From your plate to production: Why Pastured Pork Deserves a Chance
Everyone loves bacon. Well, almost everyone anyways. People who don’t like bacon are like people who don’t like Beyoncé; they tend to hide this fact about themselves because no one understands and the Beygency might come for them. Also, in case you were wondering, the first rule of the Bacongency is that we don’t talk about the Bacongency.
I often encounter people who tell me they don’t like pork. I understand because I used to think I didn’t like pork. I was even afraid of the pigs when they first arrived at the farm. Pigs scream and drool when they are hungry---they can definitely give off a demonic first impression. For the first six months of raising pigs I didn’t know if I should just throw food at them or call an exorcist. Luckily for them I did the former.
Pigs have a terrible reputation of being dirty, mean and tasting bland with a shoe leather texture. We have all had tough, gristle textured, flavorless pork chops, but I want you to close your eyes, imagine a better world and forget everything you’ve heard that is bad about pigs and pork. Heritage and pasture raised pork tastes like sunshine and happiness, is good for you and is fun to raise. Fun fact: for some bizarre reason pigs on pasture often smell like maple syrup.
Pastured pork is very different from the meat that is likely being sold at your local grocery store—it even looks different. The commodity pork that is sold on your local grocery store shelf has been marketed as “the other white meat” for years. This does pork a disservice. Pork is not chicken and this is why we don’t make chicken bacon or prosciutto from poultry. Don’t get me wrong, chicken has its place in my freezer and on my plate, but don’t tell me pork is a substitute for it. Pastured pork is deep red, marbled and more closely resembles a good steak than a chicken cutlet. The meat is red because they develop more iron-rich muscle fibers from the exercise they get living outdoors with lots of space and things to do. Pastured pork is juicy, flavorful and tender. Life is too short to eat bad pork chops.
Happy animals really do taste better, this is scientifically proven and not just me proselytizing my way of farming. Stress is hard on animals and this impacts meat quality and flavor. Raising hogs on pasture can provide a less stressful and higher welfare environment for pigs. Being outdoors where they can root and socialize provides lots of stimuli for the animals.
Pigs are highly social and intelligent. They can be taught to solve puzzles, play computer games and do tricks. I’ve observed my hogs plotting their escape, organizing branches that fall from trees into piles, playing with things they find and counting their babies. You will not fool a mama pig any day of the week, and if you manage to do it once, you definitely won’t be able to do it twice. Pigs deserve better than lives of confinement on slotted floors---which is currently how most American pork is produced. Models of pork production that don’t involve raising hogs indoors are referred to as “alternative swine production” in the ag industry. The number of pigs being raised in the woods, on dirt lots outdoors or on pasture is tiny compared to the millions of pigs being raised “conventionally” throughout the U.S. In fact, most American pork is produced by farmers who have contracts with large companies, which are also known as integrators.
In a contract-farming model the farmer owns the farm infrastructure such as the buildings, land and equipment and raises the animals according to the contracting integrator’s standards. The integrator supplies the feed, owns the animals and pays the farmer to get the hogs to market weight (by head or weight depending upon the contract terms). The integrator may also own other pieces of the supply chain such as the mill that provides the feed and the plant where the pigs are processed and packaged. Farmers can get a premium or bonus for getting good yield with the piglets and feed supplied. Some farmers find this model of farming both profitable and satisfying. I know these farmers. They take pride in their work, care deeply for their animals and the business often involves the whole family. While some farmers find tremendous satisfaction in this model, others suffer in this model immensely. The farmer carries the risk of a production loss, has to finance the expensive infrastructure (often millions of dollars), pay utilities, source the labor and manage the waste that comes from raising thousands of animals in a building.
These farms have raising pigs down to an exact science. They are the reason why the masses can buy bacon and pork chops for less than three dollars per pound at their local grocer. These farmers are not bad farmers, but at the end of the day the farmer is the one left holding the bag and so is their community. In this case the metaphorical bag is a manure lagoon filled with thousands of gallons of waste. This waste can negatively impact air quality, the local watershed and the soil. Conventional models of pork production are also carbon footprint heavy—involving shipping hogs, distributing meat all over the country, and operating large scale processing facilities that can slaughter more than 30,000 hogs per day.
My primary criticism of the conventional pork industry is about what is on your plate and finding a better way to produce bacon that sustains farms, communities and the environment. Pork should taste good, pigs should live low stress lives, and they should be raised in ways that don’t harm the environment and leave farmers in a mountain of debt when prices decline. It is difficult for me to talk about the pork industry without painting a dark and depressing picture and that is my bias as an alternative farmer. I have witnessed the joys of raising pigs on pasture and have tasted the difference. Before you get too bummed about the bacon you had at brunch with your friends you should know the pork industry is making changes to their protocols, albeit mostly due to consumer demand. They are developing ways to raise pigs in buildings where they have more space per animal, can live in groups and socialize, and sows are spending less time in farrowing crates. Big wheels turn slowly and in the meantime we can all enjoy some pastured pork.
To read more about some of the things I mentioned in this post visit:
Temple Grandin: “Killing them softly at slaughterhouses for 30 years”
“A Jungle No More: how Temple Grandin’s designs have reformed the meat industry” https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21671150-how-temple-grandins-designs-have-reformed-meat-industry-jungle-no-more
Environmental Impact of Hog Production: