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Gunthorp with some of his pigs on his farm in Indiana—they’re raised on pasture, wandering the property, the way it used to be done.
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1998 was an ugly year for pig farmers. They remember it the way Cubs fans remember 1969. The year of the Monster Pork Glut. In 1996 and ‘97 pork on the hoof sold for 45, 50 cents a pound, sometimes more—enough for pig farmers to make a healthy profit. So they produced like crazy in ‘98, and by December the price had dropped to eight cents a pound in some spots. Pigs were everywhere. Slaughterhouses couldn’t kill them fast enough. The government announced it would buy pork and give it to the Russians. Farmers were losing an estimated $20 to $75 on every pig they took to market.
It was Greg Gunthorp’s fourth year as a pig farmer, if you don’t count the time he put in on his father’s and grandfather’s farm. He likes to call himself a fourth-generation pig farmer, but in ‘98 he feared he’d be the last generation. “I actually sold pigs for less than what my grandpa sold them for during the Depression. I decided it’s time to either quit or do something different. And I couldn’t imagine the thought of quitting.” So he did something different. He called Charlie Trotter’s.
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Gunthorp, now 37, remembers riding the tractor with his grandfather before he was old enough to go to school. “I’d go every morning with my grandpa to feed the sows and baby pigs. I was maybe four years old. It’s a neat experience for a little kid: the sows in their huts and the little baby pigs running around. It’s just something you can’t get out of you.”
Gunthorp’s father and grandfather (and his great-grandfather before them) worked a 600-acre farm not far from the place Gunthorp farms now, near LaGrange, Indiana, in the northeastern part of the state. They grew corn and soybeans and kept about 40 acres in woods and another 100 acres in pasture grasses and clover. The pigs would wander the property helping themselves to the grasses, rooting in the woods for acorns, and “hogging down the corn” in the fall. Today you’d call it raising pigs on pasture, but then it didn’t need a name—that’s just the way it was done. Where today crop farmers grow corn and soybeans and sell them at an elevator that sells them to a feed processor that turns them into pig food and sells it to a pig farmer—a convoluted supply chain requiring tractors and trucks and gallons upon gallons of chemicals and diesel fuel—in those days the pigs simply walked to their food. Where today pig farms consist mostly of buildings equipped with heaters and huge fans for ventilation, with pigs packed so close inside that liberal amounts of antibiotics are needed to keep them from infecting one another, the Gunthorp property was dotted with half-round metal shelters where the pigs happily endured the winter by snuggling together on beds of insulating straw. (Amazing fact: The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of all the antibiotics used in the United States are fed to livestock prophylactically.) Where today pig excrement is collected into vast foul-smelling lagoons whose contents are then sprayed on nearby fields or trucked away, in those days the pigs naturally spread their manure in the course of their daily travels, fertilizing the fields that produced their feed. And pig farms didn’t stink.
It was a sane, sensible, and relatively sustainable way of making pork. But it vanished in little more than a generation. In 1965 the USDA counted more than a million “hog operations"—farms that raised at least one pig—and a national population of about 50 million pigs. The average herd was about 48 pigs per farm. At the end of 2007 the pig population was more than a third higher—nearly 67 million—living on fewer than one-tenth as many farms. And a tenth of those farms—a mere 7,772 with herds of 2,000 or more—accounted for more than four-fifths of the pigs in the country. Most of these producers work under contract to one of the big packers, promising to deliver a certain number of pigs over a certain period of time. Sometimes the contract specifies a price, protecting the farmer from fluctuations in the market, but more often the price is pegged to the spot market, which ensures the packer a steady supply without guaranteeing anything to the farmer. Sometimes the packer owns the pigs, and provides the feed and the drugs, and even employs the vet. The owner of the land might call himself a pig farmer, but he could just as accurately be described as the production manager of a protein factory.
This industrial style of pork production—the “concentrated animal feeding operation,” or CAFO—was sold to farmers on a few different levels. For one, it was presented as a solution to common problems like parasites. Because they are fond of rooting in the dirt, pigs are highly susceptible to parasitic worms, whose eggs can lie viable for years in the soil. One way to manage that problem is to put the pigs in a building with slatted floors and carefully control what they eat. CAFOs were also seen as modern, scientific, businesslike—a way for farmers to maximize productivity and get with the de facto government program embodied in the now immortal words of Eisenhower-era secretary of agriculture Ezra Taft Benson: “Get big or get out.” A third selling point was lifestyle: Why slog through the mud and wrangle stubborn animals on a cold, rainy day when you could be indoors managing a dry, well-lighted mechanized feeding facility?
The Gunthorps didn’t buy it. “We never had pigs in a building. My dad and grandpa didn’t feed all the chemicals and all that crap, and they got production just as good as the guys who put their pigs in barns. And it’s mostly because they understood the animal and worked along with nature. Lots of guys told my dad, and even told me when I started to get bigger, ‘Man, that’s way too much work—you guys are stupid. You ought to put up some barns and raise pigs the way you’re supposed to.’
“All those guys who told us that, they don’t have pigs anymore.”
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Photograph: Kevin Banna