Reaching Out in Hog Country

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Independent hog farmers are beginning to feel like inhabitants of isolated desert islands, with oceans of corporate-controlled CAFOs (as well as  corn and soybean fields) separating them from their peers. That became clear at an LSP workshop on raising pork for niche markets held in Redwood Falls earlier this winter. “I think we’re one of two farms in Sibley County that farrows,” estimated one of the approximately 30 hog farmers who attended the workshop. As was made clear in the most recent Ear to the Ground podcast on the workshop, if we can find ways to make connections between innovative hog producers, then the result can be farms that are good for the environment, eaters and communities.

Hogs were once such reliable sources of regular income on small- and medium-sized farms that they were called “mortgage lifters.” They were a great way to walk corn off the farm profitably. No more: For the past two decades the production of hogs on diversified crop and livestock operations has been replaced by specialized CAFOs. This has resulted in more hogs concentrated on fewer farms.

According to the latest Census of Agriculture, between 2002 and 2007, the number of hog operations with 500 to 999 hogs dropped 47 percent to 2,382. Meanwhile, hog operations with 5,000 or more animals grew from 957 in 2002 to 1,128 in 2007. (The Minnesota hog industry mirrors national trends of more hogs on fewer farms).

Such trends mean more liquid manure is being concentrated in such a way that it poses a significant risk to the environment. It also concentrates wealth, decimating Main Streets in rural communities. And these trends are self-perpetuating. For example, as the hog industry becomes more dominated by mega-operations, it becomes increasingly difficult for small- and medium-sized independent hog farmers to share information about innovative production techniques.

For example, CAFOs are vectors for disease, and so bio-security concerns have made them virtual fortresses of porcine solitude. That means field days, tours and informal visits from other farmers are almost unheard of in many parts of hog country. As farmers and animal scientists made clear at the Redwood Falls workshop, traditional information channels such as feed dealers and veterinarians are even drying up—fewer farms means fewer purveyors of pork chow and medical care.

This is a big deal. Throughout the history of U.S. agriculture, true innovation has been rooted in farmer-to-farmer exchange of information, augmented by expertise from Extension educators, scientists and input suppliers.

It was this kind of networking that helped many swine farmers react to the industrialization of hogs by raising pork for niche markets. Around 15 years ago there emerged a serious consumer market for hogs that were raised without antibiotics in humane conditions. It didn’t hurt that hogs raised on deep straw and pasture also tasted better—providing an alternative to the almost inedible pork products churned out by CAFOs.

Farmers started selling that sustainably-raised pork direct to consumers, as well as through such firms as Niman Ranch and via certified organic markets.

It’s difficult to determine how much “niche” or “sustainable” pork is out there, but here’s an interesting side note to the Census of Ag‘s hog statistics: in 2002 there were 38, 210 farms with hog herd sizes of 24 animals or less. By 2007, the number of farms in that size range had grown by 15 percent. It’s a safe bet that the majority of those smaller herds are being raised in alternative systems.

But farmers who have made the transition to sustainable pork production methods can’t go it alone. Raising hogs without antibiotics or intensive climate-controlled housing is a major challenge, one that is a constantly moving target. Simply turning hogs out into an open field or utilizing an old dairy barn for farrowing won’t work anymore. When you switch from technology-intensive to management-intensive farming, one must adapt, and adaptation means keeping the flow of information going within the community.

During the Redwood Falls workshop, Iowa State animal scientist Dave Stender talked about how raising niche pork has been confronted by a new challenge: skyrocketing prices for feed, caused by record high prices for corn and soybeans. Hogs not raised in climate-controlled confinement tend to use more feed to get to market weight. Higher feed prices means niche producers need to pay close attention to conversion ratios, feeding trough equipment adjustments and alternative feedstocks in ways they didn’t have to when corn was $2 a bushel. Yuzhi Li, an animal scientist at the U of M’s West Central Research and Outreach Center, talked about how pig death rates in niche operations are well above where they should be, and even above similar niche operations in Europe.

“We’ve got to shift our time more to things that pay,” said Stender. “We spend time pitching manure, and we need to spend more time managing reproduction, for example.”

Stender cited data from a multi-state analysis that showed a significant profitability gap between the top 15 niche hog producers and the bottom 15 producers studied. Even though both groups received generally the same prices for their finished products, the top farmers garnered an average return of $17.43 per hundred pounds of pork after investment of capital and management, among other things, were taken into account. The bottom 15 producers got an average return of only $2.17.

It’s clear those bottom producers have a lot to learn from the ones at the top of the heap.

Workshops like this one are good places to re-ignite the kind of networking that used to be so easy back in the days when hog farmers ran into each other on a daily basis. As an example, one young woman who wants to start a hog operation from scratch asked the other workshop participants for some advice. The meeting soon turned into a beginning farmer brainstorming session on everything from how to research one’s market to determining overhead costs and labor needs.

Seeing such impromptu networking provides a glimmer of hope that independent, sustainable hog production has a future. It also bodes well for the future of rural communities in general.

“When we think of success, that idea of success is broader than individual farmers,” Amy Bacigalupo, a western Minnesota hog farmer who directs LSP’s Farm Beginnings program, told workshop participants. “Successful farmers need to be part of a vibrant, sustainable community.”

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