make the required changes to pens because of the high expense. So far, the courts have upheld the California law.

The Golden State, which consumes about 15% of all pork produced in the country, is expected to lose almost all of its pork supply in 2022 because the big producers have not yet complied with the state’s new law.

“I think bacon will be available, but who knows what it’s going to cost?” ― restaurateur Mark Dierkhising

While most Wine Country chefs support giving breeding sows more room to turn around and stretch their legs — the proposition requires 24 square feet per animal — they feel helpless in the face of an another, inevitable price hike, with demand expected to go through the roof and supply expected to be severely limited.

“I think bacon will be available, but who knows what it’s going to cost?” said restaurateur Mark Dierkhising, who goes through about 250 pounds of bacon a week at his two Santa Rosa breakfast and lunch spots, Dierk’s Parkside and Midtown cafes. “Which means I will pass it along on the menu. People have to pay for what they’re eating.”

Although California pork prices are expected to soar initially, local restaurateurs and butchers hope the rules eventually will become the national standard when processors step up to avoid losing such a large share of the market.

“That’s a huge chunk to lose,” said Josh Silvers, owner of Jackson’s Bar & Oven in Santa Rosa. “I’m thinking we might have to suffer some short-time pain to get to the gain. Prices are going to go up, it’s going to be scarcer, but I hope it leads to more long-term benefits in terms of animal welfare.”

Still, there are many unknowns in the pork shortage saga, including how much prices will rise, whether inventory already in the delivery pipeline will push out the timing of the shortage and if more lawsuits will slow the entire process.

Like California’s law banning foie gras in 2012, Prop. 12 also could spawn a black market at the California border.

“I wonder how much bacon will be smuggled into the state?” Dierkhising said. “You got a guy who lives 10 miles from the Nevada border, and he can pick up 50 cases and put it in his freezer. Why not?”

Expecting prices to double

The good news for local bacon lovers is that artisanal bacon processed by local butchers from humanely raised pigs will still be around, although it won’t be cheap, and it may not be plentiful.

“Artisan bacon producers are going to raise their prices because of demand, and they can only supply, I would bet, 10% of the total bacon market,” Dierkhising said. “Grocery stores will keep selling it, because people will buy it — or not.”

Butcher Ryan Taylor, co-owner with Josh Cerda of Panizzera Meat Co. in Occidental, sources local pork from Marin Sun Farms for popular cuts like pork chops, tenderloins and baby back ribs. But to keep prices affordable, he sources pork shoulder for sausage and belly for bacon from other states.

“Some of our products will be just fine,” Taylor said. “But it will definitely impact our sausage and bacon line.”

The butcher shop makes 21 types of sausages — a core product of the business since it opened in 1917 — and a thick-cut, nitrate-free bacon.

Taylor finds himself between a rock and a hard place, sympathizing with the plight of the pig farmers while trying to stay ahead of the curve on pricing issues for consumers.

“We are the only state that has passed an animal welfare law like this,” he said. “Obviously, there’s an incredible logistical and economic challenge in order (for the pig farmers) to expand their predesigned crates.”

But with slower production due to the pandemic and higher cost for feed because of the drought, Taylor said pork prices already have doubled from what they were at this time last year. And, according to quotes he has gotten from California-compliant pork producers, he said costs are expected to double again in 2022.

Meanwhile, the threat of foregoing some of their favorite bacon dishes, from BLTs to pasta carbonara, has grabbed the attention of pandemic-weary consumers.

“All of a sudden people are like … ‘Don’t mess with my bacon!’” Taylor said.

At Sonoma County Meat Co. in Santa Rosa, owners Rian and Jenine Rinn said they will not be affected because they only process animals that have been raised humanely and locally by ranchers who want to provide consumers an alternative to factory-farmed products.

“Sticking with artisanal, local products is a huge boon when it comes to these national issues,” Jenine said. “We provide the service of meat processing for local ranchers, and most of them are already doing way beyond what this proposition is asking for.”

‘Nutty about bacon’

Chef and butcher John Stewart of Forestville, who sources pork belly for his Black Pig Bacon from a family farm in Washington state, has been a longtime proponent of animal welfare. He said he feels good about the changes that will be brought about by the California proposition.

“If it’s going to focus on the quality of an animal’s life, that’s great,” he said. “That goes a long way toward helping.”

During the pandemic, a surge in orders for Black Pig Bacon helped Stewart and his wife, Duskie Estes, keep their business afloat, since the restaurateurs-turned-caterers lost close to 250 catering events because of the stay-home orders.

“People are kind of nutty about bacon, and that’s great,” Stewart said. “During the worst of the pandemic, we sold a lot of bacon. When there was nothing else going on, people were buying bacon.”

At Jackson’s in Railroad Square, Silvers said his kitchen uses a lot of bacon. Currently, his menu features a bacon burger and Fried Chicken Salad with candied bacon. He sources his pork from Golden Gate Meat Co., because their philosophy is based around humanely and naturally raised meat.

“Animals do need to be treated with respect, and also, your food tastes better that way,” Silvers said. “It’s just better for the environment, for the animal and for you.”

Like the egg farmers who adapted to the demand for cage-free eggs, some of the big pork producers are expected to build facilities compliant with the California law. It just may take them some time.

“The rest of the country can’t move as fast as we do” said Dierkhising, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota. “It’s going to take Iowa and Nebraska a couple of years to come around. They aren’t like Californians, who are used to regulations.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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