visiting a pig farm

the pig farm

I don't know what I expected before we visited a big pig farm in Iowa. We visited a small pig farm last year, here on the island where we live. It was idyllic and lovely, but it was small. There were maybe 40 pigs there, total. Visiting it gave me an image of a country made up entirely of small farms, with pigs roaming free outdoors, with everyone eating free-range, pastured pork.

The other day, after our visit to Iowa and this pig farm, I was talking with a dear friend of mine who grew up in Wisconsin. When I mentioned that my mind has shifted away from the vision of everything free-range and small, like the archetypal return to Eden, she laughed. “I'm so tired of that idea. Sure, if you want to feed a few people who can afford to pay for that pork, you can run a little wooded farm. But most of the people espousing that have absolutely no idea what it's like to truly run a farm. If you want to feed a lot of people, you need a big farm.”

After our visit to Craig Christianson's farm, I know that too.

I'll tell you one thing. Whatever my expectations were, they were all changed by this visit.

This is the front part of the Christianson's property, not far from their house. Walk off the shaded porch (away from the iced tea and warm chocolate chip cookies), stride right for about 90 seconds, and you are on the pig farm.

This is a family farm.

craig christianson and paul kahan

This is Craig Christianson, the owner of this farm. He's the fourth generation of his family to raise pigs on this spot of land in Iowa and he's proud of the work he does.

Cathy Lee, our guide through this tour of Iowa, told us before we met Craig: “Things have been really tough for the people who produce pork the last few years. They've all been losing money. Craig told me that last year was like walking into the kitchen before work every morning and putting $1000 of his own money on the table, knowing it was just going away.”

It takes some kind of special fortitude to work under those conditions.

On his right is Chef Paul Kahan, who has a number of highly regarded restaurants in Chicago. He and José Garces were on this tour of Christianson's farm that day in Iowa. He had lots of questions and listened. Watching him and Garces made me think about the thousands of restaurants in the United States, both high-end restaurants and diners in Ogden, Iowa. How would those restaurants function without the people who produce pork for this country? My head is dizzy thinking of the number of strips of bacon served for breakfast every day in this country.

People who eat at Kahan's restaurants can afford to pay $23 for a plate of country ribs, made from pork produced on a small family farm. But not everyone can. What do those folks eat?

If they're lucky, they're eating pork made from the pigs raised on Christianson's farm.

trucks at the pig farm

Everything on the farm was clean and well-organized, from the stalls where the piglets are born to the trucks that take them away to market.

part of the pig farm

The entire place felt warm. Even though there were something like 2500 pigs there, taken from birth to the market (farrow to finish, in pork production terms), the whole place felt calm and well-kept. It felt like a home.

okay, what are these

Being in Iowa gave both Danny and me a new perspective on pork. No question. We're also both trying to work out how to put in words.

One thing I can say now is this: if you are in Iowa, you know that pork is a vital business. Corn, soybeans, and pigs — these keep the people of Iowa alive.

The conversation about whether or not everyone should be eating small-farm, pastured pork isn't happening in Iowa with the same intensity as it does on either coast. Those of us on the west or east coast might consider that a shame. People in Iowa know that most pig farmers are doing honorable work.

People in Iowa take great pride in feeding the world. They feel they are doing a great job.

We do too.

corn country

You'll see that I don't have any photographs inside the barns, or of the pigs themselves. There's a reason for that.

Rubbing his brow in frustration, Craig Christianson asked us not to take photographs.

It wasn't because anything horrible was going on in those buildings. Quite the contrary. I was amazed by how clean, quiet, and calm each building we entered felt to all of us there. While the pigs were kept in stalls, they seemed content. Before visiting the farm, I didn't know that farmers like Christianson keep mother pigs and their piglets in separate stalls because the enormous mother pigs sometimes roll over their own babies otherwise. “We save more pigs this way.” I held one of the piglets while I listened to Christianson. Its heart was beating fast from the natural nervousness a small animal has about being held by a human. But it was otherwise calm. Every pig we saw was perfectly comfortable with humans being around, because people are in and out of the buildings at least half a dozen times a day, checking on everything.

As Christianson said, these pigs and this business are his livelihood. Why would he do anything to endanger them?

So there was nothing to hide. I wish I could show you photographs here.

Christianson asked us not to take photographs because he's had bad experiences with people taking shots of his pigs, then photo-shopping them, turning them into propaganda. He was trying to protect his business.

Before we visited, I worried that the pigs might be filthy and squealing, kept in somewhat squalid conditions. Instead, they were content and clean. Yes, there were hundreds and hundreds of them, and they were kept in stalls. But I don't know how one would run a large-scale business, and check on the feeding and health of that many pigs, without this system.

Later, I asked Cathy Lee many pointed questions about pork production in this country. “How many of the places producing pork are actually CAFOs?” I asked her. (CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.)

“Well,” she said, ” you just visited one.”

I looked out at the flat black earth of Iowa before us as we drove. On either side of the road, for miles of driving was a cornfield, or a soybean field, or a pork farm. Everywhere growing things intended to feed people.

“How many of the pig farms in Iowa are like Craig Christianson's?” I asked her.

“He's obviously one of the best. But almost all of the farms here are like his.”

Look, I know as I write this that I'm going to get angry emails and nasty comments from this piece. Some of you will say that we were brainwashed, or that we saw the one good farm in Iowa and that we are spreading propaganda. Talking about meat in this country raises heated arguments.

But I know what we saw.

Both Danny and I have enormous respect for Craig Christianson and the way he runs his farm.


60 thoughts on “visiting a pig farm

  1. That gives me so much hope for the state of livestock farms. I know most people hear horror stories about thousands of animals, crammed into tiny areas, so this is promising for me. I will say one thing though – I worked at a company that sold the packaging to companies that slaughter and package meats to get broken down and repackaged at the grocery store. And those places? They’re horrific. The scale, the disregard for an animal’s misery – it’s beyond horrific, truly. Terrible for the animals, terrible for the workers too. Granted, I can’t say the names of the companies, but I can promise you that they’re the ones you find at any big box grocery store. They’re everywhere. And while the beginning of those animals’ lives are happy, the ends might not be. That’s the next step, in my opinion.

  2. I’m not angry, but you know you saw a farm cherry-picked by the marketing organization in charge of getting people to eat more pork, and specifically you saw it on a day when they knew you were coming. The fact that they wouldn’t let you take photos — even you, who are on the pork board’s payroll — says a lot to me. They’re counting on the fact that you don’t know enough about farming to see what the underlying issues are, issues that would be obvious in a photo.

    I’m sure Craig Christianson is a nice guy, and is raising his hogs in the best ways possible within the limits of a CAFO environment. But that’s not saying he’s doing good, I’m sorry. Telling you that he crates pigs to “save” them is unconscionable; they don’t need to be crated if they’re raised ethically.

