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April 28, 2005

Animal Farming

Photo © Allison V. Smith/The Oxford American.
All rights reserved.

The Oxford American (link) has just published its first ever Southern Food Issue (spring 2005). Edited by John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, this issue is a virtual picnic basket full of finely crafted Southern-style food writing. Yep, there's an ode to okra. Frog-gigging, of course. A previously unpublished essay by Carson McCullers ("Member of the Wedding") is quite the coup. Pete Wells, the James Beard Award winning food writer, stuck his nose in a factory pig farm and came away with his usual brilliant insights. We thank him for his generosity in allowing us to reprint his work.

Animal Farming

By PETE WELLS - Oxford American Magazine - Spring 2005 © 2005 Pete Wells. Reprinted with permission.
All rights reserved.

Either you've smelled a pig farm up close or you haven't. I have. We were in Western Kentucky, south of Owensboro, in the middle of winter. A large, outgoing man in overalls was on the phone talking to a neighbor up the road.

"Listen," he said, "I've got some people here to see me, and they're really pork people." It was true. My friend and I had left Louisville long before dawn, nearly running down two different Amish buggies on twisting back roads (I'm not a hundred percent pro-modernization myself, but come —headlights!) because the man in the overalls cures a powerful good bacon. "They've come all the way from New York" – this was only half true, as one of us had come from California, but for our host the phrase all the way from New York seemed to hold a totemic power —" and they love bacon and ham. What I'd like to know is, would it be all right with you if I brought them over to see you, because I know they'd really like to see your pigs. They've never seen a hog farm before. They're just pork people, and they love meat."

If you wanted to flatter me, one excellent way would be to call me a pork person. My host wasn't talking for my benefit, however. After he hung up, he explained that his neighbor the pig farmer was skittish about showing his operation to outsiders, because of the "animal-rights people" and the militant vegetarians and others who simply were not pork people. Some of them, in fact, could be downright hostile. "Hog people are the most particular people of any people around" he said. "So I had to promise them that you all love pork." For insurance, he grabbed a couple pounds of bacon in each hand. "If you offer a man bacon," he said, "you can get him to do anything."

The first thing we did after we parked in the pig-farm driveway was pull clear plastic booties over our shoes. The point was to prevent us from tracking pig excrement, and whatever evil tiny organisms might be living in pig excrement, from the farm to another area that didn't normally contain pig excrement. Already we could smell it. And then the farmer opened the door of a long metal hut with a peaked roof and we stepped inside. It was like leaving an air-conditioned room on an August afternoon, except instead of walking into a wall of heat we had walked into a wall of stench. It stopped us flat.

The Kentuckians laughed at us, nicely. For some reason, they didn't have tears in their eyes.

We turned right, clattering down a walkway of perforated metal that reminded me of the dock at a marina. Like a practiced drunk, I tried to hide the wobble in my step.

We entered a long room. The room was split in two by another metal walkway. You looked to one side and you saw pig, pig, pig, pig, pig off into the distance, and coming back you saw pig, pig, pig, pig, pig. These were enormous sows and they were all lying down. When I focused on the one closest to me, I saw something I'd missed at first: baby pigs. A row of them had lined up at the sow's teats. More were scattered behind her back. The room was a nursery for pigs born a week or two before. Like all baby mammals, their job was to suck and to sleep, so they stayed close to their mother, the food source. This is where the cages came in. Each sow was locked inside metal ribs about four feet high. This enclosure gave her enough room to lie down on one side, standup, and lie down on the other side. She could rotate 180 degrees, but other than that, she was pinned in place. This arrangement kept her from rolling over and killing her offspring. The crushing weight of the mother pig and her love of rolling around constitute an evolutionary design flaw that would naturally diminish the size of the average litter. What evolution seems willing to tolerate modern agriculture cannot abide. Lose a few piglets and there go the season's profits. Lose money for a few seasons and there goes the farm.

I've never been happier to leave a building. I stood outside and filled my nostrils with freezing air. The crippling odor is what you get when you raise so many pigs so close together. Their excrement drops through holes in the floor and runs together in stinking underground canals.

DIRECTLY IN FRONT of the nursery was a white frame house flanked by a couple of shade trees, their branches now silvery and bare. The farmer's family had lived there since before the Civil War. The farm dog barked in a slanting orbit around my ankles as I stared at the shingles and the windowpanes and the gutters and thought how remarkable it was that a few dead piglets could be enough to pry this family legacy from its family.

After a century and a half, this iconic farm with its rolling fields and barns had slouched into monoculture, which is to say it had only one crop to speak of, pigs, and nut just any pigs but baby pigs. Piglets live here only until they are old enough to wean, when they are hauled away to another farm to be finished out. On our way out we passed such a farm, and we went to see it —after we'd thanked the piglet farmer and peeled off our soiled booties and grimaced at jokes about how thoroughly the fetid indoor atmosphere had wilted us.

