I do not raise cattle or grow crops. I am not a graduate student in agricultural science. I don’t work for Cargill or the USDA. So what right do I have to blog about food issues and make suggestions for improving the food system? I might find this argument mildly compelling if it weren’t for the fact that I’m not the only one who feels this way! Farmers across the country think like I do and are asking for change. In a lot of cases, farmers are making change and paving the path toward a better food system that bucks the industrial trend. Here are a few for your consideration.
Joel Salatin: The crown prince of the pasture. What else can I say? This man is a poster child for raising animals responsibly with hard work and some headstrong common sense. He’s a prolific writer as well, check out some of his superb books including Folks, This Ain’t Normal! From his website, “We are in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture…Experience the satisfaction of knowing your food and your farmer, building community. We are your clean meat connection.”
Galen Bontrager Farm (Kalona, IA): Galen is awesome! We buy beef, chicken, eggs and Thanksgiving turkey from him! He’s a former apprentice of none other than Joel Salatin. From Galen’s website, ” I am a direct-marketing farm entrepreneur dedicated to providing superior quality food using innovative practices that heal the land, respect animal welfare, and strengthen the local community. I am your “beyond organic” farm-food connection. I am an education and information outreach to consumers and producers who seek to bring redemption to their food, environment, land, animals, water quality, and community.”
Grass Run Farms (Dorchester, IA): We buy bacon and hot dogs from these wonderful people! From their website, “Grass Run Farm stands for long-term land stewardship, sound family values, and the far-reaching health benefits of grass-fed and pasture-raised meats. We’re building healthy soils, managing pastures that sequester tons of atmospheric carbon and tending livestock in a humane and respectful manner.”
La Quercia Artisan Cured Meats (Norwalk, IA): These people make some of the tastiest prosciutto in the world! From their website, “We use no pigs from CAFOs (large animal confinement facilities).” Oh, how different than most pork product manufacturers! Just a bit more about their pig philosophy, “All pigs must have access to the out-of-doors, have room to move around and socially congregate, and be able to root in deep bedding. This respects the pigs’ social instincts and natural behaviors.”
George Naylor (Churdan, IA): He grows corn & soybeans in Iowa, but doesn’t use Genetically Modified Seeds! He’s a former President of the National Family Farm Coalition. He fights hard against the power of Monsanto and the GMO seed monopoly. Food Democracy Now recently quoted him as saying, “Farmers, ranchers, and the public should not want ‘cheap’ food, but food of good quality that’s affordable.”
Sugar Mountain Farm (West Topsham, VT): Shockingly, they raise pastured pigs in frigid Vermont because it IS possible. They don’t buy commercial hog feed. They don’t have huge manure lagoons next to their farm. They are a No Weird Stuff farm! From their website, “We are a small, family owned and operated farm in the mountains of Vermont. We breed and raise pigs all naturally on pasture and hay plus dairy to produce our high quality pork as well as live piglets for people who would like to raise their own.”
Barrington Natural Farms: They serve the Chicagoland area!
From their website, “Barrington Natural Farms is sustainable “pasture” farm providing our Chicago-area customers with locally grown, organically-raised grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken and pork, and free-range eggs. All of our livestock are raised outdoors on pasture, eating what nature intended – naturally-grown ryegrass, timothy grass, meadow fescue, clover, and alfalfa in the pasture, with the chickens and hogs pasture forage diet supplemented with organically-certified, non-GMO grains and surplus organic fruits and vegetables.
We are dedicated to using sustainable agriculture practices, so we don’t use any chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or any other “cides” on our land or in our animals. We rotate the chickens, pigs, and cattle to fresh pasture regularly during the spring, summer, and fall months, and use a deep bedding system in the winter which we then convert to garden compost in the spring.
We do not feed, implant, or inject our animals with hormones, antibiotics, chemical dewormers, or any other pharmaceutical concoctions typically used in the industrial/confinement-based food system, except in very rare circumstances to treat a specific life-threatening illness. The fresh air, clean water, lush pasture, low-stress lifestyle, and clean, mineral-rich soil keep our livestock exceptionally healthy.”
Mike Callicrate (Colorado): Mike is an independent cattle producer and meat processor. He has a degree in animal science from Colorado State University. He’s not a big fan of pink slime and the industrialized meat system. From his most recent blog post, “The “fat is bad”, “food should be cheap”, “Wall Street is the economy”, “only an industrial food system can feed the world” mentality, reminds us of how science, poor judgment and industry controlled government agencies can lead to some very bad outcomes. It is time to open the farm and ranch gates and packing house doors, fully revealing our food system to the public.”
