Bob Combs: Pig Farmer

18 February, 2011: Bob Combs: Pig Farmer

North Las Vegas. Much has been written about RC Farms and its founder and proprietor. A cursory Google search shows an increase in headlines over the years as Bob’s legend has grown. His notoriety as the archetypal ‘hold-out against the machine of capitalism’ is a compelling story, as much as it is a topic of debate. Ask a neighbor in the subdivision across the street, and I’m sure you’ll get an earful.

It’s a fantastic hypothetical. Visionary pig farmer sets up shop in the remote desert with a business model brilliantly designed to thrive off the scraps of a city with a reputation for excess. Mirroring that city’s growth, farmer realizes a success that few in the occupation could imagine–until one day farmer finds himself engulfed by that growth. It is a 21st century real estate boom, and speculators are making millions; developers billions. In a market where they can’t build housing fast enough, our farmer is poised to make bank off his land alone. With a career already full of accolades, here is a dream opportunity to take the money and run.

Now let me ask you: If you are that farmer, and given this set of circumstances, what would you do?

* * * *

It’s February in the Nevada desert, and I’m glad to be visiting my friend Bob on a particularly crisp day. This is the best time of year to visit Las Vegas, in my opinion. Instead of being fixated on getting back into the air conditioned casino-hotel-restaurant-amusement park, you can actually enjoy the out-of-doors with nary a hat and some sunglasses. I figure it’ll be a good day to hang with the pigs.

To the first time visitor the geography of RC Farms is a perplexing thing. Occupying two quadrangles on a USGS map, the rambling farm is built of post World War II scraps on reclaimed desert which accommodates the Combs’ ranch home, outbuildings, pig stalls, and machinery. By contrast, the land surrounding the property is a grid of housing subdivisions filled with condominiums and tract homes, some of the most extensive sprawl I’ve seen. The juxtaposition is startling.

Depending on your direction of approach and the prevailing wind on a given day, the first time visitor to the farm will inevitably make an observation predicated on a singular, unfortunate truth: It smells. This realization will hit you in one of two ways, each inherent to the irony of the situation here in North Las Vegas: 1.) You’ll either arrive at the farm, be taken by it’s quaintness, and think how strange this farm can exist in such a developed residential area. Then the smell hits you. Or, 2.) You’ll be driving through suburbia convinced there’s no way the pig farm you’re looking for can be located here, and before you even lay eyes on the farm, the smell hits you.

Accommodating hundreds of swine will do that. And, when the wind blows (as it often does in the desert, sometimes with gusto), that smell moves. Depending on the direction of the wind, your neighborhood may suffer.

Because I am a repeat visitor, I’m fully expecting eau de swine. But today I’m of the upwind approach. I don’t smell a thing until I’m out of the car, walking past the chickens and through the provincial gate to Bob and Janet’s front door. Then what I perceive is not the pigs, but the faint aroma of the familiar: a homemade soup like maybe grandma used to make. With notes of tomato, onion, and a meaty base, it’s nice enough to hope for a lunch invite.

But I know better, and a glance upwind confirms another story. There, peeking just above the formidable line of trees planted as a windbreak for the front of the property, is a metal water tower-like tank array that wouldn’t seem out of place on any farm, save for one detail: This tank is giving off a furious plume of steam. Suffice it to say that there is indeed something being cooked in that tank, and while that something may resemble a soup, it is not the stuff of lunchtime memories. It is, however, the key to Mister Combs’ success.

When the door opens Bob’s tremendous hand envelopes my own and he and Janet greet me with the warmth of a misplaced son. As I am pulled inside I admit to my concern that perhaps my visit was accommodated out of some sense of obligation. “Nonsense!” I am told. “It’s so good to see you again!” The breakfast table has been set, there are ample eggs, ham, bacon, potatoes and biscuits, and right there is a place setting waiting for me. By the time Janet has taken the empty Starbucks cup from my hand and replaced it with a mug of fresh black coffee, I am awash with regard and gratitude.

I first made Bob Combs acquaintance a couple of years prior, when we shot an episode of Dirty Jobs with him. It remains a fan favorite, credit due solely to the character of our gentleman farmer. I worked with Bob again on a Mike Rowe commercial for a line of cell phones, where the durability of said phone could be demonstrated through Bob’s use on the farm. It was an effective endorsement, and a lot of fun to shoot. Through both experiences, he and Janet were gracious hosts, giddy to be a part of our strange production world and never wanting more than to make us happy. I remember with a particular fondness the bizarre scene of Barsky chasing a chicken around the dining room in order to set a background element for one of Mike’s stand-ups. In the midst of flying feathers and chicken poop the crew worked in stocking feet in an effort to keep Janet’s floors clean. Despite our dysfunction, she had nothing but encouragement for such shenanigans.

