I listened to a piece on pig farming by Melissa Block on NPR recently entitled “Pig Farming In Iowa Means Dirt Under Your Fingernails And A Strong Sense Of Pride.” Give it a listen; it talks about a young farmer in northwest Iowa who is feeding out 25,000 pigs a year. It is a window onto the world of factory farming that makes no judgements, but also leaves out a lot of details that are important to know. When I graduated high school, I would have thought that the piece was on point with the realities of farming.
As I said in my last article, my family too had moved to raising hogs in confinement in the late 1970s and I saw it as just the way the world worked.
But while I was studying at the University of Iowa in the late 1980s, things began to change on our farm. My father began to have a persistent cough and was plagued by colds, something that he had never experienced before. The dust and the gases from the slurry pit below the confinement unit (literally a slurry of urine and feces) were beginning to take a toll on his health.
Hog prices also began a steady decline as more and more people got into the business of confinement finishing, the confinement units became more massive and the market was inundated. Soon my father and his partners had gone from major pork producers to being small potatoes. And the packing houses the stopped buying our pigs unless Dad could manage to fill a semi trailer with perfectly sized 240 lb. pigs. A small shipment was just extra work for them.
You see, it is the basic law of supply and demand. Good prices meant lots of people got into the business of finishing pigs in confinement, which led to more pigs on the market, which drove prices lower. The largest producers could still make money because they were "efficient" while the smaller producers were forced to get bigger or get out.
And those neighbors who still raised pigs outdoors? They went out of business. You can’t raise a lot of pigs outdoors because of the logistics required. But the packing facilities would also dock the prices paid if the pigs were raised outdoors. Sometimes, they wouldn’t buy those pigs at all.
A pig raised outdoors is exposed to a natural world where life happens. Pigs like that aren’t “cookie cutter” pigs. They have led lives of random chance in the sun and the wind, and although they taste better and have better muscle tone from running around a pasture (and are arguably "happier"), they aren’t wanted by the mass market. They can’t be funneled into the machine of industry efficiently. Corporate meat packers want every pork chop from every pig to look exactly the same and be exactly the same size.
But as a result, the small feed stores and farm supply stores in the surrounding towns closed up shop. Farmers turned to growing corn and soy for the confinement units and bought seed and feed through the large seed companies where they could get the cheapest price. With less farm income flowing to the small businesses in small towns, people began to leave. Kids went to college and then on to where the jobs were, not back to run a family business or a farm.
My dad saw it coming and got out of the hog business entirely just as the market collapsed in the early 1990's. It was the end of an era that had begun with my great, great grandfather James Shipp Hogeland. There had been hogs on our farm since the late 1850's, and then there were no more. I graduated college and moved west, while my sisters too left the farm for better pastures.
So why did the article by Ms. Block interest me? In it I can picture the young farmer who is finishing those 25,000 pigs per year. He is trapped in that race to be the biggest and most “efficient.” Whether he admits it or not, he is part of a system that has decimated small businesses and towns across the midwest and southeast. He is on the hamster wheel in a system that removes more and more farmers from the land, replacing them with confinement building managers.
In essence, the farmers aren’t farmers anymore. No pigs are born on the farms, no pig sets foot on the farm’s land outside the confinement unit, the “farmer” has no control over what pigs he gets or where he gets them, what he feeds them or who he sells them to. Most importantly, he cannot control how much he sells them for (and today the price is lower than it has been in almost 10 years). He does little to no business in local towns with local farm businesses, all dollars flow to the corporations that own the breeding stock, the pigs, the feed, the drugs and in the end, the farmers.
The only way to stop this that I can see is to stop eating so much meat. Don’t buy the .99 cent per pound, cookie-cutter pork chop. Find a local farmer who raises a few animals humanely and needs 8.50 per pound. Will it be financially painful and will you eat tasty meat less often? Yup. But small farmers like the one who raised your pork will be buying fencing products locally, seeds and feed supplements locally, sending their kids to school locally and buying shoes at the local shoe shop. It is a stone dropped in a farm pond that affects the entire community. And we will need more of them. If you want the top 1% in America to stop taking all the money, stop sending it to them. Buy from the little guy.
Let’s make America great again. Eat less meat. Eat better meat. Support your local small farmer.