Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hog heaven

Nearing the end of my stint in Iowa, land of corn and pigs -- no, really, most of the postcards in the state feature one or both of these -- I stopped to assess a few things. Had I worked on a cornfield in the state? No. Pig farm? No. Hmmm.

Now, Iowa has a reputation as largely the land of CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) pork farms and fields of genetically-modified feedcorn and soybeans (to fatten up animals crammed into the CAFOs). This is actually the case: across the entire eastern half of the state which produces most of our country's pork I never once saw a pig outdoors. (Not even on the handful of nice days over the course of nearly a month as I roamed from Dubuque to Davenport to Des Moines to Decorah.) However, I'd heard of alternatives and was hoping to spend a little time on a sustainable pork farm. I'd read a bit about Niman Ranch's commitment to free-range, humane animal treatment, so when the opportunity arose to work with Paul, who has a hog farm himself and manages the organization's pork farmers in the region, I gladly took it.

Paul and Phyllis welcomed me onto their farm -- and into their kitchen -- in Thornton, IA for a few days to learn about free-range hog farming and their lifelong devotion to raising animals conscientiously. They have been doing it for over 30 years. They have continued their work while being surrounded by confined animal feeding operations and neighbors who scowl and yell and wag fingers at the upstarts who dare to go against the grain, who have the poor manners -- it *is* the midwest -- to question the status quo. They try to be friendly toward members of the community, but at the same time the Willises stand firmly behind an unwavering code of ethics when it comes to raising their animals. (They are also avid birders and land stewards, I learned, and had converted large portions of their property back to native prairie -- also uncommon for their area. Rebels with a cause, those two.)

I tagged along with Paul on morning chores each day. I helped him relocate a mama sow and piglets who had nested outdoors during the freezing rainstorm, shepherding them to a nearby corrugated metal shed. (Dozens of these straw-filled, single pig family homes dotted each grazing field, offering shelter from the elements while one open side retained access to the pasture at all times.) I learned about the lack of market for boar meat due to its intense, er, 'musky' odor and the standard practice of castrating the young male piglets to prevent the hormone-based flavor development. (The procedure was quick and the tiny piglets healed quickly, I observed... a bit squeamishly.) We pitchforked fresh hay into the pig houses for the sows to nest and checked to be sure the feed was accessible. (Paul quite deftly sprung into and out of one of the feeders at one point -- quite spry for a man probably double my age. Must be all of the exercise and great food... he and Phyllis are quite the cooks.)

I also should admit that I was often distracted by the pigs. As I approached each section of the field, sows and piglets sprinted away, then crept back toward me. As I stood still, chatting and leaning on my pitchfork, they curiously sniffed, shuffling ever closer, and tried to nibble on the fork tines or my plastic boot covers. (So: goats like my pants, turkeys like my shoelaces, pigs like my boot covers.) Paul often smiled and shook his head, patiently reminding me after awhile that we did need to, you know, finish up the chores. The pigs were so cute!

I have to agree with Dave, who regularly visits the farm, ostensibly to collaborate on farm policy initiatives: the piglets at Paul's free-range hog farm are possibly the cutest animals ever. (Though Dave and Paul are good friends, and co-founded the advocacy group Food Democracy Now, I wouldn't be surprised if Dave stops by sometimes just to cavort with the piglets in their pasture.) They are happy pigs if I ever saw any. And after a life of fresh air, romping around in the mud and grass, and being processed a few at a time at small local butcher shops (like Ventura Locker, where we picked up the porkchops for Friday night's feast), I swear they are the most delicious.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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