Last year, I did something that I never imagined I would do in my adult life. I volunteered to go to a pig farm to see where all of the wonderful pork that the Houseful loves to consume comes from. It was definitely something that I think every person who does consume meat products to do. Whatever way you fall after visiting is totally on you. Either way, it was educational, and even a lot more enjoyable than I anticipated.
Boy did I get an eye AND nose full! It was definitely a sensory overload in the olfactory, auditory, and visual sense. I’m glad that I went though, and was able to learn so much about the forms of pork that I do eat. Getting to know the pork farmers wasn’t half bad either. Their penchant for hog farming was strong. The love of it radiated from the dad all the way down to the smallest farm baby.
As part of my participation in the Illinois Farm Families, I visited the hog farm of Steve Ward and his family in Sycamore, Illinois. I wasn’t entirely sure of what we were in for, but I was open to the fact that I would learn something. You always should be, correct? I’m eternally grateful to Steve and his family, including his very gracious father and mother, for opening up their farm to us.
On the bus to the farm, we were given a talk by a couple of the farmers who were along with us on general farming concepts. Acreage (did you know that an acre is roughly the same size of a football field?) and the massive amounts that lot of farmers have. We’re talking 1200 acres of land to take care of on a daily basis. I think that I would faint with just one acre of land, and these families are taking care of 1200. Steve even let us know that if he worked from sun up to sun down during planting season, he would be able to get through one hundred acres of land. Catch me now as I faint from exhaustion. I did get to pretend to drive a tractor. The thing is massive. Literally. One wheel is taller than I am, and the cabin is so far off the ground that those of us who are a little afraid of heights may not deal well, but we pretend and take a photo anyway.
The learning process started immediately. We were told that Steve’s farm was a wean to to finish hog farm (meaning, they get pigs that have been weaned from their mothers and raise them until it’s time for them to be processed.) for Illini Farms. He has four hog houses – two for the smaller pigs, and two for pigs that are about 75 pounds and over. If you should ever get to this farm, as they do tours and the such, make sure you ask Steve how to wrangle a pig. It’s quite an art. It kind of reminds me of the way that I wrestle one of my children who has just been bathed and been told that it is now time for bed. Yeah, that.
One thing that most city people would not really be prepared for would be the smell. It hits you before you even step foot in the door, however when you enter, you wonder where it’s coming from since the pens are literally spotless. Well thanks to modern innovation, the pens all have slotted flooring, so that all urine and fecal matter can drop into an 8 foot pit and not contaminate any of the pigs food. If you’re thinking that they shouldn't care about the food being contaminated since it’s all slop anyway, you would be wrong my bacon-loving friends. The food is delivered in a timing system, and consists of grains such as corn, soy and wheat. They eat from stainless steel troughs and they are quite happy with it. The smell did stay with me for a few days. From my biology class memory, I know this is because the scents had embedded themselves into my lipids. When we asked Steve about this, and his wife, they both stated that it’s not really that noticeable to them. However, if she is away from him all day, she can certainly notice a scent.
I do remember learning when I was younger that pigs were social animals. I found out that my teacher did indeed know what they were talking about. As soon as our group walked through the doors, the pigs were pretty excited to come and interact with us. They also followed Steve around as he walked through the pens randomly petting or checking them. He did inform us that they are very careful not to refer to the pigs as pets, because then a connection is created that’s pretty tough to break once they have to go and be processed. While we’re talking about processing pigs, I was as relieved as can be by the actual processing process if you will. You don’t want any of the meat that you are going to ingest to go through any levels of stress when being slaughtered (the real word for processing) since it will toughen it up and make it nearly impossible to sell. I remember my aunt in Mississippi explaining that to me back in the day when she let me know that some ham hocks that I was enjoying came from the pig that I had just seen last year. She told me that you don’t want those pigs frightened, otherwise you have to wait a day or two until they calm down so that their meat can be tender for eating.
So when you’re picking out that ham for your Christmas dinner this year, know that it was processed by hardworking men and women getting up at the crack of dawn to make sure that everything is perfect. While I know that I’m a bacon lover, and pork chops, and heck – pork shoulder butt, I’ll be thinking the same thing.
The things that I really enjoyed learning were:
- The pigs are kept in climate controlled housing instead of outside to fare in the very random Illinois weather.
- Pigs are fed a diet that consists of grains and not random slop
- Pig pens are not messy in the least. They are formatted to make sure that the pigs have sanitary areas to eat, sleep and live in.
- Overcrowding is not an issue on this farm. All pens have more than enough room to allow the pigs to roam around as necessary.
- The “processing” of the pigs are done with as little stress as possible. No electricity and no knives (which is what I always thought.)
- Farmers realize that food must come from somewhere, and everyone is not going to be a vegetarian. They want to make sure that those who do consume pork products, are given the best product that they can find.
- Pig scent stays with you for a couple of days. I know that Mr. Houseful loves me, because he kissed me BEFORE telling me that I was smelly.