Growing up a city girl in Los Angeles, I was always fascinated by farms and orchards. I still have vibrant memories of picking pears and hunting rabbits in Antelope valley with my dad. Such a different world of nature than the manicured lawn of our home in the city. In our hectic modern lives we don't often stop to think where are food comes from. Who grew this tomato? Where did this chicken live, and how was it (she) housed?
This pig in the photograph lives in Thornton, Iowa, on the farm of Paul and Phyllis Willis. It's a happy pig, spending its days running around the pasture with its brothers and sisters, digging up roots and what not, chewing on grass, eating corn, and wallowing in the mud. This pig, like the others on Paul and Phyllis's farm, leads the kind of life that domesticated pigs, raised for human consumption, have been leading for thousands of years.
It's also a very lucky pig, to be born of a sow on the farm of people dedicated to sustainable agriculture and the ethical treatment of animals. More than 80% of the 20 million or so Iowa and North Carolina pigs being raised today for our consumption never feel their feet touch the earth. They are raised in confinement, in long buildings called CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, where they are kept in such crowded conditions that the sows don't even have enough room to turn around in their pen. They are fed antibiotics constantly because in such crowded conditions they are prone to fast-spreading disease. Their urine and feces fall through slats, which are then collected into manure ponds, which instead of fertilizing the land (what happens when pigs are raised in open pasture) pollutes it.
Bonnie of The Ethicurean blog quotes an article on major polluter Smithfield farms:
manure from porcine CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, is an unprecedented ecological disaster for North Carolina and other hog-harboring states, causing severe health problems for nearby residents, poisoning streams and groundwater, decimating fish life, and turning surrounding farmland into a toxic-waste dump.
Paul Willis calls what's happened over the last 20 years "the chickenization of pig farming".
Because of our fear of animal fat, we've bred the fat (and therefore the flavor) out of pigs. Pigs need a layer of fat to live outside and endure cold winters. Pigs need to exercise to work the muscles that will not only be more flavorful meat, but also get more fat marbling in them. So pigs raised in confinement are lean, and their meat so light that the Pork Board calls pork "The Other White Meat". Ever see raw pork from a heritage breed, a breed with fat? Check out this hunk of Berkshire pork. It's not white.
Because they are breeding pigs so lean these days, you have to brine pork, or inject it with water, just so it doesn't get totally dried out when you cook it. It has so little flavor, you have to smother it in sauces.
Back to our happy pig in the photo. I recently toured the Willis' farm in Thornton, Iowa, with fellow food blogger and BlogHer CE Alanna Kellogg. You can see the whole Flickr set of farm photos. Besides the heart-opening, mind-blowing experience of holding a day-old piglet in my arms, the main impressions I was left with on the farm was that here the pigs were happy, curious, playful, and unafraid. I was warned by someone knowing I was going to visit an Iowa hog farm to "hold my nose", a completely unnecessary warning as the farm didn't smell. Everyone that day came away with similar impressions. And we haven't been the only bloggers visiting this farm.
Diane from Sustainable Table relates the story of her visit:
The first thing that really surprised me was that a group of 15 or so people, including energetic children, didn't scare the animals. They were so friendly that they actually came up to us to say hello (I got slimed a couple times â€“ in a very friendly way thoughâ€¦). The hogs run around the pasture, play, socialize and simply are what they are.
Diane's entry includes this great YouTube video interview of Sarah Willis, Paul and Phyllis' daughter, on what brought her back to the farm.
So where to buy pork if you want to make sure you are buying meat from sustainable farmed, ethically raised pigs? Paul and Phyllis are part of the Niman Ranch collective, which holds all of their pig farmers to high, sustainable standards. You can find Niman-branded pork at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. The Fatted Calf in the SF Bay Area sells charcuterie made from locally raised pigs. Do you have a local pork purveyor from sustainably raised pigs in your area? Please let us know about it in the comments.
One more blog deserves mentioning. US Food Policy frequently writes about hog farming and public policy.
* Photos in this article are by Elise Bauer.
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