    I’m a die-hard carnivore and a big fan of pork (and you), but I can’t get behind what you’re saying here. CAFOs are not the answer; eating less meat is. “Feeding a lot of people” from a single is the problem, not the goal.

  3. Thanks for this post. While there are hog raisers out there that don’t fit this standard there are still many who do take care of their animals and their farm like Craig Christianson. Not every farmer is a bad one. I’m glad you were able to showcase one of the good guys.

  4. A fascinating perspective. I’m interested in how this trip will affect your and Danny’s pork-buying habits: do you still plan to buy only (or primarily) free-range pastured pork? Do you think it’s important that people do so, if they can afford it? Or do you plan on supporting more CAFO-grown pork now that you’ve seen one you approve of? What about other types of meat?

    I don’t eat pork for religious reasons, so I’m not fishing for answers one way or another. I’m just curious what this will mean for you and your family from now on.

  5. Shauna,

    I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to read your post. You made excellent points and presented a point of view that is all but missing from the raging debate over food in this country – and for that I cannot thank you enough.

  6. I remember visiting Iowa just after graduation from high school. Table flat, corn and soybeans as far as the eye could see, and pig farms.
    I remember the smell when the wind would change, kind of earthy, a bit fragrant but not unpleasant.
    Never got to visit one of those farms, too busy putting up pucker pickles. But I’ve always thought of that visit when I see movies like Food Inc.
    Still want my pork organic if possible but nice to know that farmers like Mr. Christianson exist. They do right by their animals.

  7. I’m happy you found a nice farm/farmer, but I have to disagree that we in Iowa aren’t having that conversation. In fact, sustainable farming (which, frankly, I don’t think includes CAFOs) is exploding. Luckily, we’re in a state that has vast stretches of arable land at prices that allow young and small farms to enter the market.
    And we’re also starting to talk about that corn and soy, and how it’s not only NOT feeding the world (most of it goes to industrial purposes or feeding livestock) but it’s making it harder for farmers to make a living.
    I’m so glad you left Iowa liking it, but I wish you could have seen more of the progressive community that exists here and that’s starting to take hold, not because it’s a trend but because it appeals to our basic values: community, independence, and quality that you want to pass on to your children.

  8. I’m SO glad you had this opportunity! Most people will never have a chance to see how much care goes into raising livestock. It’s really too bad that certain terms (which I refuse to use) have been tossed around carelessly by those who think farmers should raise animals a certain way.

    Please keep spreading the word that farmers, no matter what size, DO care about what they’re doing and put their heart and soul into it every day.

  9. Hi Shauna:

    Thanks for the thoughtful attempt to represent the industrial side of hog raising. I do think your view seems to have been colored by the fact that you were on this trip as a guest of the pork industry. You visited a sort of Potemkin pork village, in effect.

    Had you talked to any of the Christiansons’ neighbors, you might find that it’s not just yuppie hippie-crunchie animal lovers who have a problem with CAFO pork. This Grist article presents some of the opposing views from Iowa residents, who don’t think their neighborhoods, or their state, should be the entire country’s grim cesspool just so we can all eat cheap bacon: “In the farm belt, a look at the extremes of agricultural production” The book “Righteous Porkchop” by Nicolette Hahn Niman, wife of Niman Ranch founder Bill, is also enlightening on this topic.

    There are many, many criticisms of large hog operations I wish you had addressed. But I’ll settle for this one: Could you picture dogs being raised in similar crowded living conditions, with no opportunity to play or experience the outdoors? Pigs are demonstrably as or more intelligent as dogs. Raising them indoors, on concrete and/or slatted floors, in very crowded conditions, is quite antithetical to their natures, which is why the Christiansons’ hogs probably had their tails docked and their teeth clipped. Healthy, happy hogs on small farms almost never cannibalize each other. Do you think this too is a necessary evil so we can all have cheap ham sandwiches?

    I don’t. While the Christiansons seem like nice people, the system under which they are raising hogs depends on keeping costs down by passing the environmental and public health costs — I didn’t even mention antibiotics resistance and MSRA — onto the rest of us.

  10. I forgot to mention that I am not a vegetarian. I love eating delicious fatty pork from hogs raised on pasture under humane conditions. And yes I am willing to pay $10/lb for my bacon. Mr. Christianson, are you listening? How many fewer hogs could you raise if you could get several dollars per pound for them, instead of pennies?

  11. Thanks for this. It is making me think – I’m not sure what my thoughts even are yet but it making me think and that is always a good thing. We are a family that eats 80% or more organic meat and try to get it from a local farmer with a small farm when we can. If we’re going to keep eating meat this seems like the “right” way to do it. I suppose if our meat was going to come from a large scale farm, I would like it to be from one that I have visited (or someone I trust has) and I would want to know that the animals are treated well and the conditions are what you are describing here. Lots of food for thought – thanks again.

  12. Excellent point about affording and options! It makes a big difference. Options are good; differences in management is good. Opinions and differences of views don’t equal cruelty. Thank you! (Not a CAFO owner – actually small farm trying to establish with heritage breeds through investors who want those options – but many cannot afford that or think they can’t afford it.)

  13. I’m curious about what brought you to the Christianson farm. Can you tell us how that happened?

  14. Nice story and pictures. It seems that you are very delicately mincing words to avoid saying things that we are all thinking. For example, where does the waste for 2500 hogs go? And how much antibiotic is fed to the hogs as a prophylactic? You had to wear special clothing to visit the hogs — why the worry about germs if these are strong, non-immune system impaired animals?

    I visited a friend who raises a few pigs yesterday. We had the pigs out of their pen running around the pasture, rooting up grubs and roots, chasing the dogs — being pigs. Do you really feel that the pigs you saw in their enclosures were having a chance to really be pigs? Is there anything humane about the process you saw and in the bigger picture, if the Christianson operation is the best around, how much worse must the less good ones look and feel?

    I’m not sure if you will post this, but I hope you read it and maybe respond. For me, your article really damaged your credibility and I am disappointed. I know you have to make a living, but how much is the pork board endorsement really worth to someone like you and Danny who know the value of where your food comes from. Will the next article be whitewashing the monocultures of soybeans and corn that help feed the hog factories? Watching you write about the small farmers in Washington and elsewhere and reading this most recent article made me think only one of the two can be how you really feel and believe. How sad to be in such an unpleasant situation.

    I know you tried to pre-characterize responses that don’t agree with you as angry, nasty, and heated in your final comments, but that’s not really fair. I’m none of those (I hope) and I still don’t think your article was completely honest. I’d be interested in your response (and Danny’s from whatever perspective he sees fit — chef, husband, father, etc) whether via email or on this site.

  15. Shauna,

    After reading through your post I just wanted to bring up a couple of points or questions–not to start an argument or bring about fisticuffs, just a few things to consider or gain perspective on.

