NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. - With a satisfied grin, farmer Bob Combs watches the big truck slowly dump its greasy load, a Niagara Falls of yesterday's kitchen leftovers that sends off a sickening spray as it splashes into a metal bin.
The greenish-brown concoction - with hot dogs, corn, bright-orange carrots and bits of lobster bubbling to its surface - is ready to start a new culinary chapter. Just 24 hours earlier, these food scraps, albeit in decidedly more appetizing form, were served up to customers at lavish all-you-can-eat buffets on and off the Strip.
Now a new, less finicky clientele awaits: 2,500 pigs on Combs' hog farm, a ramshackle spread of pens just 10 miles from the resort city's gleaming hotel restaurants. A nose-insulting stench permeates the air.
"What smell?" the farmer asks with a wry smile. "Ahhhh, that's good. It don't bother me. To me, it's like walking past a bakery."
For hours each day, Combs oversees a process in which the noxious mulch is steamed, cleaned and culled for such impurities as plastic bags, champagne bottles and, once, a loaded .38-caliber pistol.
After that, it's time to ring the hog farm's dinner bell.
For half a century, long before the nation's "green" frenzy, the 72-year-old Combs has recycled not only food but also cardboard, plastic, scrap iron, outdated milk - you name it. He's one of southern Nevada's most visionary yet controversial entrepreneurs and, over time, has serviced nearly every casino on the Strip.
Each night, Combs' three trucks - with their image of a cartoon pig in bib overalls - arrive at the backsides of 12 client casinos to collect the day's buffet leavings. By morning, the slop has been whisked back to his 160-acre RC Farms, where it goes through a sorting and sanitizing process Combs devised himself, including heating tanks to meet health codes and a conveyor system to make his job easier.
Six months later, Combs sells the pigs to middlemen, part of a process that eventually lands many back on the casino buffets. It's a cycle of life and luxury dining - 1,000 tons of food scraps each month - that pleases the fifth-generation hog farmer. Combs calls the casinos his cornfields.
PIGGY THEME PARK
RC Farms resembles the realm of some wacky artist whose passion is pigs. Porcine images prevail, with hog statues in the front yard and on the hood of a 1930s farm truck. Inside the house are pig clocks, glasses and pictures. The email of Combs' wife, Janet, is "misspiggycombs." Chickens - including a finicky rooster named Henry - rule the yard alongside rabbits, a peacock and piglets escaped from their pens.
Combs keeps his sense of humor. He calls a shovel his "pig attitude adjuster." Riding in his golf cart, he ended a spiel about the bulk of food he handles by saying, "That's the extent of my math - I've got a headache now."
He likes feed time: "Anytime I walk by those pens and hear 'em eating - that snorting, squealy sound - that's as pretty to my ears as a babbling brook. I love to hear them hogs slop it up."
Not everyone feels that way. During the recent building boom in North Las Vegas, developers surrounded Combs' farm with rows of suburban housing so close he can see them from the pens. Residents complain about the odor, which after a spring rain can be so pungent that two nearby schools have the same nickname: "Pigsty High."