Prior to our visit to the Gould’s farm, I hadn’t really thought much about pork production. Where I live our food comes in packages and our farm stories come from children’s books. For the most part the only thing I know about pork is how to cook it. My family eats more pork products than any other type of meat—so it was fun (the piglets are SO cute) and interesting for me to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the meat that makes it to my table gets it start in life.
The Gould’s farm houses 700 sows in a “sow center” and they focus exclusively on breeding, gestation and farrowing. Our tour started in their family office where they explained the process of insemination and gestation, farrowing and eventually starting all over again. The field mom’s on this tour were in for quite a shock as we discussed all, ahem, aspects of impregnating the sows! We even had the experience of witnessing the process, something I had never, ever considered while at home cooking for my family. On this farm they purchase semen to be used with their sows and it is selected for multiple reasons including characteristics that affect size and meat quality. Some of the specific attributes are indicated by the producer as consumer preferences, such as leaner meat. It was great to see science being used in parallel with Mother Nature. The Gould’s chart each sow’s cycle and check her status by using a “tease” boar (male)—they are not rushing or forcing the process. It was interesting to learn that the gestation period is 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. Just prior to her due date, a sow is moved to the farrowing crates where she will deliver and stay with her piglets for the following few weeks. The deliveries are not scheduled or induced due to a business plan. It was amazing to walk into the farrowing room on our tour just as a sow was delivering her 7th piglet of the morning, somewhat of a surprise to Chris Gould as she had not even started two hours prior to our visit.
While I was pretty sure that I was not going to encounter a pig named Wilbur and his friend the spider in an idyllic country setting, I was a little overwhelmed by the view of the sows inside the sow center. The sows are kept in metal crates which protect them from each other and enables the farmers to give individual attention to each sow. These crates are lined up within the barn from end to end with narrow walkways for farmers and boars to access all of the sows. It seemed so incredibly huge and barren and the sows are all kept facing one direction. While they can lay down, they cannot turn around. Taking this all in for the first time was hard, mainly because I, as a person, would not like to be confined this way. Despite this initial feeling I kept an open mind to what I was seeing and to the individual pigs. They were all clean and well cared for. They seemed happy enough as much as a random visitor can judge an animal’s happiness. As we walked through you could hear them snuffling and their ears would perk up as they gave us a cursory glance. Once it was determined we did not have food there was not much interest on their part. It was a very low stress atmosphere and actually quite peaceful.
It wasn’t a surprise to learn that the crating of the sows is a huge industry topic right now. It was great to see for myself and to hear the opinions of an expert (Janeen Salak-Johnson from U of I) along with us for the tour so that we could understand the contrast between reality on the Gould Farm and what we see and hear in the media. We learned that the debate includes animal behavior and their natural instincts to determine social order through violence (as is true with many animals, including the cattle we viewed on the last farm tour). Furthermore, it is important to determine the actual needs of the animals, including whether more space is needed for turning around or other behaviors.
The tour to the Gould farm enlightened me to this serious political and ethical debate that is raging about sows being crated. I cannot avoid further mention of the controversy as the discussion on crates took up such a huge part of our tour. As I mentioned at the farm, I feel many urban consumers are so far removed from our food and where it comes from that it is easy to latch on to negative stories in the media as truth. Some of the uproar certainly is a defense mechanism to feeling manipulated by those that sell us our food. I do want to eat pork (or beef or chicken), but I don’t want animals being treated poorly. There are many parts of this issue and I feel I need to start by deciding what I want to eat, how much I am willing to pay for it and what issues I have with specific practices and why. Housing animals indoors and in the case of sow crates, individually, has a lot of benefits including safety from the elements and each other, ease of checking them for disease or injury and the ability to adjust food for each individual animal. As outsiders looking in we need to be practical about what we see. These are animals that are intended for people to eat—not house pets. The producers of the animals we eat are business people running a business. What is good for the animals is good for the farmer, but more space also has a real cost. I saw animals that were very well treated by caring farmers. I would like to see the future include a little more quality space for animals, but with the understanding that the sweet farm where Wilbur and his friends live, in reality, would not feed the world or even the city of Chicago.