    I own a company in Texas, Revival Meats. Although our operation is becoming more diverse as far as the livestock are concerned, we started with pigs and to this day, they remain our favorite. Having grown up in a family that has been deeply involved in agriculture in Texas since the 1870’s, and having had a grandfather who, for all intents and purposes, embraced a lot of “conventional” ideals, I feel like I may be able to offer a decent perspective on both “industrial” and “pasture-based” mediums for growing animals for meat.

    After giving your post a good amount of thought throughout the day today, doing my best to look at both models with as open of a mind as possible, I think I can safely say that I feel a pasture-based program makes more sense ecologically, economically, and humanit-ar-ily (I realize thats not a word…). Here’s my opinion on all three of those ideals, for what it’s worth:


    Industrial Approach: Having not seen the set up inside the Iowa CAFO, I have to make some assumptions, which may be wrong. I can readily admit if I’ve assumed incorrectly, but when there are 2,500 pigs under one roof, or even two or three, waste (manure) management is going to be priority number one. My pig mentor to this day, holds the meat quality championship title for the Yorkshire breed of pigs. He’s an industrial hog farmer living and operating in Iowa. To be honest, I consider myself in his debt for the rest of my life considering all that he’s willingly and graciously taught me. Manure management is on his top priority list and of course, he’s described to me what that job entails. Its not something that I ever wish to deal with in such a capacity. The story usually goes that the manure is handled like a well-oiled machine, being liquified in the building and pumped into manure lagoons nearby, where it is treated, and more often than not, sprayed onto fields, where it eventually finds its way to either surface water (creeks, ponds, lakes, rivers) or into the water table. Not necessarily a ecologically-sound choice.

    Pasture Approach: Our pigs dispose of their waste in the pasture. We rotate our pigs monthly to allow the pasture to re-grow, and the manure to breakdown, removing parasite issues from the herd. The byproduct of that is natural fertilzer which aids in quicker pasture renewal. It takes about 45 minutes, once monthly to move an acre of portable electric fencing that keeps the pigs confined to a certain area.


    Industrial Approach: This was the big one for me. Obviously, growing 2,500 pigs on a small amount of property seems extremely efficient, but the overhead that it takes to sustain an operation like that is astronomical. Think about the infrastructure. Large metal buildings, concrete slabs, farrowing crates, pens, bulk feeding equipment, lagoons, lagoon pumps, ventilation systems, etc. The list could go on and on, and comes with a price tag that makes me weepy.

    Pasture Approach: Currently I run about 30 pigs per 1.5 acres of property. This stocking ratio has worked for us. It might be high for some land, and low for others, but for us it works. To do 2,500 pigs, that would require 125 acres of land, under that scenario. In our area, 125 acres is considered a hobby farm. Priced at $1,500 an acre, it would set you back less than $200,000–throw in another $50,000 for pasture-based infrastructure, which I think is generous. I raise my pigs to 300 lbs. We only raise heritage breeds. They farrow by themselves, without human interaction and rarely step on, crush, eat, or roll over on their piglets. Because they haven’t been bred for generations in a confinement setting, they haven’t lost the naturally ability to be good mothers. The idea that farrowing crates are a necessary evil is simply absurd. For further reading on farrowing Google: Swedish deep straw farrowing.

    We raise Red Wattle Hogs, an enormous and tasty meat breed that typically reaches 300 pounds in 6-7 months. Assuming that on the high-end a pig is going to eat an average of 5 lbs of feed throughout its life (less when they’re small, more when they’re bigger): 210 days from farrow to finish x 5lbs of feed per day = 1,050 lbs of feed, all in. I get my feed for $298/ton which is also high: Feed Price per Pound is $.15, which equals a total feed cost per pig (farrow to finish) $157.50. Now, a 300 lb pig will yield a usable carcass weight of roughly 225 pounds. The going rate in Houston for pasture-raised pork averages at $3.50 per pound. Therefore a 225 pound pig will gross $787.50. Subtract the feed cost and say another $25 for unforseen costs (occasional antibiotics, etc), plus a $45 processing fee for slaughter, and my net profit per pig is about $560. Now multiply that by 2,500 pigs…yeah. Obviously, we’re not raising 2,500 pigs per year, but in our system, managing that many pigs would easily be do-able…especially when considering a potential profit of $1.4 million. There are other things to consider that aren’t worth getting into here, but its still do-able.

    But they say this pork is too expensive for people to buy? People need to change their perspective on the way they eat and learn how to cook again. I think its safe to say that we don’t really need to be eating more than a half pound or so of meat at any given sitting. And lets say that some of that 225 pound pig is going to be bone that can’t be eaten. Say 180 lbs of it is a good yield for fresh edible product. That essentially gives us 360, 1/2-pound portions of meat. At a $1.75 per portion that sounds like extremely reasonably priced food. And everybody wins. The farmer made a good profit for his effing hard work and the family on a budget can still put healthy, responsibly-raised food on the table. But, it takes more work. It takes knowing how to utilize the whole animal, which began being lost about two generations ago. My Grandma could do it.

    Of course, the industrial system doesn’t sell pork directly to the consumer and therefore they don’t get $3.50/lb, they get like $.75, but that’s their problem for not figuring out a way around that. A good business model of a midwest pork operation that IS working: Heritage Foods USA.

    The Humane Aspect:

    Finally, pigs are social creatures with a shocking amount of personality. Having spent a LOT of time around pigs in our pastured setting, watching them run around, root, roll around in their wallows of mud, no amount of convincing could ever get me to believe that its an acceptable alternative to put them on concrete to live their entirety without the opportunity to express their natural tendencies. I don’t necessarily jump on the band wagon with others and say they should be treated as a human should be treated, because that’s silly (I don’t love to roll around in mud with my 25 closest friends, but they obviously do), but I do feel we are doing a complete disservice to a magnificent animal when we lock em up…even if it seems like a “happy” environment in that building.

    In an effort of full disclosure, we do vaccinate, worm, and treat with therapeutic antibiotics on the rare occasion that an animal gets sick. Also, I have no problem defending every aching thing we do and invite people to question our practices and take pictures. Our model is one of transparency. We by no means have everything worked out, but we surely don’t hide things. We want people to come out and see the operation. It isn’t always glamorous, its not typically pristine. But its a business that I’m comfortable showing people, and its a business that makes money.

    Best Regards,

    Morgan Weber
    Owner, Revival Meats

  16. Shauna,

    It took me a long time to respond to this because it’s always difficult to disagree with a friend. But this post makes me wonder what you think of those of us who see this “idyllic picture” in a totally different light.

    Many of your friends and colleagues are vehemently against CAFOs. We believe that pigs should be able to live happy lives until they are slaughtered humanely. We believe that if we can’t all afford to pay $23 per plate for ribs, we should change our budgets to eat way less meat — Americans in this country eat entirely too much meat, and we’re paying for it with high rates of obesity and heart disease.

    Mother pigs in non-CAFO situations do not roll over on their babies enough that you have to separate them. I would submit Michael Pollan’s text about why moms are separated from babies:

    “Piglets in these CAFO’s are weaned from their mothers ten days after birth (compared with thirteen weeks in nature) because they gain weight faster on their drug-fortified feed than on sow’s milk.”

