On a blustery October day at SkyPilot Farm in Longmont, a posse of pigs feasts on organic squash, apples, and pumpkins. Their 15,000-square-foot pen, a movable fence that’s relocated every few days to fresh pasture, is lush with green alfalfa, which the animals munch on as they meander. Craig Scariot and Chloe Johnson, the husband-and-wife farmers behind nine-year-old SkyPilot, and their business partner, Justin Brunson, chat nearby about the free-range setup that sustains these animals—and the tasty provisions they hope the hogs will eventually become.

Brunson, the former chef-owner of now-shuttered restaurant Old Major, founded River Bear American Meats three years ago to craft artisanal charcuterie, sausage, and deli meats from livestock raised responsibly in Colorado and across the Midwest. River Bear not only makes its own line of goods, distributed in local markets such as Denver metro area locations of Tony’s Meats, but it also processes meat products, for a fee, that farms such as SkyPilot brand and sell themselves.

Photo of Craig and Chloe Johnson with Justin Brunson. Photo by Jimena Peck

Scariot and Johnson approached Brunson in June 2020, looking for help turning their pork bellies into bacon they could sell at local farmers’ markets, along with fresh cuts such as chops and loins. The partnership yielded a peachwood-smoked variety of the iconic breakfast meat that remains one of the farm’s best-selling items. It also led Brunson to learn that SkyPilot had freezers full of unused ham (the hind-leg portions that make up about 30 percent of the meat on a carcass) and fatback (the long strips of fat between the shoulders and hips)—low-consumer-demand items that, in the right hands, can become highly sought-after charcuterie board stars. “Nobody cooks a freaking ham at their house anymore,” Brunson says. “So we’ll take that and the [fatback] and make salami and sausage. It’s one of the things I love about charcuterie; you get all the stuff that’s hard to move, and you make this delicious, awesome product with it.”

That discovery inspired the trio to team up to produce an Italian-style salami that’s made with fresh fennel seeds, fennel pollen, and white wine and ground to a firm, coarse texture before it’s cured. But they had to wait another four months—time filled with slaughter, science, and “good old-fashioned meat-making,” as Brunson says—before the inaugural batch was ready to sample.

Some 200 pigs, 800 sheep, and 500 chickens call SkyPilot’s 800 acres home, 43 of which Scariot and Johnson own. (They lease the rest from other landholders.) The animals are moved from field to field, increasing plant growth, water retention, and biodiversity by allowing pastures to replenish nutrients and vegetation. This gives flora the power to remove carbon from the air and store it back in the soil, helping reverse carbon emissions. It’s part of a practice called regenerative agriculture that benefits the local ecosystem but can be tough on a farm’s bottom line. SkyPilot also gives its animals more room to roam within the enclosure than the industry standard, and rotating the pens requires more pasture than typical ranching. Each hog, for example, enjoys 300 to 500 square feet of real estate, compared to fewer than 100 square feet on an industrial farm. Plus, SkyPilot’s pigs live up to 12 months before slaughter—twice as long as conventionally raised livestock, consuming double the food, water, and care.

Scariot and Johnson say that in addition to helping the planet, their animals’ lifestyle and luxe organic diet give their chops and shoulders improved fat, marbling, and flavor. But the increased upfront costs mean they were thrilled to take advantage of Brunson’s suggestion that they profit from nose to tail. “We want to raise the most well-treated, happiest, healthiest animals, but in the end, it doesn’t matter if we can’t sell [them],” Scariot says. “That’s where Justin comes in. He creates a lot of things that allow us to sell the whole animal and make it all work.”

Photo by Jimena Peck

Crafting charcuterie, however, is a long and labor-intensive process. After SkyPilot sends its happy, pumpkin-fed pigs to slaughter (what Scariot and Johnson call their “one bad day”), they keep the farmers’-market-friendly cuts to sell directly to consumers and then ship hundreds of pounds of ham and fatback to River Bear’s USDA-certified facility in RiNo. There, Brunson’s team hand-trims the meat, grinds it twice, and combines it with starter culture (fermentation-aiding microorganisms) and fragrant seasonings.

The resulting mixture is packed into natural beef casings, which are poked with holes to release any oxygen pockets. Then Brunson inoculates the salami with mold strains—essential for imparting floral flavor and protecting the salami from drying out too quickly. The product is moved to a humid, 73-degree room to ferment, where, over a couple of days, lactobacillus bacteria grow, making the salami too acidic for harmful microorganisms to survive. Finally, the salamis are moved to River Bear’s drying room to hang among racks of other fermented offerings, such as ’nduja and bresaola, for seven weeks.

River Bear processes 45,000 pounds of pork and beef from large-scale partners into bacon, sausage, and steaks weekly, but charcuterie remains Brunson’s meat-making passion. This year, he plans to expand his dry-aging program’s capacity from 20,000 pounds to more than 60,000 pounds of salami, pancetta, and other varieties of cured goodness. Although making small batches (e.g., 500 pounds) for farmers such as SkyPilot is less profitable than processing bigger batches (5,000 pounds), due to labor costs, Brunson takes a modest financial hit to help the little guys sustain their livelihoods. “We care about the animals as much as they do,” he says. “I would feel horrible if we messed up a batch of something—it would just rip my soul out. I know how much work goes into all this.”

Photo by Jimena Peck

Thankfully, the trio’s first salami experiment, which came out of the dry-aging room in January, was a success. The slices (best served with a mineral-forward, acidic white wine, says Brunson) burst with sweet and aromatic fennel and pockets of melt-in-your-mouth fat. Customers loved it, snapping up the sausages via SkyPilot’s website and at Highland market Leevers Locavore for $18 per stick—a price that nets SkyPilot twice as much profit as a cut of ham, all while leveraging pieces of pig that simply weren’t being used.

“We knew going into this farming business that in order to make it in Boulder County, we had to make high-quality, value-added products,” Johnson says. “Since day one, this is something we’ve been working toward.” With the return of farmers’ market season, Johnson and Scariot are excited to introduce their savory Italian salami to a wider audience and to prove that humane and environmentally responsible agriculture can also be economically viable. Meanwhile, back at the farm, six-month-old piglets are gallivanting and nibbling alfalfa, enjoying the time they have before that inevitable “bad day” marks the beginning of their slow journey to Coloradans’ picnic baskets next summer.

SkyPilot’s fennel salami—along with bacon, pork chops, and sausages—is available at skypilotfarm.com, or look for Johnson and Scariot’s stands at Boulder County Farmers Markets in Boulder and Longmont.

This article was originally published in 5280 May 2022.
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane is 5280’s former digital strategy editor and assistant food editor. She writes food and culture content. Follow her at @riane__eats.