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Food for Thought

Better Bacon

Sustainable pork producers challenge the meat factories

By Brian DeVore

Tom Frantzen guns his four-wheeler across the farmyard, a cart full of empty feed buckets rattling behind. The morning hog chores are done, and he’s heading out to make hay before a July thunderstorm roars in. In an age when hog production is dominated by hellish corporate factory farms, environmentally conscious consumers are keeping this northeastern Iowa farmer a happy independent.

"People are casting a ballot for the type of food system they want," says Frantzen, standing near the junked remains of a hog-confinement building. "That sends a tremendously powerful message back to rural America about what sort of farming is valued."

Growing numbers of bacon eaters want no part of intensely polluting CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), and they’re voting with their pocketbooks. Five years ago Frantzen and his wife, Irene, abandoned confinement and adopted a version of Västgötmodellen, a Swedish system that takes advantage of pigs’ instincts to nest and socialize. Frantzen’s animals live in roomy, Quonset-style "hoop houses" with deep straw bedding, a low-stress environment that reduces the need for antibiotics. Farmers like the hoops too, because setting them up costs about one-third as much as building a confinement facility.

The hoop house’s open design makes it easy to haul in fresh straw in the winter months, when it’s too cold for the hogs to roam in pasture. The bedding absorbs and mixes with the waste, creating a composting pack rather than a water pollutant. This stable, relatively dry fertilizer is used on crops that are fed to the animals, closing the nutrient loop. "We treat manure as an asset rather than a liability," says Minnesota sustainable hog farmer Jim VanDerPol. Factory farms, on the other hand, store manure in multimillion-gallon lagoons, which have been responsible for dozens of catastrophic spills into waterways. Safer air is also a benefit: A 1999 study conducted for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that swine hoops emitted one-seventh as much toxic hydrogen sulfide gas per hog as CAFOs.

Four out of five U.S. hogs are raised in CAFOs, but change is in the air. In Iowa, a million porkers a year are produced in hoops. That’s only 4 percent of the state’s total, but almost all of that growth has been in just six years. As the environmental and health costs of factory farms become better known, more and more shoppers are willing to pay a premium for sustainably farmed pork—about $2 more per pound than the mass-produced variety, higher still for organic. But they also get better taste, with food critics from the New York Times and Bon Appétit singing the praises of sustainable pork.

Eco-pigs come in numerous varieties. To be certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the hogs must have been given organic feed, access to the outdoors, and no antibiotics. The Frantzens, who produce about a thousand pigs a year, market some through Organic Valley (www.organicvalley.com), and others through Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com), which, while not organic, specializes in meat raised without drugs in humane conditions. Good places to search for good pork are the farmer databases at www.foodroutes.org or www.thefoodalliance.org/mwfarmers.html. But beware when "natural" appears on a label—it says nothing about farming methods, and applies mostly to minimal processing. Even environmental bad boy Premium Standard Farms (whose manure spills have resulted in multimillion-dollar legal settlements) has an "all natural" product.

The company wouldn’t have taken that small step, however, unless it knew the public wanted it. The more consumers seek out the other other white meat, the more seriously feed suppliers, meat processors, and food retailers will take their concerns. Says Iowa sustainable farmer Colin Wilson, scooping a lively piglet out of the straw and wrestling it into his arms: "If we’re going to be sustainable, then all the way down the chain you’ve got to have people working together."


Brian DeVore is the editor of the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Letter.

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