    I am sure Mr. Christianson is a very nice man, and that it was great to see his human side. You ask “Why would he do anything to endanger” his pigs. I don’t believe he is purposefully trying to endanger them. But I do believe that farmers like him are trying to make as much money as they can on their farm. The margins on raising factory-farmed pigs are very small. The farmers depend on packing the pigs in tight, growing them larger than nature allows, and turning them around quickly in order to make higher profits.

    When you announced that you were writing for this blog, you wrote that you thought some of us would oppose your move and, “We’d appreciate it if you keep that feeling to yourself, and not tell us all about it in angry letters. We were approached with this possibility, and after some consideration, jumped right in. To our delight, we have been given the freedom to write what we want, no editing, no censoring.”

    And I held back on my concerns. Because you asked that we do, and because I was cautiously optimistic that you would avoid shilling for big pork. However, I can’t keep my opinion to myself when it is in complete contradiction with something that I spend countless (mostly volunteer) hours of my life working against.

    CAFOs do not feed the world. They wreak havoc with our carbon footprint, they falsify the real price of meat, they cause obesity with false pricing, and they are miserable places for animals to live.

  17. As the daughter of a large scale Iowa pig farmer, I appreciated your post. Thank you for pointing out the obvious (but so often purposely overlooked) fact that these farmers would not do anything to hurt or harm the very animals that are their livelihood and, pardon the pun, bring home the bacon.

    So many people that are vocal on this issue are ignorant of the facts. Thank you for your honest assessment.

  18. Thanks, Shauna! What a wonderful post! You captured livestock farming in a no-nonsense, real, and beautiful way. We are cattle farmers, but my in laws are pork producers, and regardless of what we raise, there is a limited amount of “good press” for us. Thanks for the great perspective!

  19. I feel like I must address this:

    “People who eat at Kahan’s restaurants can afford to pay $23 for a plate of country ribs, made from pork produced on a small family farm. But not everyone can. What do those folks eat?”

    Honestly? I don’t believe that the solution is to find an affordable-to-you source so you can keep eating pork. If you cannot afford ethically-raised, free-range, non-CAFO meat, I believe that you should go with less, or without.

    My husband and I are on a very limited income- he’s in law school, and we’re fairly young so I’m still early in my career. We practice what we preach: we buy a small meat share every month and are committed to eating more vegetarian meals, because I WILL not feed my family CAFO meat. I just won’t buy into that industrial complex; I’d rather be a vegetarian. For us, it’s that simple. We cook all the time at home, we eat well, and we treat meat as just that- a treat.

  20. I’ve long heard the line from the pork industry–which funds your site and set up your visit–that hogs appreciate being separated from their young, lest they roll over on ‘em.

    I’m not so sure. As Bonnie Powell notes, hogs are at least as social as dogs and I’ve visited plenty of sustainable hog farms where families of pigs were co-existing happily–no mom’s killing their babies. But that kind of operation requires a different scale of production, one that’s not possible in the CAFO model.

    What’s missing from your description of this one particular CAFO is not only a critical eye to this inhumane conditions, among others, but to the broader environmental and social context of these operations.

    Sadly, we have reams of evidence that hog CAFOs are energy-intensive, polluting factories that have led to illness and death for workers as well as community members who must live near them. The industry has also been repeatedly found in violation of environmental regs. In 1997 alone Smithfield, the nation’s largest hog producer, was fined $12.6 million for knowingly violating the Clean Air Act. Livestock production, including hog CAFOs, are now such a worrisome player in the global climate change that the United Nations Environment Program has advocated for reducing the production of meat and dairy in CAFOs.

    Want to hear a different story about CAFOs? Check out this documentary by UK journalist Tracy Worcester:

  21. Shauna, I want to thank you for doing, and then writing about, what far too few people do about topics like this – you actually went and LOOKED, instead of taking what’s said (the more dramatic the better) at face value in the service of your prejudices*. In the process, you saw what’s possible (and being done) in production of this magnitude (since the vast majority of people can’t afford $10/lb. pork, or beef, or chicken), and that’s a very important thing, because if it’s not only possible, but is being done, that’s something to aim for and it’s a way to have humane, profitable production of food for everyone.

    Would that everyone would do what you did.

    *prej·u·dice (prj-ds)
    a. An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts.
    b. A preconceived preference or idea.

  22. I, myself, just visited a farm in Lynden last week and took photos and talked to the farmer, while Rick helped feed the livestock. I thought it would honestly shock me into vegetarianism. It did the exact opposite (strangely). I’m actually still processing my experience to try and articulate it into my own blog here shortly.

    I think cattle farming (of any variety, really) is a complex and complicated topic. I appreciate the commenters here being very caring and articulate, and not bashing other’s opinions. This is fabulous to see.

    As always, lovely post and I enjoy your writing so much!

  23. Unfortunately, complicated issues don’t fall easily into clear camps of right and wrong. In order for us to get to any sort of a sustainable food system that protects the environment AND supplies fresh and healthy food for all, we have to accept that issues surrounding food production are more complex than big is bad/the answer and small is good/unreasonable; advocates on either side just end up yelling their talking points at each other.

    On the one hand, the industrial model offers the ability to produce massive amounts of food but does so at the cost of massive environmental degradation (inputs, food waste, etc.). And still, hunger continues to grow both domestically and internationally.

    On the other hand, the small farm model offers the ability to produce food with more care with improved environmental and animal stewardship but that takes time and costs money. This model also does not have the production and distribution networks to benefit from economies of scale.

    So how do we put our heads together in order to address the environmental impacts of the industrial food system and how do we help the small farms scale up their without losing their ability to provide more environmentally friendly and humane products? That’s the real problem to solve. Everything else is just noise.

  24. This is a fascinating, and surprisingly respectful exchange. I grew up on a “small” industrial farm in Southern Indiana. My folks farm about 1,200 acres of corn, wheat, and soybean, and when I was a kid, we had about 30 hogs. Our hogs had a woods to roam around in, a few outdoor farrowing crates, and a larger cement “hog house” where most of the farrowing took place. My parents got out of the hog business in the early 1990s when the bottom fell out of the hog market and you suddenly needed 10,000+ hogs to turn a profit. They weren’t interested in that experience. Even worse, a few years later a friend of theirs, who had expanded his hog operation, either drowned or suffocated from hydrogen sulfide inhalation when he fell into a manure pit.

    But I want to get back to the farrowing crates and the conditions of the pigs. I believe your description of Mr. Christianson’s farm, and I suspect that the other farms are similarly clean and well-maintained. Farmers, particularly German-American Midwestern farmers, have too much pride to let their neighbors see them running a filthy operation. They like things tidy and clean. And yes, it is true that even sows who can ordinarily run around in a woods can roll over and crush their piglets. My dad started using the farrowing crate dividers and moving them inside to farrow when this kept happening, even with the outdoor pigs. Sows are large creatures, and piglets are small. It happens.