In those two visits Bob made an impression on me. Here was an entrepreneur, business owner, inventor, farmer, husband, father, philosopher, and a plain ol’ likeable guy. But his best quality? I’d have to say his being so genuine. Now we’re catching up, filling bellies to lay the foundation of a day on the farm. I try to get some biographical questioning in between bites, but Bob and Janet want to know more about me and my doings than I am afforded the opportunity to speak. I am transported to my childhood visits to the farm in South Dakota, where family reunions played out at the kitchen table with pot after pot of coffee. Between sips of joe and extra helpings of bacon (of course) I learn the natural history of RC Farms.

It is 1963. Bob’s father is a hog farmer in Otay, California, with some 3,000 swine and a family-operated business. Bob is a resident part of that business, plying his recent education as a Truck Crop Farming major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to contribute to the enterprise while simultaneously beginning a family of his own. In what would turn out to be an auspicious 70th birthday vacation, the elder Combs heads to Las Vegas and hits the jackpot–not at the tables, but in a unique business opportunity.

Of course the Italians are collecting all the trash from the casinos,” Bob explains. “But they don’t want the liquid or food waste, because without it they can burn better. So they’re happy to have someone ready to take that over for them.”

And guess what: There’s an existing pig farm outside of town, and it’s available. Seizing the opportunity, the Combs sign a $28k lease to take over the 40 acre property, as well as dibs on all food waste from The Dunes, The Hacienda, The Sands, The Fremont, Golden Nugget, Binion’s, Las Vegas Club, and Jerry’s Nugget. With first wife Clarice at his side, daughter Tina in tow, son James on the way, and brother-in-law Joe to help manage operations, Bob and the clan make their way to Vegas to set down roots. (Clint, their second son, would arrive four years later.)

Making nightly runs by flatbed truck is the beginning of an industry. Loads consist of 250-pound drums of food waste, picked up one at a time. Today those runs are made by semi tractor-trailers to pick up dozens of dumspters in the 1,300 pound capacity range.

After breakfast, Bob takes the wheel from one of his drivers and runs a route with me. The tractor-trailer rig we are in is new and sexy, and Bob is still learning the intricacies of such a modern machine. Getting the behemoth off a busy freeway and onto the busier Strip would be a feat for anyone, and I am impressed. For a man who values competence to the extent that he does, Bob is of course embarrassed when he grinds some gears. We have a good laugh, and I assure him that I’ll never tell anyone, though writing is of course on the table. And even if I do the latter, no one reads my blog anyway so he has nothing to worry about.

We pull off the Strip and into a narrow alley, and the landscape changes dramatically. We are surrounded by vertical concrete and steel, and loading docks and security posts and emergency exits and service vehicles. Now I’ve always appreciated the ability of a good truck driver, and the way Bob negotiates this obstacle course and backs the that sucker up to the loading dock has me enthralled. We are at the back door to the MGM Grand, and there’s just a bit of food waste waiting for us. Eight dumpsters worth, to be exact. In fact, there’s so much waste being produced by this hotel-casino that a staff of specialists are employed under the umbrella of RC Farms to manage and sort the food waste and the recyclables from the trash headed to the landfill. This subdivision of labor is known as Waste Management of Nevada, the conception of which is credited to Janet back in 1981. To this staff Bob appears more of a father figure than a boss, as they are clearly glad to see him. Greetings and inquiries about family members are made. It’s a good time out here on the route, and a pleasant reminder that a job is sometimes what you make it, if not what you put into it.

On the way back up the Strip, Bob reminisces about the Vegas of old. Where the Las Vegas of old necessitated discretion as an outpost of vice, the Las Vegas of today touts escapism through spectacle. It’s an understatement to say things on the Strip have changed since his arrival, but it is completely and utterly different. Just as the desert has transformed into a neighborhood around his 160 acre farm, so has the old strip of motels and card parlors become a pulsing skyline of high rises and arenas. The Dunes is gone. The Hacienda is gone. The Sands is gone. New to this landscape (as well as to Bob’s client portfolio) are corporate-owned and publically traded enterprises such as the MGM-Mirage brand, which includes Mandalay Bay, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, and The Bellagio.

Feeling the heaving weight of our payload behind us, I ask Bob just how much waste the farm can handle in the face of this exponential growth. He grinds some gears, and smiles. “I don’t know, but it sure is fun finding out.”

* * * *

Bob backs the truck up an incline, and the contents of the trailer is hydraulically dumped into a huge hopper not far from the simmering tank I mentioned earlier. If you’ve seen Bob’s episode of Dirty Jobs, you know how spectacular this moment is. If you haven’t seen it, just imagine eight tons of buffet line detritus being dropped from the height of 12 feet. It gets your attention.

