[Originally Published on 08/04/2012]
Today I went to a factory farm. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t today, maybe it was earlier this week, but I needed to take some time to think about this matter a bit before writing about it. It’s a hard topic to discuss because there are strong feelings on both sides, but it IS a topic that needs to be talked about. Factory farms exist and they make many points to try and justify their means of production. In a lot of rights, those arguments make a lot of sense. However, when thinking about it in greater detail, those arguments and methods are solutions to the problems that factory farming brought upon themselves, although they would try to have you believe to the contrary. Okay, maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, let me back up and setup the scenario…
I was contacted by a national PR firm on behalf of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association to come out and visit a pork farm. When I first entered into the discussion about this event, I pretty much could tell right off the bat where it was going, but that’s why I was interested. I wanted to know exactly what a real factory farm looked like. They offered me breakfast, a cooking demo, transportation both ways, lunch, a full tour of the farm, and a $30 stipend to visit. Obviously they want to try hard to change the way people perceive their farms. I accepted the invitation knowing that I wouldn’t be able to write about any of it on any of my larger media channels due to the perceived conflict of interest that was generated by the stipend, but that’s why it’s nice to still have my own personal blog; I can still talk about whatever I want here. That being said, in retrospect, I’m wondering if the stipend is to help prevent that very sort of thing… maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I’m not really willing to delve to far into speculation on that issue, because I’m telling the story anyway.
The farm we were taken to was Schwartz Farm down in Sleepy Eye, MN and on the entire ride down to the farm, representatives from the Pork Producers Association and the Schwartz farm were continuously discussing the farms practices and why they’re not only important, but also beneficial to the overall nature of our food supply. Now is where I would like to take the time to clarify that these were all pretty decent people. I didn’t ever get the feeling that they were out to maliciously lie to me or any of the other patrons there on the trip. They were there to tell their side of the story as they know it and believe it to be. Hearing the details come from their perspective was nothing short of interesting despite glaring holes in some of their arguments. I’ll get to more of that shortly.
The farm itself was interesting. In fact, here’s a photo of what their farms look like:
You see all that expansive land surrounding the farm and in the middle of the two white barns? Yeah, that’s not used for the pigs in any way, shape, or form. The pigs live inside those two lang and narrow “barns” for their entire existence. They don’t get the privilege of sunlight or fresh air. Not at all, not ever. To make matters worse, inside these barns are devices called Gestation Stalls. If you look back up to the first image in this post, you’ll see just what those look like. The stalls are mere inches larger than the pigs themselves and they freely deficate on the floors beneath them. In fact, when you enter the barn, you see rows upon rows of pigs in these stalls covered in “mud”, just like you’d expect to see from a happy pig, except you quickly realize that there’s no dirt anywhere in the “sanitary” environment in which they’re raised and therefore, the “mud” must not be mud.
Let’s get back to that “sanitary” environment that I mentioned just above. These farms are equipped with hightech equipment designed to destroy all forms of viruses and bacteria. They do this to try and keep the meat safe for consumption and to prevent people from coming down with certain diseases that have over the years become attributed to pork. The Pork Producers Association explains that these modern methods of indoor, sterile production were developed to cut down on the diseases that occurred naturally in the outdoor environments. Many of these diseases were attributed to factors which included contamination from outside sources and uncontrollable infestations of rodents and birds.
Let’s think about this a second. A lot of these outside factors were directly the result of keeping incredibly large numbers of pigs in unsanitary conditions. This draws in rodents, birds and a variety of other things that can potentially cause contamination; ergo, the older, less sanitary methods of factory farming are what lead to the increases in pork borne illness, but I digress…
In order to make sure their farms are as close to sterile as possible, these farmers go to great lengths to keep out any outside contaminants. In fact, when you reach the farm and are actually allowed inside, you are required to strip, shower, and put on a whole new set of cloths. Socks, underwear, coveralls and boots are all provided on this luxury swine tour. You’re also required to shower on the way out. This is all to prevent the farmers from having to use widespread antibiotics to keep their pigs healthy, which certainly sounds good. According to the Pork Producers Association and the farm, antibiotics are only used in individual cases. If a pig gets sick, they treat it. Keep in mind that pork producers are allowed to use antibiotics in order to stimulate more rapid growth, but hormones are technically illegal. I can’t speak to what does and doesn’t actually happen in this regard, but according to our hosts, they don’t use widespread antibiotics due to the costs associated with them.
Here is the one thing that I can speak to; the quality of the meat. According to the Pork Producers Association and the folks of Schwartz Farms, their practices lead to the highest quality of meat. Now, I’m not going to get into a semantics argument about what the word “quality” means, but I think we can all agree that in terms of pork, we want meat that doesn’t wind up dry in the end. The Pork Producers and the farms both speak to the high levels of leanness attributed to their meat and they use low levels of fat to meat ratios as their quality standard. When it comes to pork, fat does two things:
1) When cooked, the fat in pork melts which in turn helps to keep the meat basted throughout the cooking process which leaves you with a moist piece of meat.
2) Fat is where the flavor is at. All of what the pig eats is stored in the fat. As the fat melts in the cooking process that flavor is then imparted into the meat.
So, in the end, lean meat is not necessarily quality meat. Maybe that’s what you like and that’s what you want, but just know the part that fat plays in the process. I also have lot’s of other speculations on fat and it’s roll, but it’s mostly speculation. If you’d like to discuss that further, please, drop me a line.
Okay, back to the farm itself.
These farms are technological powerhouses. The amount of automation in a pig farm is incredible, although a lot of it relys on the fact that the pigs are a captive audience. In the gestation stalls, feed automatically dispenses at the programmed time in exactly the proper amount. They can also tell which pigs aren’t eating, which is a primary indicator that something might be wrong with the pig. The pig pens also have automated feeding which is activated based on a pigs tag. The pigs are each allotted a certain amount of food each day based on their size and when they walk up to the feeding stations, specific amounts are dispensed when a reader scans or reads the tag. I missed the specifics of how this worked because I was too busy noticing the horrid conditions of the pigs in the pens.
The gestation period of a pig is 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days. This was a fact that came up at multiple points on the trip. During the first 60 days the pigs are kept in the tight gestation stalls. The next 50 days or so, the pigs are “upgraded” to the pens. In these pens the pigs have a little bit of room to wonder and interact with other pigs. These interactions however, lead to substantial biting and scratching. The amount of fresh wounds, scratches, and bite marks I saw was intense. I was assured that this is extremely normal and happens to pigs kept in pen conditions which is why they prefer the gestation stalls. I’m certain that by allowing the pigs to first go stir crazy in the stalls in no way plays a part in the pig on pig violence.
The last bit of time in the pigs gestation period is also spent back in stalls where they then give birth and nurse their little piglets. Shortly after the piglets are weaned off of their mother, they are shipped out to another location to grow to market size and the sows are then re-impregnated to start the process all over again.
So friends, that’s how factory farming works. I appreciate the time that I was given to investigate the process for myself, although I am certain that their intended effects where lost on me. What does this mean for me in the long run? I already try to buy better “quality” meat when I can. In today’s day and age it’s impossible to completely avoid factory farmed products so I’m not going to go to any huge efforts to avoid it. I am however, going to continue to support efforts to reform our overall food system and to advocate for the little guys. Not only are they honest and hardworking, they simply produce superior products. Is it more expensive? Sure, but quality usually is.