    Which is not to say that CFAO’s are a good way of doing business. There’s something wrong with the equation when you need 10,000, or more, hogs to turn a profit. CFAO hogs do not get to sniff in the woods or fields or otherwise act like hogs. The issue here is not whether Mr. Christianson’s farm is a good CFAO or not–I’m sure it is. The issue is whether we want to support and encourage CFAO’s. I think not. There’s also the issue of where the meat from the “good” CFAOs goes–if it’s processed separately, fine, but the chances of that are low.

    And oh, Jose Garces, you break my heart! I thought your amazing food at Tinto and Amada came from small producers!

  25. Tricia, as someone else pointed out above, Shauna went to the pig farm not as an independent observer but as a paid blogger for the Pork Board. They pay her to write the blog and they paid for the trip. Presumably they arranged for her to visit that particular farmer on that particular day when he was prepared for the visit. She saw what the Pork Board wanted her to see and she heard what they told her, including the nonsense about farrowing stalls being necessary to save piglets’ lives. She gave a prejudiced view of factory farming.

    Somewhere in this discussion is a middle ground but Shauna’s post is not it.

  26. I just reread the post you wrote on SeaBreeze and the difference between these two is night and day. What I am most struck by is the pigs, you wenr all the way to Iowa and did not get a single photo of the pigs. What the heck sort of pig farm is it that has thousands of invisible pigs? People have commented how great it is that they let you/us see the pig farm, but they didn’t actually let you show us a single pig. At the PIG farm. SeaBreeze, by comparison, let us see how they raise their pigs.

    While I am happy to see you have posted a few of the comments from people who are not in complete agreement, I hope you will go farther and actually address some of the questions that have been raised.

  27. Karlynne, if you’ll read my post, you’ll note that I said that what Shauna saw exists, and is an example of how things can be. I stand by that statement. If someone is doing something right, that should be publicized and held up as an example of how it should and can be done, don’t you agree? Unless, of course, you think that there are no farmers and ranchers anywhere who do a good job of taking care of their animals. If that is, indeed, the case (that you think that), please see the definition contained in my post.

    As for sows rolling on their piglets, see the first-hand account of free-range sows doing so posted above by Doris.

  28. I really enjoyed the article and reading the comments. For those of you that feel that pigs should be grown outside, I understand your feelings, I use to feel that way also. I was working in a farm that is similar to the one mentioned in the article and always wanted to raise hogs outside. I went to South Georgia and began raising hogs outside and on a pretty day it was a great way to raise hogs but on the days that it snowed, rained 22 inches, and had a heat index of 117 it sucked and bordered on inhumane. Therefore I went to raising pigs indoors where I can control the enviroment and take care of the animals in the best possible manner. Another one of my concerns is that we have an ever increasing world population with farm ground being lost to urban sprawl on a daily basis. How are we going to provide protein to all these people. We in the pork business export 22% of the meat we produce. I am proud that we provide countries that have hungry people and are void of protein.

  29. Danny and I appreciate the comments here. We both believe that this is an important conversation to be having.

    We talked and talked and talked about this for a week and we both felt we wouldn’t be honest if we didn’t write about what we saw and how we saw it. I knew when I wrote this post that people would be angry with me. Believe me, part of me just wanted to skip right to writing about our visit to La Quercia, which everyone would love, and not talk about the farm. But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t write about this.

    I am a die-hard farmers’ market supporter of local agriculture. Danny and I buy almost all our meat from local farmers and farmers’ markets. We are lucky enough to live on a small island off Seattle where we buy almost all our produce from farm stands. We have mild winters and wonderful small farms.

    Not everyone is so fortunate. As someone said to me in Iowa, “How are you going to eat local and in season when you live in the Midwest in January?”

    We live quite different lives from each other. I’m trying to understand other people’s stories.

    Many of you have said that people are consuming too much animal protein. One of you wrote that if you cannot buy your pork or other meats from “ethically raised sources,” you go without it. Not everyone has the same definition of “ethically raised sources.” Many consider the pork that comes from the farm we visited to be ethical. We each have the right to buy the food that suits us. However, I don’t think we have the right to say that everyone should do this. People don’t like to be told what to eat. They certainly don’t like to be told that if they buy pork chops for their family they are wrong and unethical.

    A comment I read on a blog post this morning that talked about how unappetizing it is to be told what and how to eat: “I don’t want to be told. I want to be shown. I want to be persuaded, cajoled, seduced by the message. And there’s no seduction in shouting or exclamation marks, no matter how many you add.”

    Certainly there has to be a better way to have this conversation.

    Something I learned on this trip that I did not know: free-range pastured pork from small farms makes up less than 1% of all pork production in this country. Those of us who choose that pork have that right. However, not everyone has access to pastured pork, nor does everyone want to buy it.

    Someone asked if this is going to change Danny’s and my meat-buying habits. Not really. We like supporting the farmers in our area, which happen to be on the small-scale model. And sometimes we buy pork from the grocery store. I think that most of us do.

    Those of you who decry what we wrote — does this mean you don’t eat at small ethnic restaurants or street food carts or small restaurants where a family is trying to start a business? Almost all of those places are cooking pork that did not come from a small farm.

    What I didn’t think about before I went to Iowa is that the people there who are involved in the pork industry are family farmers as much as the folks who show up at our farmers’ markets. And most of them are doing the best they can, in treating their pigs and in their job.

    We could have easily written the overview I posted on Sunday and left our Iowa trip at that. We could have emphasized the amazing prosciutto from La Quercia made from pastured pork and gone back to creating recipes and writing about bacon. No one required us to write about this farm. But the people I talked with in Iowa — not just employees of the Pork Board, but friends and Danny’s family and everyone in Iowa who would talk to us about it — said that most of the farms in Iowa are like the one we saw.

    I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around all of this and writing what I did is some small attempt.

    It’s different on the west coast than in the Midwest. Do we really feel we have the right to say we have the one and only answer?

    At this point in my life, I don’t believe in THE answer. I don’t believe that we have the right to dictate to other people what their answer is. Lately, all I can see is how complex life is, how everyone has a story, how having a dogmatic point of view prevents me from hearing other people. I want to try to understand that other people make choices that feel like the right choice to them. I don’t think it’s right to believe in tolerance and openness and celebrating differences, unless it’s with people with whom we don’t agree.

    This post was meant to open a conversation. From the polarized comments, it’s clear how differently the two sides see this. However, nothing is going to change unless we are willing to listen. Change happens when we work together.

  30. Tricia, as someone else pointed out, we were not shown any photos of the pigs themselves, nor of the inside of the facility where they were kept. If conditions are indeed humane and healthy for the pigs, why the reluctance to show them? I’m not at all sure that this farm is an example of how it should or could be done. We don’t have nearly enough information about the operation to make such a call.