Next up we take our positions at the base of the hopper, where a hatch is manipulated by an attentive operator to regulate the exit of the food scraps. This sublime mixture of all things formerly palatable is the source, the origin, the fountainhead if you will, of the tastiest pig slop known to man (and pig, I would presume). The hatch that Bob now works with a controlled deftness allows portions of choice prime rib and fresh caught fish, artisan baked breads and dinner rolls, heirloom tomatoes and fresh vegetables, leaf lettuces and tropical fruits, potatoes–baked, mashed and fried, casseroles and soups, appetizers and desserts, vast entrees and uncountable sides, and so on infinitus to make its way onto a conveyor belt which serves as a transport and sorting table to ensure non-edibles don’t make their way to the ultimate smorgasbord for Bob’s pigs.

Extracted in this process are the ‘non-scraps,’ ie., the rogue silverware, plates, and kitchen utensils that a hotel is happy to get back, as well as the occasional trash that got by the initial sorters: the errant cloth napkins, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and the like. It should be noted that until Waste Management was formed to respond to this need, hundreds of pounds of silver and china was lost to the landfill on a daily basis. More on that in a bit.

Post sorting stage, the conveyor takes a ninety degree turn to an elevated belt that sends the clean scraps uphill to the aforementioned simmering-pot-in-the-sky. It is there that the scraps are cooked down into a bouillabasse of epic proportions, at a controlled temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit for no less than 30 minutes–standards enforced by the Department of Agriculture to ensure that any pathogens cannot survive, therefore preserving the integrity of the food chain where scrap feeding is integral.

Heat and agitation (in the form of mechanized stirring) ensures even cooking as much as it separates heavy oils from the nutritious food portion. These oils are collected and sold off for further rendering as ingredients for chicken feed and cosmetics. Meanwhile, the food portion is ready for serving.

What happens next is perhaps the most fantastic part of the process. Again, I encourage you to watch Bob’s Dirty Jobs episode to see what I mean here. When the cooked scraps–more affectionately known as slop or swill–are ready to be distributed to the pigs, the most decrepit muck-ridden farm vehicle is pulled up beside the tank and is filled, hopper-style, with the explosive force of a giant spigot releasing a muy funky minestrone soup. Oh woe to the slow moving bystander not given fair warning of the slop drop. The propulsive splash and steaming cloud will lodge a sensory imprint into the recesses of your psyche, an impression reinforced by the sinking emotional distress of a wardrobe remorse not easily rectified. On top of that, contributing to this surreal scene is the giddy squeal of Mister Combs, suddenly the mad doctor, as he delivers the coup de grâce in this maniacal process.

Bob is, as Janet will remind you, a big kid at heart.

This kid is the heart of RC Farms. Watching the kid feed his herd is a pure delight: He chats up the braver, more precocious pigs, checks in on the new moms and litters, and simply has a grand ol’ time shovelling slop and holding court over the lot. As any farmer must, Bob values the quality of his animals’ lives and he expends tremendous effort keeping them healthy and content. While visiting the nursery you can’t help but notice the proud father in Bob.

This passion is the core of his work, and it has informed his career path from the beginning. After his complete herd of 2,000 was lost to hog cholera in 1969, Bob devoted himself to revising the way scrap feeding was conducted in the United States. In what was a difficult time for American pig farmers, the Department of Agriculture exterminated entire herds of cholera-exposed pigs. Due to the risk of spreading pathogens through contaminated food supplies, many states made illegal the feeding of food scraps outright.

Incidently it was during this period that Janet entered the picture. As Bob recalls with a laugh, “Here she comes, snooping around on horseback to get a look at these crazy people raising pigs.” Janet’s curiosity and work ethic was a good match for the Combs. It wasn’t long before she was hired on part-time to assist in the repopulation of the herd, and she became an extended member of the family.

In the face of increasing bans on scrap feeding, 1971 was a watershed year for Bob. Flying to the east coast to meet with a contingent of prominent scrap feeder farmers, Bob initiated Food And Conservation Thru Swine (FACTS), a lobby to the Department of Agriculture to develop safe practices for scrap feeding. Shortly after presenting their data and a plan, legislation was enacted on a federal level to mandate cooking guidelines for all scraps before their feeding to pigs. Agreed to and regulated by the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (a division of the DOA), the eradication of hog cholera was certified the following year, in 1972.

While Bob and Clarice were divorced in 1986, it wasn’t until 1991 that things got interesting between Bob and Janet. And much like a disaster brought Janet to the farm in ’69, the catalyst of their intimacy would likewise originate in adversity.

