Thursday, December 07, 2006

Hog Hell

WARNING: Today's post has no pictures and discusses subjects that may disturb you. I'll be funny, or moving, or swooning over rock stars and horses tomorrow, okay?

I got my new Rolling Stone yesterday. Unfortunately that big dope head whose name rhymes with Poop Fogg is on the cover...but what really got my attention was an article on big corporate hog farms and how they’re creating an environmental nightmare.

As you know, I grew up on a hog farm. I know a thing or two about pigs. I know that when they’re born, they’re the cutest, warmest, wiggliest cute little things. They snort and squawk endearingly and always look like they’re smiling.

I know that they ain't so cute anymore once they get bigger.

I know that sows aren’t great mothers. If you don’t get a fresh layer of straw into the farrowing pen on time they’ll just stand there and squeeze out the babies, who plop wetly onto the cement. They’ll also lie down on the piglets , not caring if the little guys got out of the way on time. Watching a piglet scream and thrash to free itself from the bulk of its mother’s body burns a very strong mental image onto a kid’s mind.

I know that a boar can weigh up to 400 lbs and he works a sow over for a very long time before there’s any action.

I know that if you put too many young weanlings into a pen, they’ll start fighting. They will always pick on the runt, or the one who’s kind of sickly, or has any kind of anomaly. They bully the little weird kid.

I know how pigs can wreck a cement holding pen with their snouts.

If there are too many pigs in one barn, it’s a disaster. They produce a lot of body heat and a lot of waste. They get on each other’s nerves, fight, and get generally agitated. Pregnant sows will abort on a day when the temperature rises. My parents always said they’d abort if they were too crowded. It was always trouble in the summer to get them in the right cool, comfortable place at the right time.

I know how to castrate pigs. I was doing it when I was 11 or 12 years old. I could probably still do it now if I had to.

Right around the time my parents got out of the hog business, many of our neighbours were going corporate. It wasn’t a big bad evil thing at all; several family members would amalgamate their farms and incorporate as a business. It was the only way they could all keep it going, while allowing them to still be a “family farm” which meant something to them. That’s a tricky thing about farming. It’s a job but it’s also tangled up with lifestyle and tradition.

I wasn’t shocked by anything I read in this Rolling Stone article. However, it was clearly written for shock value. (I suggest you find a way to read it. Find it at the library if you object to paying for it.) I know how farming has gone in Ontario and I’d heard about these giant pork factories south of the borner. Anybody unfamiliar with the hog business will be horrified by this.

Here’s how it happenend: some genius who owned a meat packing plant decided that it wasn’t good enough to buy the hogs from the farmers. They had to own the hogs and pay the farmers to house and feed them. Then that wasn’t enough either. They had to own the farms. They’d buy up farms and build huge barns that held about 200 pigs each. They’d build many of them side by side. They’d have to dig pits to hold all the manure.

It’s not about pigs anymore. It’s not about farming and it’s definitely not about food. It’s about money. Greed. Profit.

Now I’m going to tell you the truly horrifying stuff-- you may not want to read this.

I’ve told you what it was like to raise pigs in a very well ventilated drafty old barn. Now imagine that in a tight steel barn. Fans to pull out the heat and bacteria are absolutely necessary to prevent sickness or death to animals and humans alike. Did I mention manure? Pigs just produce a lot of it. That’s why we call them pigs. And I’m not exaggerating- it stinks. It stinks to high heaven. I think pigs are the worst smelling of all critters, worse than chickens, worse even than humans.

So, closed in, hot stuffy barn. Many pigs crowded together. Guess what happens next?

Fights, aborted piglets, sickness, death. Guess where the casualties go?

Into those big manure pits.

I’m still not shocked. It wasn’t rare to walk out to the barn and see a carcass lying there waiting for the dead stock truck. If it had to stay there long it got bloated in the sun and you wouldn’t want to look at it too long. Images burned in the brain.

When our pigs died they got taken away and disposed of but when it’s a pork factory, there’s no time or room for paying the dead stock. Into the pit. Let it rot there.

And when there’s too much? Spray it on the fields.

Still not shocked. That’s traditionally how we deal with animal waste. The difference is, on a factory farm this stuff is so concentrated, not to mention full of medicinal waste and decomposing matter that it’s like spraying poison on the fields. Apparently according to this article, the hay has a dangerously high nitrogen content.

Meanwhile, the run off from these places is causing unbelievable pollution.

The workers in these barns can’t wash the stink off. I believe it; we did a lot of laundry and washing when we had pigs in the barn. Despite the defeat of getting out of farming I heard my dad say for years that he was glad to not smell pigs anymore. These poor guys can’t wash it off.

So why am I telling you all this? Because...

-it pisses me off that people have to work in these hell holes. Sometimes you have to take the literally crappy job because that’s all there is. There are less and less small farms to work on anymore because the corporations buy them up.

-it pisses me off that animals have to live in those hell holes.

-it really, furiously, intensely pisses me off that some asshole in an office is on the phone making deals to buy up more land, breed more pigs, cover up more environmental charges, and sell more pork, while Ma and Pa down there in North Carolina, who didn’t sell their farm to the evil empire, have breathing problems because of the airborne bacteria from the manure lagoon across the field. That angers me so hard I could cry.

