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.

Farm to Fork: I Think Our Food Supply is Safe

This is the first 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. Look for an upcoming post on my experience on a modern pig farm in southern Minnesota.

I am not a farm girl. I live comfortably in the suburbs. I buy our groceries at the local grocery store or a farmer’s market. I do not know how to drive a tractor and I have never mucked out a barn, milked a cow, gathered eggs, or fed pigs.

Why is it then that I get upset when I read or hear criticism about our country’s farmers? I don’t have a strong connection to agriculture, but I do know where my food comes from. I also know the vast majority of food companies take their job of producing safe food very seriously; their reputation depends on it.  And when I think about agriculture in the U.S., I have a positive feeling about farms and farmers. I believe most farmers–conventional or organic–are hard-working people who care about the land and the animals they raise. I struggled writing this post, because I think I am in the minority.

Minnesota Farmland

Local, organic farms are trending strong in Minneapolis and I think in many cities around the country. Terms like “family farms” are in favor and conventional or modern agriculture has been labeled as “factory farming.”  Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the movie, “Food, Inc.” are getting a lot of airtime about the benefits of local foods and organic farming, but I don’t think they tell the whole story.

I support local farms in theory, and in practice when I can, because I definitely see the benefit of reducing food miles and sourcing food locally.  I majored in ecology and environmental studies in college and I understand the impact of farm runoff in our waters and biodiversity. But, I also know the reality of our world’s food shortages. Small farms will not be able to meet global food needs. In my opinion, conventional farming still has an important role in producing food. And I do not think it is productive to polarize the discussion by labeling modern agriculture as “bad” and family farms as “good.” Pitting farmers against each other does not help move the conversation forward.

Our family of four is on a budget and I buy food we can afford.  Most of the food we buy is a product of conventional agriculture. That means our produce was grown with the aid of fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified (GMO) seeds to increase yields. And our meat is typically from larger farms where animals are raised in large facilities with the aid of technology and interventions like antibiotics.  I feel comfortable eating this food and serving this food to my family.

I’ll risk getting some hate mail, but this is what I think about food:

1. I think our food supply is safe.

2. I think most farmers use pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics judiciously.

3. I will eat food grown from GMO seeds. I am pro-biotechnology and I don’t have concerns about eating GMO corn or wheat.  I think our regulatory system is fair and monitors producers and seed companies well. That said, I am concerned about pollen drift from GMOs creating random hybrids with wild type plants, and I see inequities in the economics of biotech crops that could and should be improved.

4. I do not believe in labeling a modern farm as a “factory farm” just because they use technology or have a large operation. In my opinion, advancements in agriculture are generally good for farmers and for increasing yields.

5. I was vegetarian for over a decade, but I eat meat now. I was a bad vegetarian and was not eating a balanced diet. By adding meat and more vegetables into my diet, I’m eating far fewer processed grains and I feel healthier. I buy conventionally raised meat and vegetables for our family and I feel good about it.

6. I believe the majority of animal producers treat their animals humanely and care about the animals on their farms.

7. I do think some aspects of farming can be improved and would love to see more efforts to control non-point-source pollution and agricultural run-off.

8. I have read extensive reports on our world food supply, and I do believe we need large-scale farming operations using the best technology available to feed our planet. I think local and organic foods have a place in our food system, just as traditional crops are important. I do not think small, local farms can exclusively meet our world’s food needs.

9.  Our family joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for one season and it was not for us. We do not regularly cook with sunchokes, black radishes, kale, fennel, and sorrel. That said, I did appreciate the parsnips, basil, garlic scapes, and eggplant. I would join a CSA again in a heartbeat if we could get more of the items I am accustomed to preparing: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, zucchini, squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, beans, corn, and carrots. We visit local farmers markets when we can and happily buy items in season that I can’t find at the grocery store, like big bunches of fresh mint and basil.

10. I worry about childhood obesity and I am trying to teach my daughters how to cook and how to have a good relationship with food. We eat our meals together at the kitchen table and most meals include fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and meat. I want to give my daughters a clear message to eat healthy food and I worry about muddying the waters by adding “but only if it’s local, sustainable, grass-fed, free-range, organic.”  I want to first encourage them to know how food is grown and raised and then we’ll cover the finer points.

I want to be clear that I have a “to each their own” philosophy on most things and do not want readers to think I am disparaging local, organic foods or encouraging people not to support those products. I’m not. I just think conventional foods have a place in our food system too, and at the moment they fit in our tight grocery budget better.

Our country is in economic turmoil and it seems to be getting worse, not better. Many families are likely on a food budget and unable to afford local or organic foods that are generally more expensive.  I decided to share my perspective on our food supply in case there is someone else out there that feels the way I do. I don’t feel bad about buying conventional foods for my family and I hope others don’t either. Mostly, I am grateful that we have plenty of food on our table and enough to share with others in need.

Amy is Amy On The Prairie, a working mom of two young daughters, wife to a really tall engineer, provider to two rescue cats, comfort foodie, food writer, and former world traveler. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.