Name: Herb Eckhouse
What La Quercia sustainable practice are you most proud of? This may sound surprising, but I am most proud of our profitability, because profitability is sustainability for all of us in small business. When we discuss prices with our suppliers, we tell them that we can’t stay in business if they don’t, so we ask them to check their numbers and assure their own profitability. Profit enables us to pay premiums of more than 150% over commodity prices for the pasture raised pork we buy; it enables us to pay a gainsharing bonus to our employees and offer 7 weeks of paid maternity leave, 20 days of PTO, health benefits, and offer opportunities for professional growth; it enables us to purchase equipment to improve ergonomics; it enabled us to select the least ozone depleting refrigerant when we added onto our building. Our challenge is to communicate the value of these practices and make something delicious enough so that people are willing to support them.
What is something people might not know about La Quercia? Over the years, I’ve been asked time and time again what La Quercia means (by the way, it’s pronounced La Kwair-cha), and it means the Oak in Italian – which is also what we chose as our company logo. For centuries, oaks and acorns have been associated with premium dry cured ham quality — French medieval wood cuts show swine herders knocking down acorns for his pigs to eat. Parma, Italy – where our family lived for many years — used to be an oak savannah, as did Iowa, whose state tree is the Oak. The oak leaf and the acorn are symbols of Parma cuisine and can still be found in the logos of many Parma companies. So to us, La Quercia brings together Iowa, Italy, and prosciutto. We use the oak to showcase our company’s values – namely patience, persistence, integrity and beauty.
What are you most excited about in the year ahead? There’s a lot that I’m excited about, probably most of all the many projects we have in the works to further upgrade our meat. One example of this is our new Cinta Senese meat that we’re introducing later this year. Cinta Senese is a rare Tuscan breed (known for the white band across its “cinta”, or belt) brought to the US a few years ago to Acorn Ranch in Sonoma County by Peter Buckley. We’ve just purchased Buckley’s breeding herd (the only one in North America) in partnership with Ken Kehrli, a dedicated pig breeder in northeast Iowa. The pigs are now farrowing, and soon we’ll introduce new Cinta products – prosciutto, coppa, guanciale, spallacia and salami – later this year, as well as fresh Cinta meat to chef partners. We always look for the best fresh meat we can find, because that always makes for the best cured meat, and I’ve long had my eye on the Cinta Senese because it’s so well known for its meat quality.
Everything we do is about creating a special eating experience for Americans, so to be able to do that and preserve this breed is truly exciting. Stay tuned for more projects like this in the works, but this is just one example of how we’re continuing to advance the quality of our meat.
Who did you meet at the Chefs Collaborative 2017 Summit that inspired you? I was inspired by Matthew Raiford — his dedication to his family’s history and heritage and his determination to forge a new path that was based on the old wisdom of his grandmother. What especially inspired me was the deliciousness of the food he offered that demonstrated his skill and the wisdom of his choices.
Why do you feel “Meat Matters“? Meat matters, and as much about our own body’s welfare as it is the animal’s welfare. Simply put, pigs are our neighbors, and we care about them. We directly experience the adverse effects of animal confinement and industrial production, and that’s what further motivates us to do what we do.
Kathy and I have been very politically active in this regard – we’ve lobbied Congress about FDA regulations that would limit the use of antibiotics in animal production, for example. We traveled to DC to speak to Congress men and women and met our Senator Tom Harkin to discuss it. We also act locally by advocating for Iowa to comply with the Clean Water Act, which I’m ashamed they haven’t done over the past four decades.
When we started La Quercia, very few people were doing the same and thinking the same. Though that’s changed a bit over the past decade, and more people are realizing that meat matters, the percentage of animals raised in this country using practices that I believe meet these fundamental beliefs is still just a tiny number. More must always be done.
Tell us about the people behind La Quercia (your farmers and employees). I founded La Quercia with my wife Kathy in 2005, and at our core we are a family operation dedicated to creating delicious food. Our son Aaron is now working with us, and our two daughters have pitched in over the years. Our longtime team based in Norwalk, Iowa, from our plant manager Sebastian Beumer to our entire team, has learned how to make prosciutto – an intricate and very hands-on process. We don’t use a lot of machines the way some other manufacturers do, and our prosciutto involves 28 hand operations before it arrives at your door! Our plant is always humming and busy – I often call it a five-ring circus in a three-ring building. Because we’re working with so many different cuts of fresh and cured meats, we always have a lot going on – and it’s about getting the right people to the right place with the right tools. We have an amazing team.
We work with a small number of American farmers in close partnership, ensuring that the farmers raise the pigs to the correct standard and humane practices that we’ve outlined together. We learned early on that it’s really important to have predictable needs when working in a niche area – it really helps the suppliers. So at the beginning of each year, we go over an annual plan with our suppliers, and we commit to buying meat from them every week. We are a very dependable customer! It can be a challenge for suppliers to sell all parts, so we also try to work with all of our partners to understand what they need to move on a regular basis, and we help in that area as well.
We also invest in our suppliers and categories — sometimes it is in a way that’s counter to our best interests. For example, we will begin at a price that’s over and above what our pricing would normally allow, which helps the producer build up his supply, and then work together over a period of time to reach a mutually-agreeable price going forward. I’m not sure if we recover the costs when we do this, but we feel that it’s important to do for many reasons. The examples of animal husbandry we see again and again from our farm partners is just outstanding and is the reason why we take leaps with our partners and are working new breeds this year.