This is but the tip of the iceberg of farmers who stand against industrialized agriculture. I am not the only one and I am not a lone nut who associates with other nuts like Michael Pollan & Mark Bittman. I have never met either of them, but we do have something in common. We’re interested in supporting fair non-industrialized sustainable local-regional food systems that are healthier for the planet, animals and people.
Here’s the story: Hogs were moved from being raised outdoors to being housed in temperature-controlled modern hog barns with about a thousand other hogs confined in pens for the welfare of the animal and safety of the product. No more harsh weather. No more parasites. So we’re told. Are parasites such a problem that we can’t safely raise hogs outdoors? Let’s find out.
One of the main concerns in pork is Trichinella spiralis which can cause disease in humans. I should note that currently only 0.013% of the U.S. swine herd is thought to be infected according to the CDC.
From the Pork Checkoff (pork.org):
“The factors that have made U.S. pork safe with respect to Trichinella infection are all related to changes in production practices which eliminate these risks, including banning of uncooked waste feeding in all states and movement to confinement housing systems. Pork production in bio-secure housing systems with hygienic requirements for feed and feed storage and adequate rodent control drastically reduces the risk for exposure of pigs to Trichinella.”
From a 2001 report by the CDC: “The decrease in cases has mirrored the decline in prevalence of Trichinella in commercial pork products. In 1900, the trichinellosis prevalence in U.S. swine was estimated to be 1.41%. The estimated prevalence decreased to 0.125% during 1966–1970 and to 0.013% in 1995…Historically, the major sources of Trichinella-infected pork were swine fed garbage containing animal waste products…Other risk factors for Trichinella-infected pork include consumption by swine of small mammals infected with Trichinella, including rodents, raccoons, skunks, and opossums, and cannibalism among swine within an infected herd.”
So the mainstream story is that raising pigs outdoors means a greater likelihood of parasite infection and we need to continue the intensive barn confinement system to control the risk. But couldn’t this same decrease in likelihood of infection be achieved by knowledgeable pasture-based pig farmers? If we’re not feeding animal waste products to pastured pigs, then isn’t the only concern rodent & small mammal control? Do we really need confinement barns just to keep a few mice out? How many skunks are pigs eating out on the pasture? What if one single rodent gets into the confinement hog barn? It’s certainly possible. Mice manage to squeeze into households all the time. Let me propose that the primary reason for bringing hogs off the pasture and into the confinement barns has little to do with the safety of the pork products. Rather, confinement is only a tool to maximize production and minimize cost while reducing animal welfare and increasing environmental risk.
If you read this report by Intervet, Inc. (manufacturer of worming medication, apparently a division of Merck Pharmaceuticals) you’ll find out that parasites are a BIG problem in confinement operations. So much so that the reason for the report is to urge you to purchase their worming medications.
I’d like to share some quotes from a pastured pig farmer named Walter Jeffries who operates Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont with his wife Holly and the rest of the Jeffries family.
From Walter Jeffries:
“Reality Check #1: Factory farms routinely use heavy doses of medications to kill off parasites. Simply ask them what wormers and other medications they use injected or in their feeds. It will scare you.
Reality Check #2: We pasture and do not need to routinely use medications, antibiotics or chemical wormers to kill of parasites or such in our pigs or other livestock. Instead we use managed rotational grazing and natural feeds to produce healthy animals. We have never had any problems with parasites in our meat. Our meat is a higher quality and healthier product because it is raised naturally and humanely on pasture. Consumers who care about the animals, quality and their own health buy from pastured farmers and avoid the factory farms.”
Conclusion: Is keeping pigs in indoor confinement one way to reduce exposure to Trichinella? It would appear so and the industry would certainly push this point. They’re obviously depending on the use of worming medications though. But is it the only way? Certainly not. Pastured pork can be very tasty and parasite-free. There is no need for intensive confinement pork. Pasture-based farmers like Walter & Holly Jeffries are proving that they can get the same results as the “biosecure” conventional hog barns but with a much more sustainable, humane and environmentally friendly operation. Why are conventional farmers giving worm medications to the “safer” confined hogs? Sure, there are other worms than Trichinella. But why do farmers need to give worm medications to a “biosecure” pig that is “safer” because of “confinement.” That’s a good question. I think it’s one the conventional industry does not want to answer. And remember, just cook your pork to at least 145° to kill trichinella!
Bonus Link: Here’s an interesting NY Times Op Ed piece from 2009 about Trichinella and pork.
Bonus Observation: There’s a lot of talk about “biosecurity” by factory farmers when referring to keeping hogs safe from disease. Yet, every time I watch a tour of a modern hog barn on YouTube (for example) I always see a farmer in plain clothes walk up to the feeder and sift their bare hands pretty deep into the actual feed. How is that “biosecure?”