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HARRISON -- The meatballs at Bentonville's Oven & Tap restaurant, the pork chops at The Hive at the 21c Museum Hotel and the thinly sliced deli ham at Onyx Coffee Lab have one thing in common, the pork originates from Sean and Carol Bansley's Berkshire Ridge Farm in the Ozark Mountains.

"We started raising animals because we wanted the best meat for ourselves and friends," Carol Bansley said. "And it's grown from there."

Fleeing Iowa's harsh snowy months, the Bansleys moved their pig farm in 2013 to a nearly 300-acre Harrison property.

At first sales were slim, about three hogs per month were going to nearby retailers, Sean Bansley said.

However, in the last couple of years the first-generation farmers began making and sustaining connections in the Northwest Arkansas restaurant scene. Sales now average about 25 hogs per month.

Business improved when Luke Wetzel, owner of Oven & Tap, found the Bansley's Facebook page and saw that they sold Berkshire heritage hogs -- a breed he became familiar with while working at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif.

Wetzel said his training in California guided him in how he wanted to run a restaurant: Use local farmers who share similar food production ethics.

The Bansley farm "really aligned perfectly with what I was after," Wetzel said. "I looked at their banner and Berkshire screamed at me. I think it's a great breed of hog."

Early records indicate the large black-haired hogs were discovered more than 300 years ago in the shire of Berks in England. Since then, the Berkshire breed has become known in chef circles for its strong meat-to-fat ratio.

The breed has been popular in Okinawa, Japan, for years, but its status in the United States has trailed off.

According to the American Berkshire Association, this is largely because of current industry demands for pork that is more lean, but less flavorful.

In Osceola, Iowa -- a state where pigs outnumber humans roughly 7-to-1 -- Sean Bansley worked in the nursery of Swine Graphics Enterprises for about three years.

Inside, he herded thousands of commercial pigs in confined quarters.

"It got to be too much," Bansley said. "I really didn't like seeing animals in that condition. They needed fresh air and sunshine."

After witnessing the pitfalls of mass production, the Bansleys placed animal welfare at the forefront of their farming goals.

Their farming practices in Iowa earned them Animal Welfare Approved certification for raising dozens of hogs on pastureland. The animals are given no hormones or antibiotics. They are given feed that has not been genetically modified.

Now they care for hundreds of pigs and maintain their certification in Arkansas, along with seven other certified farms in the state.

Wetzel first toured the Bansleys' rustic farm in 2015.

"We struck a great relationship that day and they've become a family I want to continue to support," Wetzel said.

Every other Tuesday the Bansleys drive two hours to pick up their butchered hogs from B&R processing in Winslow. Then they travel north to unload orders of shoulders, loins, bellies and hams to their regular stops.

Oven & Tap buys a little more than 100 pounds at a time for its meatball dishes. Before the Bansleys delivered to restaurants, General Manager Mollie Mullis said she drove to the processor herself for shoulders and bellies.

"We just thought it was worth it," Mullis said.

Soon, Matt McClure, executive chef at The Hive, was buying a couple hundred pounds of pork from the Bansleys for bacon, breakfast sausage, pulled pork, ham and pork chops.

"I think the Bansleys are doing the right thing. I think giving people a choice is the first step of changing this industry," Wetzel said. "You have a choice to go to a farmers market or go to a restaurant to eat food that's been properly grown and properly processed."

Currently, they distribute to about 20 restaurants and a few health food stores in Arkansas.

To meet current demand, they plan to expand their 25-acre pig pasture and increase sales to 35 hogs per month. Soon, the Bansleys said they would also like to produce capocollo, prosciutto and pancetta.

"If we had to get big enough, where we couldn't do it this way, we wouldn't do it," Carol Bansley said. "We want to continue growing the way we feel right about it."

At Berkshire Ridge Farm sits a yellow two-story house, surrounded by hundreds of pasture-raised pigs.

"Booooaaaaaarrrr," Sean Bansley called one Friday morning. Crunching through the leaves, Bansley insisted the boar was big enough to ride; he'd posted photos on Facebook. If only he could find him.

After combing the pasture, a hunk of black flesh revealed itself inside the tin shed up ahead. Inside, a massive hog burrowed into the cool, dark hay, like a dachshund cozies in between couch cushions. Bansley crouched beside his prized breeder: "C'mon, don'tcha wanna get up?"

No matter what Bansley did, the boar refused to move. It was a little after 10 a.m.

The sun was out, and it was time to nap.

SundayMonday Business on 10/01/2017

Print Headline: Harrison farm puts free-range pork on menus, local tables

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