Farm to Fork: Oink Outing

This is the second in a series of posts about food from farm to fork, dirt to dinner, field to table, or however you think food gets into your kitchen. 

Where does bacon come from? Let’s ask Lisa and Homer Simpson.

Lisa: I’m going to become a vegetarian

Homer: Does that mean you’re not going to eat any pork?

Lisa: Yes.

Homer: Bacon?

Lisa: Yes, Dad.

Homer: Ham?

Lisa: Dad, all those meats come from the same animal.

Homer: Right, Lisa, some wonderful, magical animal!

Minnesota Pork is betting that many of us may not quite understand just how pigs on a farm become bacon on our breakfast plate. They organize Oink Outings and bring city folks to pig farms with a mission to demonstrate how farmers care for and raise pigs. Why would they do this? Well, farmers want to tell their part of the story.

“Oink Outings connect you with the Minnesota farmers who help ensure chefs and families can put healthy, nutritious pork on the dinner plate. We give you a behind-the-scenes look at Minnesota pig farms and pass along mouth-watering recipes from renowned local chefs.”

Our tour group and Wakefield Pork staff

Driving in the Minnesota countryside, neat and leafy fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and sugar beets are commonplace. How high is the corn? A short drive can tell you. It’s also easy to see cows and even bison grazing. But, where are the pigs?

I think that’s one of the reasons Minnesota Pork is taking the trouble to bring groups to pig farms – visibility. How can we get a better understanding of how pigs are raised when we can’t even see them. Pigs are usually raised in contained, temperature-controlled facilities to protect the pigs from diseases like the PRRS virus and keep the animals comfortable during hot summers and bitterly cold winters.

Here is a post, Questions Galore, from the Oink Outing I attended in July. I don’t want to seem big-headed, but I’m pretty sure my nearly endless stream of questions are the inspiration for the post title. I asked questions about absolutely everything.  I know a decent amount about our food supply, but my actual experience on a farm is extremely scant. It’s unlikely that I’ll get another chance to set foot on a pig farm, so I wanted to make the most of my time on the farm.

My group visited Wakefield Pork in southern Minnesota. I sincerely appreciate the Langhorsts for touring us around their pig operation and answering all my questions.  At 2,500 sows, their operation is one of the 25 largest pig farms in the nation. And yet, my overall impression is the pigs get individual care.

Previously, my only experience with pig farming was last summer when I visited a large farm near Redwood Falls, MN. This farmer raised pigs for Chipotle. He no longer raises pigs for them because he disagreed with the required practices. From what I read, the requirements intend to provide more humane care for the animals, including large open pens for more contact between animals and restricting antibiotic use. Unfortunately, he found that sows sometimes crushed their babies by rolling over on them and bigger animals picked on smaller ones by biting tails. The tails would often get infected and he was unable to treat the infections with antibiotics. In his opinion, the standards are misguided in some areas and do not provide the best care for the animals. I stood at the fence to the pig pen and thought it was messy and hot. The pigs were not running around excitedly, they were laying down in the shade, possibly to try to keep cool. I add this last part, because it contrasts starkly to what I witnessed on my Oink Outing.

Mary and Lincoln Langhurst of Wakefield Pork invited me, three
other moms, and a chef to tour their pig farming operation in southern
Minnesota. Minnesota Pork supports the Oink Outings to give city folks a chance
to see a pig farm, ask questions, and hopefully grow more confident about how
the animals are raised. Moms are a target audience because they know moms are
often the primary decision makers in grocery shopping and meal planning. That
is certainly true in my house.

