I've eagerly joined the ranks of Field Mom's touring the Illinois Farm scene and our first visit was to the Ward Family Hog Farm in Sycamore Illinois. As I flip through my notes I can still smell the odor of my little piggy friends wafting off the pages, this visit was not for those with sensitive snouts and bellies...no babies allowed.
I joined this group of Moms so that I could better understand how crops and livestock are farmed and sent to market. I was hoping to dispel a few rumors that are currently pervading our society regarding food safety precisely because its these rumors that send me running to anything labeled organic...and walking away penniless. And while I can't say that my visit to the hog farm rendered me an expert on the processes of how 270 pounds of "little" piggy gets to market, I can say that it clarified a few things for me.
Contrary to what we might remember from childhood movies and videos, pigs no longer wallow around outside in mud devouring buckets of slop tossed into their pens from well meaning farmers with big yellow boots. Instead they are kept inside covered facilities with slats on the floors to collect waste matter. There is intricate piping in place to funnel food and water into their pens. The piglets are kept separate from their older counterparts and then shuffled along to other housed facilities as they grow older and larger. When they are newly born they receive vaccines similar to how human newborns are vaccinated and they receive antibiotics and other medicines similar to humans when they get sick. At a glance, everything seems in order. The pigs looked well taken care of and were happy to see Steve (the farmer and our host) and curious about his guests. The food that they eat is a mix of soybean meal, corn, dried distillers grain and bakery products (i.e. Triscuits,bread, chips). The facility was well maintained, the farmers were gracious hosts and very open to answering a barrage of well intended questions, but despite this, there are two core concerns that make it hard for me to reconcile some of the rudimentary practices of pig farming; pigs are artificially inseminated and they are fed genetically modified grains.
I suppose until now I hadn't considered that artificial insemination is what allows pig farmers to keep up with the demands of human consumption. Piggy sex as we know it, or rather imagined it (if ever), is not financially savvy. Instead, there are 10-15 companies that are known for providing boar sperm to a multitude of farms. A quick Google search lead me to this website where one could peruse their online boar store and choose from which boar they would like to purchase sperm and the tools required for successful insemination. While this process is said to increase bio security (because the farmer is not bringing a mystery boar with the "potential of spreading disease" on the farm), and makes economical sense (because it reduces the time between pregnancy), eliminates the guesswork of stock numbers from week to week (a farmer could have upwards of 1000 newborn pigs per week), and eliminates the need to have feed and care for a boar (which can be a very aggressive animal at times); I'm curious as to how this might affect future hog farming to literally have the seed of the industry in the hands of just a chosen few (consider today's recession due to the merging and acquisition of a few large financial banks) or even genetic modification (i.e. enviropig study). Still, this same process of artificial insemination is also practiced by organic hog farmers leaving the biggest difference between the two practices being pig feed, GMO vs. non GMO
GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms)
Now that artificial insemination seems to be the standard in today's farming practices, one of the major things that differentiate organic farms from non-organic farms tends to be the feed. Organic farms supply animals with non-GMO products. GMO’s are in about 80% of the conventional processed food in the U.S. compared to nearly 50 countries including well developed countries like Japan, Australia and all of the European Countries,many of whom don't consider GMO's to be safe and have actually banned them, and at the minimum required that the products be labeled accordingly. Eeeek! Thus given that so much of U.S. produce is GMO, farmers are really hard pressed to find organic feed for their pigs at a reasonable cost. According to some farmers, going "organic" is not very sustainable given the volume of product that farmers must produce to even break even.
Furthermore, most pig farmers find that they aren't breaking even and are hedging their bets on the futures market through the Board of Trade! I would have never thought that my time providing tours at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange would come full circle!
So where does this leave me? It leaves me with a ton more questions…
- What are the safety measures in place to ensure that boar sperm is really just boar sperm and not modified boar sperm?
- What happens when the boar sperm bank decides they want to increase their prices?
- Are we devolving the pig and boar relationship by suppressing their natural urge to pro-create? (Side note – newly born boars are castrated and then housed alongside their female counterparts)
- Why is GMO the only way to go for so many farmers? If so,why are there so many organic farmers that are digging their boots in and prepared to take the financial loss for a product?
I know I've opened up about a dozen cans of worms...or whether cans of Spam (hee hee), but what an opportunity to begin to put the pieces together! I’ve been exploring food safety for so many years via books, articles, Netflix documentaries and a doting mother, that so much information is swirling around in my head. I’m so grateful for the Illinois Farm Family Organization for even offering such an opportunity to us Momma Bears. In the end, we’re all looking to do what’s best for our families and our friends. We all want to live long, healthy and happy lives and we know that it starts with what we put in our own little pot bellies.
A few more photos...
Do you know how your little piggy in the freezer made it to market?
Amina Nevels, Chicago