Monday, January 9, 2012

Pork Production Then and Now: Interview with a Farmer

Pork Production Then and Now
Richard Boutall
Cardale Park Farm
Cardale, Manitoba
Sunrise in Cardale, Manitoba
Q:  What is fundamentally different about pork production today versus production 100 years ago worldwide?

Basically, pork production has become an industrial factory type process. You aren't so much producing a pig to be killed for pork as producing a commodity to be sold for food. Even as little as 50 to 60 years ago, pigs were predominantly reared outdoors or in barns but on a much smaller scale. 

My father, for example, had an 80 sow herd, which in 1970 was considered a fair sized operation. Today an operation of that size would be laughed at by most pig producers.  Barns now are giant concrete structures housing thousands of pigs separated in to small pens on slatted floors. No thought is given for the comfort of the pig, the paradigm is; "How can we grow it faster, fatter, bigger and cheaper? The only time the pig is allowed to express it's physiological distinctiveness is by eating, other than that it's life is far removed from what it would be like in nature.

Q:  Curing.  When did this process transition from simple salt and brown sugar to a chemical cocktail?

The use of saline solution injection in to the meat to cure bacon started as long ago as the early part of the 20th century. As time has gone on and mass consumption of pork has grown the process has become more widely adapted so that today it is hard to find bacon cured in the original way. Saline solution, now with other added chemical preservatives (which really are not necessary), is the norm for bacon curing because it is easier for processors to make the bacon with. That does not follow that it makes a better bacon of course, though I guess that is up to the individual consumer to decide. It would be nice if the consumer was offered the choice though between naturally cured and chemically cured.

Q:  Pigs.  What is the best thing for the animal?  

The best thing for the pig would undoubtedly be for it to be able to live in the most natural way that it can. Putting a pig in a 18x24 pen with a concrete slatted floor filled with a bunch of other cell mates does not seem to me to be the best thing for a pig to endure. If you crowd the animals they have little room to move, to keep clean (something in nature that the pig actually excels at), to gain exercise and to express their physiological distinctiveness. I am not of the opinion that factory farming of pork is going to change anytime soon as the rule but I would suggest that it ought to.

A pig has a plough on the end of its nose for a reason and it is not so we humans can lock it up in to a pen with other pigs and give it a concrete floor to live on. Pigs need to root for food, they need to make wallows to bathe in because a pig has no sweat glands which is why they like to take a mud bath in the outdoors, something denied to them in a hog barn. To paraphrase the words of a farmer who I much admire; Mr Joel Salatin. "A pig is not just a piece of inanimate, protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however cleverly hubris can imagine to manipulate it. I would suggest that a culture that views its life in that kind of disrespectful, arrogant, manipulative fashion, will views its citizens the same way."

Think about that last quote for a second, to deny the truth of that statement is to be living in blindness as far as I am concerned.

Q:  Explain pastured pork versus pork raised in hog barns.

Ah, one of my favourite sights is to see a herd of pigs outside in a pasture savannah doing all the things that a pig loves to do best. Before I get to that though I'd better explain the alternative which sadly is the norm for a pigs life. 

A pig will be born along with about 10-12 other piglets, the birth event is called farrowing. In a barn situation the mother, known as a sow, will be confined in a "farrowing crate" which is a cage like structure which is designed to prevent her rolling over and killing the odd piglet by mistake. While this does occasionally happen in nature, if the sow was given plenty of room and lots of bedding it minimizes the risk to the piglet and is a lot more comfortable for the sow as in her crate she can barely move. The piglets are given injections for iron, vitamins and antibiotics. The piglets will be weaned at 2 to 3 weeks old, sometimes even earlier than that and are then moved to a nursery pen with lots of other piglets. Later they are moved to growing pens and then fattening pens as they age and grow. All the pens are concrete and crowd the pigs in so they have little exercise and no room to express their physiological distinctiveness. The air temperature is kept constant in the barn via fans and vents hooked up to thermostats, all the pigs are fed a ration of grain which is often corn,wheat and soy based and the feed is medicated to control illness in the pigs. Without the antibiotics and medications the pigs would likely never survive to be killed due to the overcrowding and atmospheric conditions within the barn. I'm not sure my description is adequate but if I put it like this; if the average consumer could see the inside of a factory production hog barn, they would never want to eat pork again, in my opinion. Thankfully, there is an alternative.

Pastured pork is very different: The sow may or may not be brought in for monitoring during farrowing but will not suffer the indignities of a farrowing crate. Once farrowed the piglets will be allowed to suckle for at least 6 to 8 weeks, sometimes more, in an outdoor setting. After weaning, the pigs are still outside on a pig pasture which is often open spaced woodland with lots of grass in it. The pigs are fed a ration of grain but this is not the only food they have for unlike the pigs in a factory barn, the pastured pig has many other things to eat such as grass, acorns, nuts, roots, insects, worms etc. which they dig up while rooting through the soil. These foods are full of protein and nutrients and give the pig plenty of exercise while working to find them. If the pig gets hot it makes a wallow out of mud to bathe in and it can also lie in the shade under tree branches. The pigs need no antibiotics and medications because they are not crowded together in an atmosphere full of airborne pathogens, they need no vitamin and iron injections because they get all they need from their food and from rooting in the soil which provides the iron they require. Because they are able to express their physiological distinctiveness or their "pigness" they are happy and when you see pigs in a pig pasture there is no doubting that they do indeed have a happy life.