    As for farrowing stalls, yes, they do improve piglet mortality rates—but that generally is as compared to piglets raised in other unnatural settings such as small pens. There is also the welfare of the sows to consider. Are you aware of what a farrowing stall is? A sow is given only a few inches of space more than her length and width. She is forced to stand or lie for weeks, if not months. Her muscles and joints become weak and she develops neurotic, repetitive behavior as a way of dealing with the stress. She is not allowed to do instictive nesting behavior. It’s not healthy at all and it’s quite cruel. Yes, it nets the farmer more pork in the end. But at what cost?

  31. I just wanted to address this:

    ‘Not everyone is so fortunate. As someone said to me in Iowa, “How are you going to eat local and in season when you live in the Midwest in January?” ‘

    We live in New England and we have very cold, long winters in our town. Believe it or not, we eat local AND in season all winter long (vegetables, fruit and meat alike). If I were to quote you recently, Shauna: “if we can do it, anyone can. Anyone.”

    Thanks to everyone for opening up the discussion.

  32. Shauna, you are one of the few of us who have actually been able to tour a farm like this. Wondering if you can give us a little more information about what the living conditions were like for the pigs. Did they have their tails? Were their teeth clipped? How big were the stalls? How were they being fed? And most importantly in my mind, where was the manure? In my (lay-person) understanding, I think that 2500 pigs produce about 15,000 – 20,000 pounds of manure per day … not insignificant.


  33. Shauna,

    I understand that the economic pressures are such that for many farmers, CAFOs are unavoidable — such is the current state of our agro-econonmy. This isn’t choice or lifestyle that I believe of these farmers would make if they had an alternative to the current model. Their hand is forced. If they did not go down this route they would be pushed out by the big boys. But make no mistake about it — this current model is hurting our culture, our economy, our health and the health of the animals, and our environment. It is not sustainable. As an engineer who works on many similar types of operations trying to help address the variety of different resource concerns I have seen the damage first hand. There is nothing sweet, quaint, or remotely humane about these operations — even if they appear so. The goal is to produce as much meat as possible as fast as possible — ‘to forsake the logic of biology for that of industry.’

    For those of us who can afford it we need to continue to purchase our meats and vegetables from smaller operations to force the market away from these larger systems. When familys like the Christianson’s have viable markets to sell to, they will. In the long run this will most likely result in all of us eating less meat but we are bound to be a lot better off for it.

  34. Yeah…I, um, lived in Iowa. And I froze stuff and bought meat from my CSA farmer and managed to, for the most part, eat locally. All. Winter. Long.

    It took work, but it’s certainly possible.

  35. Oh, and the eating locally bit wasn’t all that much more expensive, other than the part where I had to buy a chest freezer to split with a friend so I could have more storage room. Also? I did all this while working fulltime, traveling all over the country for work, and commuting (when I wasn’t traveling) back and forth between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids every day, plus keeping up two blogs, plus freelancing, plus doing a whole long list of other things.

    Again. TOTALLY possible.

    I celebrate diversity of thought and opinion, even when I don’t agree with it. But that person who you quoted re: eating locally in Iowa in January? They’re flat out wrong. That’s not opinion. It’s fact.

  36. Shauna,

    Thanks for the commentary, though I don’t think it really answers our questions so much as it explains why you won’t be. I really appreciate your statements about honoring everyone’s individual life and choices: “Not everyone is so fortunate. … We live quite different lives from each other. I’m trying to understand other people’s stories. “

    That was my point in that other discussion about cook’s and privilege. Not everyone is as fortunate, we live different lives. It is perfectly fine to not roast a chicken, and it is even okay to not want to.

  37. Shauna explained why no photos were taken: because of the very real danger of photos getting into the wrong hands and being ‘doctored’ for illicit purposes. Farmers (of all sizes and kinds) have enough trouble getting by without animal rights groups’ efforts to put them out of business.

    As for wearing ‘special clothes: that’s to protect the pigs, not the people. People germs present the highest risk for pigs getting sick, no matter how pigs are raised. The last hog farm I visited required me to take a full shower, wear clothes they provided, and shower before leaving.

    For those who believe people should make different food choices if they can’t afford $12+/ pound pasture-raised meat: For many, meat is the most economical source of protein. A single mother of 3 in the city who is struggling to make ends meet has a hard enough time shopping on a budget, and probably doesn’t have access to farmers’ markets where pasture-raised meats are available.

    Re antibiotics fed to livestock: when Denmark banned preventive antibiotics in animals, farmers were forced to use more (and stronger) antibiotics to treat the increased number of sick animals. The cost of production went up, and that cost was passed to consumers. I’d prefer animals are kept healthy, and keeping them outside on pasture doesn’t guarantee anything. Also – MRSA is not a food-borne disease, and the strain of MRSA found in animals is not the same as the strain found in humans.

    One more point: if someone in my area (northeast) wanted to start a pastured pork operation, they’d have to go on a waiting list for a USDA-approved slaughter facility. Last time I called the nearest slaughter facility, which is more than an hour from me, the wait was 4 months.

    Raising livestock isn’t as simple as it seems, and it’s a gamble no matter what kind of system the farmer chooses.

  38. Shauna, you’re absolutely right that people disagree about what counts as ethical. I personally believe that animals deserve the right to exercise their species-specific behaviors and instincts: to be social, to root and wallow (in the case of pigs), to eat what is appropriate food for their species. Your article addresses your impressions of animal welfare, but it doesn’t address issues like antibiotic use – which poses a danger to humans by creating antibiotic resistant bacteria – and manure management, both serious ecological problems with confinement farms. For those reasons, as well as for the reasons others have mentioned involving animal welfare, I don’t think CAFOs are ethical. I’m sure Craig Christianson means well – and the fact that he lives on his farm is a good sign, but is not representative of most CAFOs – but that doesn’t change the fact that his pigs deserve better.

    CAFOs and their practices (including, as others have mentioned, farrowing crates) aren’t a necessity. While I know that I can’t expect a blog funded by the National Pork Board to support less meat-eating, those of us who can’t afford to eat high quality meat all the time can choose a less meat-centered diet. I don’t buy conventional meat and am not wealthy, which means that I am largely vegetarian and most of the meat I do eat is in small quantities as an accent.

    In further discussion of false necessities: I grew up in Iowa and lived in Philadelphia (which has a slightly easier climate) for many years, though I now live in California. It is absolutely possible to eat local, seasonal food in both places, though it requires some legwork and a willingness to put things up in the summer. I used to buy 25 pound boxes of tomatoes and roast and freeze them; my mother slices rhubarb and other fruits to save for the winter. If you’re willing to bother canning it’s even easier. You eat a lot of kale and storage crops, and a lot of frozen meat. I did end up supplementing with citrus, but the bulk of my diet came from local sources. The current system is not inevitable. The more people decide it’s not working for them and choose to buy from small-scale local producers, the more infrastructure can be built to support those choices.

  39. I’m German, so I think I can say what I am about to say with some authority.

    Eating pork is not a universal right.