You might suppose that knowing what we were in for would have made our second hog farm old hat, but pig shit seems to attack the senses with fresh vigor at each encounter. There wasn't as much reason to linger here, though, because this farm didn't have the nursery's elaborate machinery. Each time we opened a door on a new barn, a roomful of pigs skittered away from the door like ball bearings on a tilted floor. At some signal inaudible to humans, they froze and stared at us. In their unity, their nervousness, their speed, and their surprising grace, they reminded me of high-strung ballerinas; standing at attention on their hooves, they even seemed to be on pointe.

The bacon changed hands; we said thanks and goodbye. Rolling down the dirt driveway to the main road, I looked back at another farmhouse. This one would not be lost due to a mother pig who suddenly took a notion to poke all four legs into the air, but it was vulnerable in other ways. To protect his investment, the farmer dosed his hogs with antibiotics, hormones, and feed engineered to stimulate each pig to pack on the maximum padding of pork in the shortest possible time. Through breeding, the pigs have themselves been engineered for the same purpose.

"That must be great, getting your pork from right up the road," I remarked to our host.

"Oh no," he said. "We get our pork from Missouri." There was no slaughterhouse or packing plant in the area, he explained; hogs that had been finished out generally left the state to die.

The crooked path, then, runs like this: A farmer breeds pigs and weans them. Then he hands them over to somebody else to feed and fatten. At about six months, when the hogs have grown profitable to sell, they are trucked away to a plant in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana. If his neighbor down the road cures ham, he will have to re-import the freshly killed pork from a company that can't tell him where the pork was raised. Not that it really matters, since commodity pork is a standardized, uniform product that tastes the same all across the country. The threads tying pigs to the land, farmers to their pigs, ham and bacon to their place of origin—what the French call terroir—have been neatly snipped. This is what we call factory farming—all the risks of agriculture accounted for by cages for sows and prophylactic drugs and feed formulated by scientists. The hog has been bred to fit into this pork-making machine. Somebody must benefit from the arrangement, but it's hard to see who it is. Not the pigs, who instead of rooting around in the dirt spend their lives in crowded indoor pens, turning into nervous wrecks. Not the farmer, who gets to keep his house unless the commodities market sends pork prices so low that he has to sell his herd at a loss. The consumer, at least, gets cheap pork chops! Pale gray before cooking and after, they are as delightful to eat as a wet stack of newspapers. The ruthless logic of capitalism has produced a system so floridly, spectacularly illogical it might have been dreamed up by a benign Soviet commissar.

The economic revolution in farming practices touched off a minor social revolution, or at least a redistribution. In the days when every farm kept a handful of pigs, the cut of meat you ate marked your class rather precisely. Living high on the hog was a luxury reserved for the rich, who could afford chops, loins, and the meaty end of the haunch. As you traveled down the pig, you descended the socioeconomic staircase. If you had some fresh bacon cut from the belly, "you gave it to the hired help," says Larry Cizek of the National Pork Board. Pig feet—slippery, stringy, gooey pig feet—found their way into bean pots, stews, pickle jars, blues lyrics, and a hundred other ingenious solutions for making life richer without benefit of actual riches. The less attractive side of this system was the way chitlins, ribs, and pig feet were used as racial slurs to stereotype the poor blacks who ate them. Today, the high/low split has been turned upside down. I've been served trotters on French china by candlelight in Orange County, California, and it would be easier for me to count the expensive joints in Manhattan where pork belly is not on the menu. Urban shoppers now pay a staggering premium—eight dollars a pound, sometimes more—for pork raised the old-fashioned way. Meanwhile, chops can be had for less than two dollars a pound, putting them within reach of everyone but the most desperate; if you can scrape together enough dough for a trip to the supermarket, you, too, can live high on the hog. Fat and flavor, once the secret consolation of poor people, are luxury goods today, while do-gooders campaign to keep those poor people healthy by taking away their fast-food burgers and fries. A fairly straightforward irony, I suppose, but not on that makes you feel good about America.

We got back in the car; neither my traveling companion nor I would ever be comfortable again using "family farm" as a synonym for everything wholesome and traditional. As we rolled down the road, our friend the bacon maker at the wheel, all at once we started choking. The car smelled like pig shit. The odor had soaked deep into our clothes and even our hair. (Over the coming days, we would discover that it was a remarkably tenacious aroma, and that it clung fiercely to wool sweaters and fleece jackets.) Though it was still cold outside, we rolled the windows all the way down.

"This is nothing," said our host. "You ought to smell it in summertime."

"Do you ever get used to it?" I asked him.

"If it's your business, you like the smell," he said, "because it smells like money."

© 2005 Pete Wells. All rights reserved.

This article may not be reproduced in any form without permission of the author.

Pete Wells is a 3-time James Beard Award winning food writer, former Food and Wine Magazine Editor and currently the Articles Editor at Details Magazine.

Oxford American Magazine.

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Posted by Bruce at April 28, 2005 06:23 AM

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