Where Does a Pig Want To Live?
What made you commit to eating pasture-raised meat? Was it environmental concerns? Did you feel like you needed to make a change for your health? Were you horrified by the industrial standards for eating meat?
I can remember the first time I became aware of CAFO farms while in college. I was reading a popular book (Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer). The descriptions of the stench and horror of industrial farms was so visceral, and unlike anything I could have imagined. I was puzzled - and remain so - at the fact that people treat animals this way.
I've been thinking about that this week, particularly in regard to our hogs. I've been working my way through Cooked by Michael Pollan, an investigation of how we cook and why. Pollan spends the first section of his book exploring whole hog barbecue in North Carolina, but he quickly runs into a problem: "old-fashioned" barbecue that has to contend with modern, industrialized pigs. He writes:
How authentic could 'authentic barbecue' really be if the object of its tender ministrations was now this re-engineered and brutalized animal - the modern creation of science, industry, and inhumanity? The Joneses didn't think there was much to be done about the modern pig, and in this they fall very much into the mainstream of barbecue men. Today, that most democratic sandwich is underwritten by the most brutal kind of agriculture.
Raising pigs has made me understand what Pollan means by a "democratic" sandwich. It's cheap! It appeals to everybody! But, as we've become increasingly aware, things aren't really cheap or appealing if they're not done right. There is a significant cost to raising pigs industrially - it's just not reflected in the amount of dollars spent on the sandwich.
We turn to pasture-raised meat because we don't want to eat a "brutalized" or "re-engineered" animal. We want to eat an animal that is not only nutritious, but also one that has lived a good life. I've found that this has as much to do with the animal and its environment as it does with our willingness to see from their perspective. In other words, can we imagine what a pig wants?
Like most things, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. You have to know your breed, and their particular personality traits, to really understand what they want, and how they will be happy. You have to rely on a history and resources that has been handing down knowledge about what these pigs are like and how they want to live.
This year, we're raising Red Wattle pigs. They are friendly and gentle; even at 300 pounds, our kids can safely participate alongside us in the morning chores. This is important - a family farm should be a safe place for everyone to work together.
However, this gentleness doesn't just come from their personality - it also comes from matching their desires with their environment. The pigs are calm because they want to be in the woods. Their natural habitat is in the forest. To raise them elsewhere might provoke changes that would disrupt the dynamic on the farm.
I think this is a lesson worth remembering - and one we should keep in mind as we look at how farms care for their livestock. Do your farmers know who their animals are? Do they know what they desire? Do they prioritize these things above their own needs or preferences?
The qualify of life for animals depends not only upon compassionate and healthy living conditions, but also ensuring that animals spend their lives in the habitats and places they are made for.
This is something we can all participate in. Get to know the breeds your farmers are raising. Educate yourself on the history of those breeds. Use this knowledge to inform the decisions you make when you select the meat or products that you will consume.
Want to learn more about the Red Wattle pigs we're raising on the farm? Thanks to the wonderful resources at The Livestock Conservancy, you can find more information here.