    To bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots we need to convince the rich to eat less meat, not to convince the poor that they should have access to it on a daily basis.

    I eat less than a pound of flesh a week. This is not a hardship. I am not oppressed. There is no sustainable way for everyone to eat meat every day. Farmers who attempt to convince people that eating meat daily is AMERICAN are not good. Even if they’re nice people otherwise.

    (Look, if the Germans think you’re going overboard on your ideology, it’s really time to reconsider. We know what insane looks like.)

  40. Do I really have to be the first person to discuss real cost?

    Just because the label on the tube of meat says $5 does NOT mean that’s the true cost. When you calculate in the damage done to our environment and our national health by this meat, it’s astronomical. Consider this article,8599,1917458,00.html, and this talk from Raj Patel

    This is what is essential, and what I think you’re missing Shauna-

    We deserve to know what is in our food. We have the right to know who grew our food and under which conditions. Blogs like this pretend to show us, but give just an illusion of information.

    I don’t mean to be rude, but participating in this blog, in my eyes, is working to help conceal the truth about our from Americans, and will further the cause of industrialized meat production.

  41. Clean and well kept does not equal humane. Filthy conditions are not the only horrific aspect of most CAFO setups–it’s that coupled with the confinement and utter lack of a LIFE that is provided to the animals. You don’t have to be maiming your animals to be abusing them. Pigs are not meant to live confined in stalls and crates. I can strain my brain and almost understand not being able to take pictures of the housing facilities (though the whole “photoshopping” concern seems questionable to me), but doesn’t it say something to you that there were no pigs roaming around outside for you to snap any photos of? There is just no way that that would ever be okay with me.

    Maybe those “calm” pigs that you saw and held were actually broken-spirited? Or depressed? I feel like labeling them as “calm” would be like saying that CAFO chickens lie down because they’re “relaxed,” when it’s actually because they’ve been engineered to grow so fast now that their legs can no longer support their own weight. And I’m assuming, since you’re okay with separating piglets from their mothers because of the problems that confinement creates, that you’re okay with debeaking since it keeps chickens from pecking each other to death when you stuff them into itty bitty laying crates?

    And yes, let’s do think of all the bacon that is served for breakfast! Now ask yourself whether that is necessary. Nobody needs to eat bacon for breakfast every day. Nobody needs to eat meat every time they sit down to the table. Nobody needs to eat meat all 7 days of the week for that matter. This is only within the last few decades that we’ve been eating like this, and it’s because of CAFOs that it is even possible. That’s not a good thing. Meat should be expensive. It should be something we eat rarely, when we can afford it.

    Look, I get that very few people, especially living in the world that we are living in right now, are going to be perfect all the time when it comes to these things. We have a long way to go to make it right. But that doesn’t mean that we should hang it up and stop trying, saying “Eh, this is good enough.” I love both of your blogs, but I’m very unsettled to see that you would so positively endorse something like this.

  42. Sally, I had to address this:

    “…For many, meat is the most economical source of protein. A single mother of 3 in the city who is struggling to make ends meet has a hard enough time shopping on a budget, and probably doesn’t have access to farmers’ markets where pasture-raised meats are available. ”

    Meat is most certainly not always the most economical choice. Beans (the most obvious argument here), whole grains, dairy, canned fish, nuts, and many vegetables are often far more affordable and offer enough protein to meet an average person’s RDA. Any student preparing their own food knows that a loaf of whole wheat bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a bunch of bananas, or big bags of beans and rice, will last a heck of a lot longer than a pound of ground beef.

    In addition, many studies have shown that many Americans- even those on very limited budgets- consume more protein than they need (ex. “With the traditional Western diet, the average American consumes about double the protein her or his body needs. Additionally, the main sources of protein consumed tend to be animal products, which are also high in fat and saturated fat. Most individuals are surprised to learn that protein needs are actually much less than what they have been consuming. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for the average, sedentary adult is only 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.” source:

    Probably not the best thing to post on a pork blog (sorry, Shauna), but I had to add this information to the argument.

  43. Hey Jen,

    Thanks for your specific and civil questions, Jen. I’m happy to answer them. I waited to answer them until I had my memory confirmed by other people who were there that day.

    The teeth of the pigs at Craig’s farm are not clipped. The tails are clipped, but that’s a decision many farmers make, including those who keep their pigs outside. Apparently, this reduces incidents where pigs bite each other’s tails. There’s a hierarchy in every group setting and a less dominant pig gets picked on. My sister-in-law is a veterinarian, and she confirmed that this is an issue among pigs, both ones raised indoors and outside.

    The stalls gave the pigs a little wiggle room. During the tour, Christianson talked about the challenge of building bigger stalls for all the pigs, a huge investment, but something they are working toward.

    Finally, all the manure from the pigs is used as fertilizer on the corn crops Christianson also grows. The corn he grows all goes toward feeding the pigs, so it’s a circular system.

    These conditions were different than I had expected, which is part of the reason I had to open my mind a bit after visiting the farm. Not all pigs are treated in the manner we have read about. In fact, from what I heard in Iowa (from sources other than those who worked at the Pork Board) and other places, most farms seem to be like Christianson’s.

    I’m happy to answer Jen’s questions here because they lend themselves to furthering the conversation. However, some of the comments here are not addressing what I wrote specifically. And most are, at best, strident, and at worst, attacks on me personally. While I expected there would be some of this, I am no longer going to publish comments that are attacks on my character and person. (I already made the decision to not publish comments that wished me and my family bodily harm.)

    When you attack the person, instead of discussing an idea, you are not contributing anything.

    Clearly, some of you are now coming here from other websites that have told you I am a shill and a sell-out. I’m not even sure that you’re reading the piece I wrote before you make your comments. I have a feeling that nothing I say will change your mind from what you so vociferously believe, so I’m not going to engage with these comments. Those of you who firmly believe that no pig should be raised indoors refuse to listen to the pig farmers here who have a different opinion than yours based on experience. Also, if you are dead set against people eating meat, or as much as most Americans do, I’m not sure why you’re reading a blog all about pork in the first place.

    Several of you have said that you have been reading my other blog (and even this one) and are disappointed, because you once respected my work. May I respectfully suggest this? If you respected my work as a writer, perhaps you might give me the benefit of the doubt, at least for one moment. As Jen said, I may be the only person in this comment section who has actually visited a pig farm (with the exception of the farmers who have spoken here). I never expected to approve of a big pig farm. My experience shifted my perspective. Is it possible that my experience could shift yours, just a bit?

    As I have said, I could have easily not written this piece. It would have saved me from the nastiness thrown my way this week. But it’s a piece I felt I had to write, as did Danny. There are many family farmers who are afraid to speak about their work, and shut their doors to visitors, precisely because of the vituperation expressed here. Given the fact that most Americans are eating conventionally raised pork (and so are those of you who ever buy pork at the grocery store or eat it at a small ethnic restaurant), isn’t it good to know that some farms aren’t as reprehensible as you believe?

