Every year, about 23,000 tons of food scraps are fed to 5,000 hogs in Anoka County.
Welcome to hog heaven.
The pampered pigs served by Barthold Recycling get to savor the leftovers of $30 entrees from fine restaurants. They come running as the day-old steaks and sauteed asparagus cascade into their pens.
They always get a hot meal -- thanks to a unique system that cooks their food right in the truck. They eat and sleep in a spacious outdoor pen.
"For them, it's like a bed and breakfast," said Luke Barthold, 24, as he dumped the recycled food waste into the pen.
Every year, about 23,000 tons of food scraps are fed to 5,000 hogs in Anoka County. It is collected by Barthold Recycling, owned by Pete Barthold, Luke's father.
He uses the scraps to feed his own hogs and hogs on three other farms owned by Luke and two cousins.
It has advantages over other forms of recycling, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports (http://bit.ly/Y3nVPz). It removes food scraps that would have ended up in landfills, producing methane. It's the only method of food-scrap recycling that produces food, instead of compost.
And it's done without a dime of government subsidies -- a point of pride for Barthold.
Saving the environment was not on the agenda for Barthold's grandfather Leroy when he started the business in 1927.
"They gave him a pig, and he had to get something to feed it, so he stopped at a restaurant," said Barthold. Leroy Barthold's farm was in Fridley, where Totino-Grace High School is today.
The business gradually grew, and Pete Barthold became the owner in 1988.
Only lately has it become trendy — thanks to a growing appreciation of its environmental benefits.
Barthold now collects food from about 400 businesses in the metro area, including nearly all of the St. Paul public schools. The business has tripled in size since he took over.
Lenny Russo, chef and owner of Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul, said the program saves him money because he can reduce his trash collections.
He pays Barthold $4 per 60-gallon container. In September, having food scraps hauled away in 40 containers cost him $160 -- cheaper than trash removal.
But just as important are the benefits to the planet, Russo said.
"We do this because we think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It's not a marketing tool. You won't see this in an ad -- 'Come to Heartland because we do this.' "
It's the only way he has to recycle food.
"We would love to be able to compost," Russo said. But there is no citywide composting program for St. Paul businesses. A program proposed for 2013 would provide curbside pickup of food scraps for the city's homes but not it businesses.
Zack Hansen appreciates what Barthold is doing.
But Hansen, Ramsey County's environmental health director, said the food-to-hogs program can't replace composting because the hog feed must be 100 percent food -- no paper.
That means paper napkins, receipts and food packaging must be sorted out. Composting can handle any kind of paper.
A typical journey from plate to pigsty shows how Barthold runs his squeals-on-wheels program.
On a recent Wednesday night, a Heartland Restaurant patron ordered a $36 Limousin strip steak with "green cabbage, banana peppers, pumpkin and cranberry compote."
When workers cleared the table, they scraped the leftovers into a sealed bin in the kitchen.
At 11 a.m. the next day, driver Erick Krotzer pulled the Barthold truck to the restaurant. He loaded six bins of scraps onto the lift and dumped the contents into the truck.
Krotzer completed his route, then drove to the farm in St. Francis. He parked and attached a 2-inch steam hose to the truck.
Barthold stood by, listening. The steam gurgled inside like a bubbling pot on a stove.
"You can hear it working," he said.
Barthold and his relatives developed the truck. He ran loops of metal tubes around the bed of a dump truck. The steam runs through the tubes, heating the contents and turning the truck into a kettle on wheels.
The food reaches 200 degrees to kill germs. It is usually cooled for several hours before the hogs get it -- Barthold doesn't want any pigs with burned lips.
The contents are then dumped in a feed bin. The slop was tan-colored, with a list of ingredients that the day before were edible to people -- melons, eggplant, bread, apples, peppers and bunches of broccoli.
Somewhere in the mix were leftovers of the $36 steak.
Barthold's son Luke -- who operates a hog farm of his own -- wheeled a back-end loader around to scoop it up.
The penful of squealing hogs came running. Then the pen went silent, except for the splash of hooves in the muck and contented snorts.
As Barthold watched them, it was clear that he likes pigs.
Barthold's hogs have free rein in their outdoor pens. "They get sunlight. They run around. They get rained on," he said.
One hog came up to him like a family dog, putting his snout on a fence and gazing up.
Barthold likes to watch them eat. When one grabbed an apple away from another hog, Barthold played announcer: "I am leaving with this treat right now!"
He pointed to another: "See that one? Ooooh, I got a carrot!"
He has dropped his cellphone into the mess before -- which is not recommended. The phone bears a scar -- cracks inflicted when a hog pounced on it and bit it before spitting it out.
Barthold drove back to his house, still chuckling about the antics of the hogs. "My living is off my hogs," he said.