When it comes to all things porcine, my knowledge is pretty limited to Miss Piggy, the conniving mustachioed pigs from Angry Birds, Olivia, Charlotte’s Web, that George Clooney kept a pot-bellied one, and the popular tag line, "the other white meat."
And yes, going to college in South Bend, Indiana taught me that a sow’s uterus takes up an entire lab table (we had to dissect both that and piglets), and that driving downwind of a pig farm for a good 20 miles on the way to New Buffalo is probably a good reason to put the top back on the jeep. Beyond that, I had no idea that raising, maintaining and harvesting pork is such a complex (!) process.
I recently joined my fellow Field Moms for a nose around the multigenerational Gould Pig Farm in Maple Park and not only came away with a potential calling as a pig midwife – newborn piglets are very hard to resist - but with some serious knowledge about the current events impacting pork production on a global level.
If you follow foodie news, McDonald’s recently announced its decision to require its pork producers to stop using gestation stalls - pens used for breeding sows that are about the same length and width as their bodies.
Way to be pressured by the European Union there, big wigs.
The EU operates under completely different guidelines than the United States, and once a non-scientific group decided pigs must be able to exercise and investigate their environment, things got kind of hairy for the way farmers run their farms now.
Here’s the thing. Human perception and the way animals are being housed are not mutually exclusive. Just as it’s human nature to think, "Gee, I wouldn’t want to be in a pen where I can’t turn around or hang out with my friends," anthropomorphizing pigs draws a very crooked line in the sand.
Activist groups are very quick to point the finger at what’s wrong in the farming community, and yes, there are always a few bad seeds in the bushel, but animal welfare and animal rights are not mutually interchangeable. And, while transparency is key in how farmers run their operations, activist groups are putting pressure on retailers in saying that consumers want to see an end to gestation stalls.
Gone are the days of open pastures, people. Pigs are not herd animals, and introducing group housing is not a simple process. When left to socialize in groups, pigs develop a hierarchy, meaning that the "mean girls" of the group quickly monopolize food and water sources and become aggressive toward other sows. Pigs do bite and can cause some nasty chewing injuries. Seriously, would you want a 700-pound bully chomping on your vulva or biting off your tail? Yikes! But that’s what pigs do when left to establish their own pecking order.
Stressed pigs also means tough meat, inconsistent individual weights – farmers want to see relatively uniform pigs, not obese or overly thin sows - difficulty in controlling diseases, and more importantly, unhappy pigs.
Think about it. It’s in the farmer’s favor to treat their pigs well. Pig farming is a business, and though there may be a favorite boar or sow here and there, they are not pets. Eventually, we’re going to eat them.
The Gould’s stressed that they treat their sows as individuals, and give them as much TLC necessary to make them feel pampered and happy, which for pigs, translates to biohazard security, quality (not quantity) of space, and five basic freedoms: food, water, protection, and freedom from fear and distress.
In fact, the Gould’s have implemented advanced methods of Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) and Transport Quality Assurance (TQA), which means that voluntary animal welfare audits are the norm at their farm, conducted by third parties who have no connection to them or their clients.
And yes, we did have a chance to zip up some Hazmat suits and actually tour the pig housing. I’ve always been the first to speak up against circuses and puppy mills, and in support of more stringent regulations at those farms that have popped up in the news as being bonafied cruel to their animals, but that was most certainly not the case here.
Though startled when we first trudged in with our plastic shoe covers, and cameras and lighting, the pigs were very inquisitive and relatively clean. I didn’t see any injuries or signs of fights among the pigs, and they spent plenty of time communicating with one another via grunt and oink.
Sure, there was some stinkyness – they are farm animals after all – but remember, they don’t sweat, so that infamous smelly rap mainly comes from poop, which has a lot of ammonia in it. Last I checked, no poop smells that grand, so no big. Better yet, the Gould’s use all of that waste to fertilize their fields, making it an excellent example of reduce, reuse, recycle.
The highlight was witnessing a birth in the farrowing – nursery area - of the barn. The Gould’s work with nature, not against it, and since we had just experienced the insemination of a sow – optimal semen shown to produce lean meat and strong pigs is used, and the process involves charting each sow’s cycle and using a "tease" boar to naturally bring on excitement - it was a pretty nifty progression to see.
Piglets smell wonderful, and are surprisingly fuzzy and loud. Those newborns who have trouble finding their mother’s teats – like any littermates, there are bigger and smaller piglets, and plenty of squabbles over the teats closest to the sow’s head as they have more milk - are assisted by the Gould’s, since the sow’s colostrum and milk naturally boosts her offspring’s immunity and promotes healthy development.
Obviously, the learnathon was vast, but the opportunity to form individual opinions based on the Gould’s experience and Janeen Salak-Johnson’s expertise – the latter is a professor as the University of Illinois – was much greater.
And for all those who know me entirely too well, no, I didn’t bring a piglet home with me. The newborn piglets didn’t fit into my camera bag.