Recently I attended a meeting organized to rally folks against the rapid proliferation of industrialized hog lots here in Iowa. A woman spoke out about her frustration -- being sick of the stench of hog lots and tired of the battle against the Iowa legislature that would not allow local governments control over hog lots. She then said "If only they didn't smell it wouldn't be a problem."
I had to object. The smell of industrialized hog production goes much deeper than the nose can detect. Just ridding hog production of odor will not rid it of the deep rot that has set into the hog industry.
Industrialized, confinement hog production is a relatively new phenomenon, and in spite of what proponents say, there are better ways to raise hogs than crowding them together on concrete, feeding them a concentrated grain diet, and concentrating their manure.
Recently I picked up a 1923 edition of the classic book Feeds and Feeding by W.A. Henry and F.B. Morrison. It was interesting to read that the authors considered it ideal to raise hogs on pasture. In their words, "[for hogs on pasture] good results will be secured without the addition of any mineral supplement except common salt." They talked at length about the various feed supplements needed for hogs that were not on good pasture forage. And, that when hogs are kept in a building, "abundant exercise should be enforced at all times."
Pasture, exercise, for a hog? That certainly doesn't sound like Iowa industrial hog production. Well, having raised hogs in my youth, I can tell you there is nothing happier and healthier than a hog running on pasture.
What would happen if we turned Iowa's confinement hogs out to pasture? We could stop feeding them antibiotics because they wouldn't need them. The hogs would have a healthier and more diverse diet. Their manure would become fertilizer for the pasture, and the hogs would spread the fertilizer for free. So, there would be no manure lagoons to pollute our creeks and lakes. And, guess what? Hog farms would not stink!
Why do confinement hog lots stink? Industrial hog-lot manure accumulates in a liquid form, so it becomes anaerobic and putrid. When hogs are on pasture their manure is dispersed on the soil and is aerobically decomposed, so putrid compounds do not form.
Hogs are clean animals by nature. Sure, they like a roll in a mud puddle on a hot day, but when it comes to "bathroom" habits, hogs are the most fastidious of domestic animals. In a natural environment, hogs will not defecate in their own nesting area; they reserve designated areas to relieve themselves. Of course, when they are crowded together on concrete, they lose that instinct. What they gain in its place is tail biting and other aggressive behaviors associated with overcrowded conditions. How would you feel and behave if stuck interminably on a crowded elevator?
Industrial, confinement hog production lends itself well to corporate control. Hog production is rapidly going the route of the poultry industry -- which has turned farmers into serfs of corporate agribusiness. The hogs and feed are provided by corporations; the "farmers" are responsible for the liabilities of the buildings and manure.
Today four corporations control 59% of the hog market. Just a few years ago, hog production by independent farmers was the backbone of Iowa's agriculture. Hogs were considered to be the mortgage-lifter for Iowa farmers. Today it is becoming difficult for independent hog producers to even find a market.
Are there alternatives to industrial, confinement hogs? You bet! In Iowa there is a small, but growing, number of farmers raising hogs outdoors. One company -- Niman Ranch Pork Co. -- pays farmers a premium for pasture-raised, antibiotic-free pork and has a network of over 200 family farmers raising hogs for them. Niman Ranch is currently looking for another 200 farmers to meet their rapidly growing market. Pork labeled "certified organic" is also antibiotic-free and raised with access to the outdoors.
Every time you buy food you make a contribution to a social, economic and environmental system of agriculture. If you buy industrial pork you are contributing to turning farmers into hog-house janitors, to widening the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and to crowding hogs together on concrete (remember the life sentence in the crowded elevator with no bathroom).
There are sources of pork raised outdoors under humane conditions that do not degrade the environment. Look for them. Both you and the farmer you support will be glad you did.
Francis Thicke and his wife, Susan Noll, are owners and operators of an organic, grass-based dairy near Fairfield, Iowa. Thicke is a fellow of the Food and Society Policy Fellowship, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.