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What the Butcher Saw

It's been a long time coming, this less meat business.

I've been in the food industry almost my entire life. I’ve been a dishwasher, a chef, a produce buyer, a wine buyer and most recently, a butcher for 13 years. That's a lot of food and drink.

But before that, I grew up on a farm in Iowa. 18+ years of corn, soybeans, hailstorms, angry sows, breach cows, droughts, thunderstorms, late frosts, early freezes, record high and record low prices.

On that farm, my father had raised hogs on pasture his whole life. If you'd asked him back then if his pigs were pasture raised, he'd have given you a blank look. "Where else would you keep them?" he would have responded.

We always kept a dozen or so sows and a boar on the farm, because as my father had learned from his, ‘You can always count on pigs to make money - maybe not a lot, but some.’

Sows farrowed (gave birth) out in an orchard grass and alfalfa pasture twice a year and we were always on the lookout for pregnant sows who didn’t come in for morning and evening feedings. When they didn’t show up, dad would walk the pasture until he found where the sow had made a nest and birthed her piglets. Then he would use a tractor to carry a small A-frame house out to the pasture and set it over sow, piglets, nest and all.

One of my favorite things was to walk out to see the new pigs with my dad. They were tiny but fierce in their curiosity for the whole world. In a few short days, the piglets would begin to follow their mother in to the morning and evening feedings of grain and quickly learn that there was extra food available just for them.

But in 1976, that all changed.

My father joined with 9 other businessmen to start MoCo10, one of the first hog confinement facilities in the state of Iowa and probably in the nation. With 500 sows in one facility (tiny by today's standards, but giant at the time), that one building miles away supplied each shareholder with a shipment of pigs twice a month, year round.

My dad sold our sows and boar at the local livestock auction, the little houses sat unused in an out of the way part of the farm, and the pasture was turned over to the cattle.

I saw the efficiency, the money to be made. No more taking care of the sows and piglets outdoors in the weather. Feeder pigs at 30 lbs of weight arrived in a transformed school bus from the MoCo10 farrowing facility, delivered directly into our finishing confinement building.

On the day of delivery, they saw the light of day briefly for the first of two times in their lives between the bus and the buildings. I saw the damage that it did to the pigs - animals smarter than dogs, stressing them until they began to chew each other’s tails, a situation resolved by whacking the chewers nose with a stick so that it would think about the pain instead of pursuing the pig with the bloody tail. And, I saw it nearly wreck my father’s health, breathing the dust and gases produced in that confinement shed, daily coughing fits for several years and later pneumonia.

You would probably think that this should have put me right off raising animals this way, but I was 9 when the change occurred. This was just the way the world worked, it was progress. In fact, I wrote a school report about how great it was.

It would be years before I began to consider just what this change from pasture to confinement meant to my family, my community and my world.

I am writing this blog because I want people to think about the meat that they eat and realize that there are consequences for every .99 cent per pound pork chop or cheap pound of ground beef that they buy. Somewhere an animal is living a short miserable life and a farmer is being forced to perpetuate this situation for animals in his or her care.

There is another way however, viable, sustainable, humane options if we just choose to eat less meat.

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