As he shifts his battered cube van into gear, Dalroy Stachowski imparts some of the wisdom he's learned from three decades of raising hogs: "There's not much pigs won't eat, including each other," he says in a matter-of-fact country drawl. "If they're lacking a particular mineral in their diet, blood tastes good to them."
The emergence of the factory farm has made his life ever more precarious. The big facilities—which can hold as many as 300,000 pigs—only need to clear four to eight dollars of profit per head. Stachowski, who owns just 25 pigs, needs to clear at least $25.
"You gotta learn to push a pencil in this business," says Stachowski, a spry 61-year-old with a wizard beard. "You know what they say about farming: It's one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel."
So he's always on the lookout for free feed, poring through telephone books for companies that might need to get rid of something that his livestock can eat. Over the years, he's gotten food from a bakery in St. Paul, an egg producer in Princeton, even a Parmesan cheese manufacturer.
But these days, his livestock owe their full bellies to one industry: the Twin Cities' burgeoning craft beer scene.
After driving 50 miles to the Twin Cities from his farm in Isanti County, Stachowski arrives at a nondescript industrial park on Benson Avenue in St. Paul and knocks on the door of the Flat Earth Brewing Company. Inside, he's greeted by Jeff Williamson, the owner, head brewer, and sole employee.
"Hi, Ski," Williamson says, using the nickname by which virtually every local beer maker knows Stachowski.
They met when Williamson was working at the Town Hall Brewery, a stylish brewpub on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. Now, six weeks into his own venture, the 39-year-old Forest Lake transplant is busy creating his Belgian pale ale.
Like all brewers, Williamson has a waste disposal concern: What to do with the hundreds of pounds of spent grains—barley, wheat, hops, and the like—left at the end of the brewing process?
Which is where Stachowski comes in.
"I'm happy to get the grain and they're happy to get rid of it," he says.
Stachowski ambles over to the four 35-gallon plastic garbage cans. He pops off a lid to inspect the grain, sifting it through his fingers like a prospector. It resembles moist sawdust and has a pleasant, toasty aroma.
"It's different than the Surly grain, not quite as fine," Stachowski observes, making reference to another of his regular customers, the Surly Brewing Company in Brooklyn Park.
About 13 years ago, Stachowski began feeding his pigs brewers' grain after a retired farmer friend came across a classified ad placed by Rock Bottom Brewery, which was looking to unload its waste. As Stachowski later learned, brewers' grain has about 25 percent protein content—twice that of corn. And unlike corn, which has lately been in high demand thanks to the surge in ethanol production, brewers' grain has the virtue of being free.
The next stop is the Town Hall Brewery. Business at the brewpub has improved steadily since it opened a decade ago, and Town Hall owner Pete Rifakes has come to depend on Stachowski as a human barometer of the local craft beer industry.
"Ski's our measuring stick to see how other brewers are doing," Rifakes says with a laugh.
After Town Hall, Stachowski makes his final stop of the day at Herkimer, a brewpub in Uptown. By the end of his rounds, he has collected 25 cans of brewers' grain—or roughly two tons. He figures it might last a week.
Back at the farm—a ramshackle six-acre lot populated by pigs, cows, goats, chickens, geese, cats, and dogs—Stachowski dumps a shovelful of brewers' grain into the trough. From distant corners of the cinderblock pen, pigs rush in and set on the grain with obvious gusto. A shovel load of eggs and bread brings squeals of delight. "That's the frosting on the cake," Stachowski says.
As he takes a tug from a generic cigarette inside the old farmhouse, Stachowski explains that he's always looking for ways to cut costs. The other day, he was talking to a farmer friend who'd just tapped into another free source of feed that is in ever greater supply these days: the mash left behind from the production of corn ethanol. The pigs really seemed to take to the mash, Stachowski says, unsurprised. "Of course," he adds, "pigs will eat anything."