Piggies Come Home to Root

By Richard Rhames

In 1965, for instance, there were 53 million US hogs on more than 1 million farms; today, 65 million hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.” Mike Davis, the London Guardian, 4/27/09

I met Piggy in the early eighties. She was in a pen on Ray Lemay’s Poverty Ledge Farm in the neighboring town of Arundel. Ray had a small dairy herd of big-bagged Holstein cows. He’d convinced his dubious wife that he could make a living raising/selling turkeys, feeder pigs, grain and dairying. He’d been a long-haul trucker, but he wanted to get off the road. Now he was tied to a twice-daily milking schedule, barn chores and dealing with wannabe swineherds like me.

Ray had dabbled at pig-breeding for a few years, but this lot he was selling was bought-in: 30-40 pound Yorkshire feeders. Long-bodied, white, with upright ears, they were British “bacon-type” pigs, bred to convert their feed into lean meat, as opposed to the traditional American hogs, inclined to produce back fat aplenty for lard.

These animals were culls from a larger industrial operation. They featured carefully selected genetic traits that assured rapid growth, with maximum lean meat. But they, or their mothers, had other traits that bigger operations couldn’t afford. They might have birthing (”farrowing”) problems, or, more commonly, slender leg bones. The pork “industry” was then moving swiftly to the CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) model. A CAFO pig spends its life standing on concrete, gnawing on the bars of a steel pen, in a cavernous metal “barn,” where the sun never shines, the wind never blows, and birdsong is replaced by the hum of electric motors, mingled with the shrieking of stressed captives. Pigs with thick leg bones can better tolerate the day-to-day trauma of standing on concrete. Finer bones mark a piglet for shipping. The CAFO existence would rapidly make it a cripple and a cost.

I built what I called “the pig palace” out of rough-cut pine and recycled tongue and groove, and erected a pen of youngish pitch pine poles. Piggy took up residence, but a few days later Ray convinced me that she’d do better with a companion—pigs are social animals after all. And so Ziggy came to breathe Biddeford’s storied air as well.

Over the summer they grew rapidly. Their ration was mostly bagged “unmedicated” grain, sometimes amended to their boundless delight by “pig potatoes,” kitchen waste, vegetable culls, and (in the fall) apple “drops” from a now-defunct Saco orchard. If I was late with the evening meal the increasingly large porkers would rear up on their hind legs, front trotters on the rail fence and bellow their disapproval. We had a deal, after all.

Pigs, with, digestive systems similar to mans’, have traditionally been a useful part of world agriculture. It was a rare subsistence farm that didn’t have a pig or two on the place. In the American corn belt, pigs were part of diversified operations back when farming paid. “Mortgage-lifters” they were called. If corn prices were a little low some years, the corn would be put through a quickly ramped-up hog herd with the corn sold as pork on the hoof. It was a system that worked well, was remarkably agile, and kept millions of profitable family farms on the landscape. It had to go.

Ziggy had to go (into the freezer) that fall. But Piggy remained. There was then, a research lab 20 miles down the road that was working on AI (artificial insemination) of swine. It featured a herd of six classy boars—Landrace, Yorkshires, Durocs. They were “trained to a dummy,” and would happily mount a properly scented, artificially (but pleasantly) plumbed female facsimile, and after some zealous thrusting, spew a piglet-batter emission into a waiting sterile reservoir. When your sow came into “standing heat” you could call, name your preferred sire and hours later, return with a thermos of semen/extender for your estrus-addled piggy-mama. A pipette, a squeeze-bottle, and presto: Piglets in the oven. My late father-in-law was richly amused at the method. He never tired of laughingly referring to me as a “pig-f***er.” I’ve been called worse.

Piggy and Gwen (a daughter from her first litter) stayed on as breeders. While the thermos/pipette regime prevailed all was well. But the lab closed. Trucking the sows to area boars led to them picking up some kind of STD which made them infertile. Hopeful, I hung onto them longer than I should have. At 500 pounds each they were big, expensive “pets.” So ended my fondly remembered interlude with pigs—the good kind.

The heartless, obscene, and supposedly efficient CAFO operations that Piggy and Gwen never knew, have now become the metastasizing and globalized model for raising meat animals. Imprisoned unnamed in their hell-hole livestock cities, kept alive by constant infusions of antibiotics, it seems that the suffering we humans have inflicted on harmless creatures may now be partially returned.

Apparently these fetid manure/microbe industrial gulags have been efficiently breeding, evolving, mutating exotic viral strains that now easily jump species barriers, from bird, to swine, to man, and back again. The Pew Research Center cautioned just last year that, “the continual cycling of viruses ... in large herds or flocks (will) increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human to human transmission.”

The reportedly emerging “swine-flu” pandemic currently freaking-out the skittish American public may provide a teachable moment for passing reflection. Cheap and inhumanely produced food ultimately comes at a cost.

Richard Rhames is a farmer near Biddeford, Maine. This originally appeared in the Biddeford Journal Tribune.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2009

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