We are so far removed from the life cycle in this modern world. I’m not saying that we should all have a pig in the backyard so we know where our food grew up. But most of us aren’t even aware of how big the systems that supply our groceries have gotten.

I have no answers. I do suggest though that the farmers are not to blame. They’re just doing their job, whether it’a a good job or bad. I point the finger at the suits who’ve never set foot in a barn in their lives and don’t intend to. I think we need a little more awareness in this world. I think it would do us all some good to have a better idea of where our food comes from.

Guess what we had for supper last night? Pork roast.


cara winsor hehir said...

i am not shocked either. i grew up in a chicken farming community and watched farmers slowly commercialize until the heneries were finally closed down and moved closer to the big city. people had to sell their homes and leave because the main source of employment has gone. it was a small town to begin with, 400+ when i left, it is now down to -150... very sad.
the only suggestion i can come up with is to buy local when ever you can. it is not easy, as the cheapest and widest variety is at wally mart. but the more you learn about such places as the pig factories, the more able you are to make choices about where you buy your meats, local butchers tend to be the better choice... or mom and pop grocers. most local shops are working to provide enviro/ethic friendly products.
thanks for the information on the pork. i'll remember that.

Timmy said...

I want a pork chop now.

I agree with you, it is sad and disgusting.

CindyDianne said...

Heidi - you hit a subject near and dear to my heart. I grew up with my grandparents operating a ranch, raising beef. (and having a milk cow and growing their own garden and all that super cool stuff I wish I could do now) They weren't a big operation with 50,000 acres, they had slightly over 500. That 500 acres is exactly what we have now, is exactly what we will have in 50 years or as long as I am alive to make sure of it.

They eeked out a fairly successful living by running cows and pinching pennies. I'd love to go and do it now. But, I am not sure it can be done now. I don't even really know where to start the investigation to see.

There is a reason that the saying down here rings true: "Behind every successful ranch is a wife that works in town."


dilling said...

"Get fresh with a family farmer..." we try to buy organics...we eat less meat but better. Organic fruits and veggies, and not the giant organics companies... we buy local meat from a local meat shop...my family were farmers, too, on both sides. My sister, brother and I are the first generation to never have been on those farms...they are gone now, raising gmo corn in Iowa...

Coffeypot said...

Heidi, I hear (feel) your discust and anger, but what can we do? It's not just the pigs, either. It's the same way with chickens and beef. The demand is so much greater that the supply that it almost has to be dirty on the farming end because there is no time to do it right. But I can't give up meat for lent or anything. Like everyone else, I just try not to think about it. Uh! How about a bacon burger?

ldbug said...

It's hard isn't it? I didn't grow up on a farm, but some of my friends did. I grew up on Montana, where rich assholes are buying up the land from the wheat farmers and cow ranchers.

Heidi the Hick said...



In case you're wondering, no, I don't plan to give up meat. I have these little sharp teeth and they're good for chewing up meat.

I do think as consumers we can vote with our dollars...but it's true, there is so much demand now that farmers don't really have much choice if they want to make a living.

Having grown up on 50 acres it's hard to believe that 500 isn't enough twenty years later, but it's true.

I try to buy meat from the local butcher shop and buy produce at the market but you know, it's expensive, and also I have that little grocery shopping paranoia that isn't just limited to grocery stores... I get panicky buying food in general.

But, we all gotta eat, right?

rural dad said...

"Behind every successful ranch is a wife that works in town."

The corollary to that one is
"If I had a million dollars, I'd farm until it was all gone"

Doubly sad, but all too true.

Great topic, Heidi!

Steve Bodio said...

Great piece Heidi-- I'll link soon, and send it around.

Local, local, local, if possible.

But here in New Mexico I see the same problem as ldbug saw in Montana (actually saw it there too-- met Libby there). Rich people are buying EVERYTHING. Two ranches just changed hands here this week, one to be subdivided; another going on the block for $10,000,000--! (also to be subdivided). Many don't even have water enough for housing. Insane! People escaping the coasts to rebuild their problems here.

And two ranch managers I know are being evicted from their homes-- one has lived in that house for 22 years, and will also be out of work at 56 and not too good health.

These are people I buy my beef from.

The Adult in Question said...

One half of the Geoffanies works on a evil corporate farm. And you are right about the smell... it's always there.

Notsocranky Yankee said...

Okay, I read the first line of this post a couple of days ago and put off reading it until today. I can't say that I'm shocked. I haven't read the article, but I would hope that the communities surrounding these megafarms would protest the environmental hazard. We can only hope.

I saw a couple of pigs slaughtered at a slaughterhouse when I was 15. The first one didn't freak out or anything as he was hoisted up by his hind legs. The other, who got to watch the first one have his throat slit, started coming unglued as soon as he was led from his waiting pen. I will never forget it, although I realize it's a necessary part of life.

BadMonkey said...

I remember picking my grandma up for Sunday dinner during certain times of the year. Had something to do with the pigs. She was old by then and didn't do any of the work anymore, my uncle was doing the farming on her land. The smell was in her clothes, hair, skin, everywhere. God, she smelled.

We'd laugh and laugh (at her).

My other memory was when she'd lost most of her hearing. She'd walk around the house farting loudly, unaware that we could hear it.

We'd laugh and laugh (at her).

(she wasn't a very nice person)

Askinstoo said...
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