EntreFEST, Iowa’s entrepreneur conference, is an annual summit, celebration and resource hub for startup founders, business owners, corporate innovators and startup community builders.
Register at EntreFEST.com with the code SPNSENTME to get $10 off, and we’ll see you there!
Iowa’s Carl Blake poses with an Iowa Swabian Hall, a pig he says has just the right ratio of fat to meat, that he created.
If there’s anyone who truly personifies entrepreneurship in Iowa, it’s Carl Blake.
A software engineer with no formal training turned innovative hog farmer, Blake is the cross-section of what Iowa’s economy has been traditionally known for and what it’s working to become. That’s probably why organizers of this year’s EntreFEST thought he’d be a great fit, not only as a speaker, but as a food vendor at the conference’s street fair.
Growing up in northeast Iowa, Blake was first introduced to computers in the seventh grade.
“I found out that I had a gift to be able to understand and work with computers,” Blake said. “It was like magic.”
He found he didn’t need textbooks and was quickly baffling teachers with his questions. By the time he reached college, the first Apple Macintosh was coming to market and Blake jumped at the opportunity to be on the forefront of technology.
“I was one of the first to have a Mac 128K and would haul around that 21-pound computer in my backpack,” he said.
Even at a younger age, Blake says he never quite fit people’s expectations of him.
“When I was in college doing computers I was a 6’2” football player, but I would sit down and be able to type 150 words a minute,” he said. “I didn’t fit any of the stereotypical roles.”
Eventually selling computers and working as a network engineer for Abbott Labs, Blake continued his work with computers, building the Internet access portals and computer networks that cities and big companies alike needed to make the jump to the digital age.
“I never had any formal training on programming or computers,” Blake said. “I could just troubleshoot a whole network in a matter of minutes. It was like breathing to me.”
By the mid-2000s, Blake was finding that more and more of the systems he helped program and maintain were becoming self-sufficient. Regardless of his passion for computers, the work Blake had been doing was no longer in high demand.
“I basically worked myself out of a job,” he said. “By 2007, my biggest clients only needed me about once a year.”
So he started exploring other options. Blake says he knew he wanted to stay in Iowa to be close to his kids, but didn’t want to completely start over in terms of his skill set.
“I decided that I was going to go into something I knew about and that happened to be farming,” Blake said. “I really wanted to go back to the farm.”
Then things changed.
“The best-tasting pig in the world”
On March 18, 2007, Blake was in a major car accident.
Driving back from Iowa City, where his 10-day-old daughter was in the hospital, he nodded off at the wheel and found himself in the ditch alongside the highway.
Blake emerged with a broken neck and myriad other broken bones. When all was said and done, he says it took him two years to fully recover.
And during that time, instead of shelling out about $1,500 for weekly physical therapy, he says he turned his attention back to the farm.
As a kid growing up in Butler County, Iowa, Blake not only loved computers but also raised blue ribbon pigs each year for the fair. Like software engineering, pigs were something Blake knew something about.
Then he happened upon an article in The New York Times about Mangalista pigs being raised in the U.S. Intrigued, Blake began doing some research.
When bringing the pigs to Iowa proved unrealistic, he shifted gears. Blake found that in Europe, the most sought-after breed of pig is the Swabian Hall. So he set out to recreate the pig in the U.S.
“If they could win four world’s fairs with it, then the pig has to be good,” he said of the breed. “If the pig was that good, then why not try to reproduce it here in the U.S.?”
In 2008, using the Russian Wild Boar and several Chinese Meishan pigs purchased from Iowa State University, Blake was able to replicate the pig, which he now calls the Iowa Swabian Hall and raises on the Rustik Rooster Farm in Ionia, Iowa.
Two years later, Blake took his pig to San Francisco’s Cochon 555, a heritage pork culinary contest, and the Iowa Swabian Hall emerged victorious. That’s when Blake knew he was on to something—he’d created what he claims is the “best-tasting pig in the world.”
Iowa Swabian Hall creator Carl Blake appeared on “The Colbert Report” in March 2013.
From there Blake says he just kept breeding the pigs and the national press began pouring in.
“It was really bizarre,” Blake said. “I was being videotaped by The New York Times and the writer was there working on the story when I got a call from a production company that wanted to do a TV series about us.”
“As soon as we came out in the Times, it just kind of blew up.”
Seventeen minutes after the New York Times story about the Iowa Swabian Hall was posted, Blake says “The Colbert Report” came calling. Twenty-two minutes after that, The Discovery Channel rang and three hours later, National Geographic. By the end of that week, Blake received 42 more calls from production houses across the country wanting to tell his story.
Just as his peers had been surprised by his technical ability in high school and college, Blake says he’s met members of the tech community who weren’t quite sure how to react when he told them he’s a “pig guy.”
“I think pig growers really get a bad rap,” he said. “But there’s an enormous amount of knowledge you need to have—sociology, pharmacology, you need to know how the pigs interact, you have to basically be a surgeon. There are so many fields you have to be good at. There is no dumb pig farmer.”
Blake says he hopes his background and experiences will help bridge the gap between technology and agriculture in Iowa, two areas he believes should do significantly more work together.
“For some reason there’s this divide amongst farmers and technology people,” he said. “Tech doesn’t realize how much they could help farmers out and really make a difference.”
While not every software engineer will eventually become a hog farmer, Blake hopes that by sharing his story he can help bridge the gap between Iowa’s economic history and its new chapter in technological innovation.
Silicon Prairie News is a media partner of EntreFEST