On a routine drive to inspect some pigs, Bob was involved in a car accident. The driver (Bob’s friend and fellow farmer, Tom Collins) and his son emerged with minor wounds, but Bob would suffer major head trauma, and brain damage. “The doctor said he probably wouldn’t live through the night,” Janet recalls, “and it would probably be better if he didn’t anyway.”

When he awoke some days later, Bob had lost the majority of his motor skills.

He couldn’t speak, couldn’t write, couldn’t walk,” she says. “The doctor said he’d need a wheelchair for the rest of his life.”

Janet stepped in at the point to become Bob’s caregiver. She made sure he attended daily speech therapy and physical therapy sessions.

But he wouldn’t stay still! He was supposed to rest too, but the man simply would not sit still.”

I ask her if Bob had lost any memory: Memory of his life before, or of himself.

Nope,” Janet says. “He had full memory and knowledge of who he was. I think that’s why he was so bothered to get his body back. I’d go to get him out of bed for his therapy, and here is up already and out walking around the farm.”

During this period, she says things simply became more precious. A bond formed, and was strengthened by the drive and commitment they both shared to get him back to work, let alone on his feet. Together they accomplished both. By 1994 things had returned pretty much to normal, only now Bob and Janet were married.

The only thing Bob can’t do,” she says, “is keep all my Mormon relatives straight.”

* * * *

When discussing the hypothetical, Bob is thoughtful. Now into his seventies, there is little economic need for continuing a career. His children have families of their own, he has the satisfaction of knowing his sons have followed in dad’s footsteps (in partnership as the Combs Brothers, they are actually a competitor to RC Farms), and he is happily married.

What civic protest he’s endured is due primarily to the downwind issue; the EPA’s regulation of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) maintains standards of ground water and runoff from such operations, and RC Farms exceeds their requirements. Under such guidelines, the farm would be allowed 6,000 pigs. The critical path is that smell issue: Due to air quality standards and the proximity of all those houses, the cap of pigs is placed at 3,000. Doing his part, Bob maintains a head count of 2,500.

There has been talk of relocating the operation, but the economics of such a move is tricky. To make the developers happy, the farm would have to move a long way away–which means an even longer way from Bob’s clients on the Strip. Land is a lot more expensive now than in 1963, and there has been some debate over how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might accommodate a move for the betterment of all. But so far, no solutions.

In recent years the reputation of Bob Combs has increased as much as the awareness of RC Farms’ sustainability practices. The word is, apparently, getting out that:

Feeding pigs the scrap food of humans is a return to a historical precedent, when the role of pigs was to do exactly that. Accepting the fact that people ultimately consume pigs, the theory is that there is no more sustainable a process than feeding those pigs the food scraps of man, whereas many states and all of the UK and EU still operate under a ban where feed is only of the grain/soy/maize types grown and harvested at great cost (both economically and environmentally). There are scientific models which break this down, but one of the most compelling I’ve seen is this:

The United Nations estimates that if farmers all around the world fed their livestock on agricultural by-products and food that we currently waste, enough grain would be liberated to feed an extra three billion people (annually).

Of course it all comes down to responsible management, which is what FACTS stepped forward to accomplish. There is currently a similar push in the UK from a grassroots movement called The Pig Idea. It’s aim is to evolve the ban there by adopting new controls in much the same way Bob laid out some 40 years ago.

Bob laughs when he considers the draw of tourism to his farm, but his laugh is one of delight, not irony. It’s true that a positive side effect of this PR component is increased understanding from the community; To the informed, perhaps even a source of civic pride.

And what about that hypothetical?

Even if this operation were to expand into BLM areas,” he muses, “I’d still like to see the RC Farms of old remain as a model home of recycling.”

And nearly as soon as his musing is started, it is finished. It’s more simple than that: “Really I just want to see our food scraps utilized and not wasted. Zero waste. Sustainability.”

All noble goals aside, it’s my theory that Bob loves what he does to such an extent that no other endeavor (including retirement) is going to give him the satisfaction of this enterprise. It is his life. Take the farm away from him and … Well, you do the math.

And we’re grandfathered in,” he concludes. “You know, my first pick up ever was Jerry’s Nugget, and they’re actually still in business. If they can make it today, well so can I.”

Bob laughs. “I just need to work on my shifting.”

* * * *

In the time passed since my visit, RC Farms celebrated their 50th anniversary.  While no public celebration took place, Bob did commemorate the occasion in his own meaningful way: By installing a new US flag on the premises.  Janet tells me that a ‘grand 51st anniversary’ is in the works for 2014, maybe after the heat of summer.  I hope to attend.  In the meantime, I’ll be paying a visit to RC Farms later this month for some more country breakfast, and to have a look at that flag.  If I know Bob, it will be no minor venture.

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