I hate the feeling of being in the dark, like someone is trying to pull one over on me. I get that pit feeling in my stomach when I learn that something I thought or believed is actually different than I thought and someone has been purposely hiding important information from me. This is especially true when it comes to the food I buy to feed to my family. I want it to be EXACTLY what I think it is, nothing hidden or shady going on behind the scenes before the food gets to my table. And so much of what we read these days about main-stream farming claims that there are shady things going on all the time. And there may be in some places. But that's the beauty of the Field Moms program: I am actually looking behind the supermarket curtain to see for myself what is going on before the food leaves the farm. And from what I have seen so far, no one is trying to pull anything over on anyone.
Last Saturday, I was blessed to go on another farm tour with the IL Farm Families. Instead of beef and corn, this time we delved into the world of pork production and all that this operation entails. We spent the day with the Gould family at their farm located about 50miles west of the Loop between St. Charles and DeKalb. One of the most special things about being a Field Mom is the opportunity to meet these amazing farming families and see how passionate they are about what they do. Chris Gould and his father Eldon talked and walked us through every part of raising pigs, from collecting from the boar (an interesting conversation! ) to inseminating the sow to the birth of the piglets and all the care of the animals across all stages of the process. I know more now about a sow's cycle than I ever thought I would. But it is all so interesting- how the farmers know pretty much to the day when she will deliver her piglets (115day gestation) and how long she should nurse them and how to help transition her to getting pregnant again just a few days later. Not much rest for that weary sow. :) And to us city/suburban moms, it seems difficult to not get attached to these mama and baby pigs. But to the Goulds, it is their livelihood. The cuteness of the baby piglets is not lost on them. They still marvel at a brand new litter trying to nurse from their mama and their instinct to survive. But this is their business and to them the pigs are born for a purpose and the mamas are there to give birth to more piglets and so the cycle goes.
It's not cruel, quite the opposite. They have every motivation and desire to care for the animals and treat them with dignity. The better the animals are treated and cared for, it is better for everyone involved. Eldon Gould even commented that they "treat each sow as an individual. They are some pampered pigs!"
While touring the barns, Chris Gould made a point to talk about the stalls that the pregnant sows live in during their gestation time. "Gestational stalls" are apparently quite the controversial topic, one that I seriously had NEVER heard of before our tour last Saturday. The EU has put all these regulations in place on pig farms saying they have to stop using this system by 2013. McDonalds just came out and said they promised to not buy any pork from producers who use stalls and several other companies are following suit. How have I not heard about this? Have you?
The argument is that the stalls are inhumane and that they limit the sows ability to perform natural behaviors, causing her distress. On the tour, we had the pleasure of talking with Janeen Johnson, a professor at Uof I who specializes in animal science and welfare issues. She has done extensive research worldwide on the best way to house the sows and the piglets- from open pastures to tight crates. Her conclusion? Gestational stalls are a "viable system that needs to change and improve but needs to be based on actual scientific research on sow welfare." Fair enough. From what we heard and saw (in pictures), sows are very hierarchical and will harm and even kill each other if they are left in open pens. The stalls provide a safe environment for the sows and help the farmer to manage their feed and healthcare with greater accuracy and benefit.
But it is easy to get bogged down in the details. Here is my bottom line: The Gould's is not an "organic" pig farm. They use gestational stalls to house their sows and farrowing (the term for the sow giving birth) stalls when the sow gets to that point. And some people would shake their head at these facts and say we shouldn't eat meat from these farms. But from what I saw, that is just not true. These pigs seem content and well cared for. The entire Gould family does everything they can do to make the pork that comes from their farm the absolute healthiest and highest quality meat they possibly can. And they are constantly trying to improve. And to me, that is important.
I am not saying I am throwing the idea of organic food out the window. I am still a huge proponent of eating organic when we can and trying to reduce the "middle-men" when it comes to taking my food from farm to table. I want to know that no one is mistreating animals in order to cut a few corners. And the idea of GMOs truthfully frightens me and I need to learn more about that. But to meet farmers like the Goulds and the Martzs and the Drendles and the Moores (we go to their farm next) is to see that they are not trying to cheat nature to get more profit. They are not trying to pull anything over on the public in the name of personal financial gain. They are families, doing the best they can to produce food that is safe and nutritious and in enough quantities to feed the greater population of our planet. They feel a duty to care for the animals and the earth and their consumers. They are up front about what they do, never shying from questions. Someone said that they are so disconnected from the consumer that they feel like a "small agriculture island surrounded by an urban sea." They just want it all to be out on the table. And so do I.
I know that not everyone can go see the farm for themselves (although they have all said that their doors are always open). And I feel so grateful to be one of the lucky moms who does get to see these farms first hand and help bridge the gap between farmer and consumer. But most importantly, I love that I am getting the facts. ALL the facts. And so far, what I have seen and learned is amazing. I left the farm last Saturday feeling a little swimmy from having heard SO much information. But mostly grateful for people who are willing to say what is true. They are doing their part to make sure we as consumers have the information we need to make informed food choices. And that is SO important to me. And I'm sure to you too.
Don't try to pursue me. Or trick me. Or sneak one by. Just give me the facts. ALL the facts. And let me make up my own mind. And these farmers are doing just that.