My friend, Hydee, and I happily cuddling newborn piglets

Briefly, here are my impressions of their pig operation:

  • The grounds surrounding the barns are extremely neat and the air smells fine thanks to filtering the air through wood chips and corn cobs.
  • They maintain strict visitor regulations to comply with biosecurity provisions. This protects the pigs against any random diseases we may bring in on our clothing or shoes.
  • The barns are clearly working areas, but the concrete floors are clean as are the animal areas.
  • All the workers we met were extremely jazzed to work there. They walked around with a smile on their faces and passionately answered questions about raising the pigs. It surprised me, but several employees said they are happier with the biosecurity requirements because the pigs are healthier and severe disease outbreaks that can often mean massive casualties are now nonexistent.
  • The sows and newborn piglets are in the same pen for weeks. Staff monitor the babies to make sure they are getting the nutrition they need and to make sure the sows don’t accidentally roll over on their piglets.

Newborn piglets and Sow

  • The baby pigs squealed. All. The. Time. They weren’t mistreated, they just squeal. They squeal if they can’t reach the milk. They squeal if a sibling steps on them. They just squeal.
  • Staff do snip their tails when they are a few days old to prevent tail biting and subsequent infection.
  • The barn temperature is fairly warm and the pigs seemed extremely comfortable.
  • The pigs eat and sleep in pens. They seem to like the comfort of their own space. The staff we talked to explained that pigs are very territorial and enjoy having an area to call their own.

Happy pig in a pen

I’ll conclude by saying that I am very happy that I took the time to visit a pig farm. I believe the animals are treated humanely and I am extremely impressed by Wakefield Pork’s animal and land stewardship. I am very confident in the quality of pork produced and I continue to buy conventionally raised pork for my family.

Cuddly piglet just two days old

Whew! That was a long post. Please comment! Share your stories, feelings, and thoughts on the subject. Just please keep responses kind, even if you disagree with my impressions.

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12 thoughts on “Farm to Fork: Oink Outing

  1. Excellent post, Amy! Makes me want to visit and go on an Oink Outing. Such a contrast to the pictures of abused animals we so often see in the media. Your impressions are stunning–that “the pigs get individual care” and that they way they are raised at Wakefield is actually healthier and better than what you observed on the Redwood Falls Chipotle… Makes sense that farmers who respect their animals and avail themselves of the best technology would set the highest and most humane standards for production. Bravo, lady!

  2. Amy
    I found this post via Animal Ag Alliance on Facebook. My family raises cattle. Agriculture needs more people, like you, to go out and experience production and animal agriculture. There are so many misconceptions about our industry and testimonials from consumers are important to sharing our stories. Thank You for telling the truth about animal ag from the eyes of an urban Mom.

    http://theranchwifechronicles.com/

  3. As the daughter of a swine veterinarian, I have to thank you for giving such a wonderful account of your experience on a hog farm. Many agricultural practices that are in place to keep livestock healthy and happy are misinterpreted by those who are not involved in animal agriculture. Kudos to you for taking part in a program that supports our farmers and works hard to give the general public an ACCURATE depiction of American animal agriculture!!!

  4. Hi Amy!!!! Interesting post since ironically working for Chipotle I guess I’ve seen a different point of view. Below is one of the videos they show at new employee orientation which shows their take on pig farming and the other Youtube vidoe is the new “commercial” they just released virally and will start popping up in movie theaters next month. Hope all is well!!!

    • Hey Jeremy – You know I love eating at Chipotle and I think their video is well done. I can appreciate what they’re trying to do, but I don’t think it tells the whole story. I’ve done a lot of research on animal ag production and I know the producers/vets don’t use antibiotics willy nilly. For one thing, they’re expensive. I support local and organic ag, I just wish the debate wasn’t about one or the other. I do think both organic and conventional ag can and should coexist. I also wish Chipotle’s language weren’t so polarizing. In my opinion, there isn’t one perfect way to raise food producing animals. Just my two cents – dinner time and the kids are cranky!! Talk soon!

  5. Amy,
    Thank you for telling your story about the outing. We really appreciate your willingness to take a day of your time to learn about what we do and how we do it!

    Lincoln

  6. Amy,
    Great job telling the story of today’s farmers. I am so glad that you had an opportunity to go on an oink outing. Keep up the great work! You rock!

  7. Pingback: Farm to Fork: Oink Outing | My Blog

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