Q:  Is pastured pork nutritionally better for you?  What do we lose nutritionally when we confine a hog?  Besides the animal suffering, how does the consumer suffer, if at all?

Nutritionally, pastured pork is far better for you. Now there are many proponents of the factory hog barn system that will show studies showing leaner pigs, lower fat profiles, nutrition profiles etc. What these studies fail to take in to account is that the pork is tasteless, spongy meat that actually is not that nutritionally good. For a start pork is not supposed to be "The other white meat", actually pork produced properly is a red meat with a far more succulent texture and superior taste to it than anything produced in a hog barn. 

The pork produced on pasture sometimes may have a little more fat but the profile of the fat is very different to that of a hog barn pig, the meat profiles differ enormously too. Pastured pork, like any pastured animal, contains higher amounts of  protein, vitamins, omega-3 and of conjugated linoleic acid all of which adds up to a very healthy food. Because the pastured animal is not fed a diet of antibiotic feed it will not have antibiotic residues in its meat and the heath of the meat overall will be far superior to that of a hog barn pig. 

Q:  Butchering now versus 100 years ago, for instance.    What did we lose in industrializing or automating this process?  What happened to the old-fashioned butcher shop?

Alas, butchering is a dying breed, almost extinct in North America actually. Certainly, any old chap can learn how to use a band saw and chop up a animal but where did the art of butchering go? Unfortunately, with the industrializing of food manufacturing and farming came the industrializing of the processing too. The paradigm was to find a way to chop up an animal as fast as possible, get it packaged, and sent out to a supermarket. When I was a kid, you didn't often see meat in a supermarket, you went to the butcher for it; now, there are few traditional butchers left. 

What we have lost with the industrialization of meat packing is traditional cuts of meat that made for wonderful meals and we have lost artisanal curing of meats and bacon. Don't get me started on the tasteless so-called sausages that are available in a supermarket today.  Suffice it to say, that it is criminal that todays generation cannot try the huge variety of flavoured and spiced sausages that I and generations before me were privileged to have known.

Q:  What can the average consumer do to procure quality pastured pork?

If a consumer wants to buy pastured pork then they will have to do a little digging but it is so worth the effort. It is not generally available on a supermarket shelf, however, it is available from many farmers around the country. You may find it at farmers markets, farm shops, farm produce buying groups and CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture groups) . Use Google to find farm shops or markets in your area. Use which lists organic and sustainable pasture farmers in your area. Don't be put off because you have to do a little work to find it, what is more important in your life? What you feed your body with or spending another hour watching some stupid reality show on television? (Seriously, they get dumber every week!) 

The process can be fun and if you get the chance, visit the farm where your pork is going to be coming from. Ask to see how the animals are looked after - if the farmer is transparent and has an open door policy then you know you are on to good food that is produced well.  Seeing pigs in a pig pasture and knowing that their lives are happy makes a huge difference when you actually come to eat them. Knowing where your food comes from  is always a good thing and you can make new friends in the process. Buying your food outside of a supermarket environment becomes a fun, social thing to do.  How many people have a fun time shopping in a supermarket?

Q:  How can others help to spread the word and educate others about how important it is to get close to your food source:  the farm where it was raised?

The bottom line is that in reality (at least for now) most people are not going to change where and what they are buying. It's like quitting smoking - you have to WANT to change. That said, look back 50 years and see how many people have quit smoking that would never have believed they would (I include myself in that). 

The good news is that there is a growing movement of people who are concerned about what they are eating. The key to spreading the word is enthusiasm for the subject, the more enthusiastic you are, the more people want to know why you are so enthusiastic and happy so that they may find that enthusiasm and happiness also. Talk about food, cook it and have people over for dinner so that they can taste the difference, emphasize the positive things about sustainable food. 

It can be an uphill battle at times trying to get people to understand that knowing where their food comes from is important.  We, as humans, have become remarkably complacent and trusting of our food sources.  Even I, as a farmer, have had my eyes opened tremendously in the last 10 years as to what really goes on behind the scenes in the food production model of factory farming and food processing. It is not a pleasant epiphany when you find out the truth but it is remarkably rewarding when you find there is an alternative and it is a good one for both animals, farmers, and consumers.


  1. Now I am quite curious about trying pastured pig meat! We do have a few local farmers, I will see what I can find out. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. There is a difference. Also check out local resources near you that may have linked up with Have a great evening!