    Nothing changes because of hatred. If you want to change the system, perhaps you could still respect the individuals who work within the system. They are far more likely to work with you if you aren’t shouting how awful they are.

  44. “Finally, all the manure from the pigs is used as fertilizer on the corn crops Christianson also grows. The corn he grows all goes toward feeding the pigs, so it’s a circular system. ”

    Are you aware that manure must be composted first before its used as fertilizer? Composting in nature takes about a year. The average size pig produces around 14 lbs. of manure daily. So 2500 pigs would produce 35,000 lbs of manure that needs to be dealt with every single day. Where and how is it composted? Is this something they told you at the farm but you didn’t think needed to be written about? Or did they not talk about it at all? Either way—why?

    I’m sorry to hear that you have gotten threats of bodily harm from readers. But the comments you posted here are pretty reasonable. You’re being asked to answer some tough questions but that is not the same as being harassed.

  45. Sorry, should have included this with my previous post.

    Corn’s growing season is 120 days at most. Hogs produce waste year-round. That leaves 245 days, give or take, where manure has nothing to fertilize. Multiply 245 by 3500 (lbs. per day produced by 2500 hogs) and you get 8,575,000 lbs of manure that must be dealt with. What do they do with it?

  46. Shauna,

    I’m pretty certain that my comment was one of those that may have warranted a bit more consideration before I clicked the submit button–my apologies. I have no hatred or ill-will toward you whatsoever, and I’d venture a guess that most of the others who are so vehemently opposing the views expressed in this post do not have hate for you either. You stated yourself that you knew this would be a volatile subject and expected that people would have strong negative responses. Large-scale farming is, for many, an emotionally charged issue on top of being an environmental, economical, political, and health-related concern. The question of how and how much when it comes to meat is big and multi-faceted, and you are absolutely entitled to your opinion based on your own experiences. Those who oppose your view and have additional concerns are entitled to those as well. That said, perhaps some of us could have expressed them in a more productive manner.

    I am personally coming from a place where I am concerned for the quality of life given to the animals. I no more believe that it’s okay to sequester farm animals in small, indoor stalls than I believe it’s okay to keep a dog chained to a tree in the backyard for the duration of its life. I know that many farmers see this as a more manageable route, though Morgan Weber, the farmer who posted above, argues that pastured can be done on a larger scale as well. I ask this in earnest: how do you feel about the fact that these animals, however clean their stalls may have appeared, spend their lives indoors, unable to roam about and act out their natural, instinctive behaviors?

    Also, a concern that many have expressed, do you allow for the possibility that you may have seen a much shinier version of the farm than what may exist on a day-to-day basis? I know that our apartment looks significantly more put together when we have company coming, and I feel that it’s easy to put on your best face and say things that paint a more pristine picture than what may be true when you’re trying to impress someone. I am not doubting what you saw and I am not even trying to question your individual assessment of things, but I do wonder if you have considered the possibility that, after you left, the dishes piled back up in the sink and everyone went back to walking around the house in their underwear.

    And I hate to harp on it, but it’s hard to deny that we over-consume meat in this country. Every major health organization supports this. This has been brought up by many people in this conversation because it is something that you addressed in your post. “How would those restaurants function without the people who produce pork for this country?” The truth is they would function, but they would serve other things. CAFOs have allowed us to eat meat at every meal, but it’s an unsustainable practice that we continue support with the mentality that meat is a necessity on every plate.

    You don’t have to eat meat 3 times a day, 7 days a week in order to have an appreciation for it–and to appreciate words on the subject from a writer for whom you have respect. For many reasons I, like many people, have chosen to eat a more plant-based diet. I have a much greater respect for meat now that I eat less of it. Yes, I do hold the belief that Americans as a whole should be eating less, and there is a very solid foundation of information for this. I don’t think that, because I believe that people should eat less and I personally do not eat much, it is out of character or unreasonable that I would read a blog about pork. I still enjoy my bacon as much as the next guy.

    I guess my concerns after reading your post came from the fact that I felt as though you hadn’t fairly addressed many of these things and, without any intention to do so, were presenting the definite opinion you had formed regarding the farm you visited. And really, if you have formed a definite opinion that’s perfectly fine, but many of these questions keep coming up and it seems almost as though you are unwilling to answer them. Perhaps it has just been that the manner in which they’ve been presented was off-putting enough for you to feel as though you’d simply be feeding into an unproductive back and forth. That’s definitely understandable. I think that, ultimately, what many of the commenters here are looking for is not a fight, but a few small responses to some of these concerns.

    Though I may disagree with some of the things you’ve said, I certainly do not want to attack you. Hopefully this was clearer in this comment and I hope that you will speak to some of the questions (however presented) that people have put forth here. I think we all want to have a discussion, and I don’t think it has to be solely bullet-points and facts. The vast majority of us are here because we care about you, what you wrote, and what your opinions are. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t comment.

  47. Dear Shauna,

    As the daughter of an Iowa pork producer, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for not just taking someone else’s word about what hog confinements are like and for going and discovering the truth on your own. Thank you for asking questions. Thank you for looking at the facts. Thank you for not automatically assuming that pork producers are piglet-loathing, money-hungry monsters. Thank you for reminding us that there are farmers in the world who do care for the well-being and treatment of their animals. Thank you for reminding us how good a pork chop or a piece of bacon can taste. Thank you for pointing out that so-called free range farming has its downsides too. In short, thank you for presenting the facts and not your emotions. I’m proud to be the daughter of a large-scale hog farmer, and your article made my day. Keep up the good work.

  48. “Also, if you are dead set against people eating meat, or as much as most Americans do, I’m not sure why you’re reading a blog all about pork in the first place. ”

    Just to clear something up. I am not a vegetarian. I do eat meat, because I enjoy it. I read this blog for that reason. What does that have to do with thinking Americans should eat way less meat? I either have to want meat all the time, or I’m not allowed to enjoy it at all? What?

    That wasn’t one of your finer moments, and I really hope it was a comment made in a hurry, out of hurt.

  49. This has created quite the conversation! First, thank you Shauna for supporting the pork industry and farmers like me and my family. I noticed that the main issues people have include humane treatment, antibiotic use, and most of all manure management. These are all legitimate concerns that I would love to shed some light on. My family owns and operates three CAFO sites in Missouri. We run approximately 26,000 head a year in two rotations. We have two wean to finish operations and one feeder to finish. This means we do not have anything to do with the farrowing/nursery side of pigs; we just raise them to market weight. Having that said, I would like to dive right into the concerns.

    As far as the humane treatment of the pigs goes, no they don’t get to root in the dirt but they are not confined to the point that they are not social. While they are young we have them separated into pins, in our largest facility there are approximately 200 hogs to a pin. That sounds like a tight fit but you must keep in mind that our largest barn is 29,700 square feet, so the pins are larger than the rooms in our home. We also like to keep them in the smaller pins because they like to huddle around each other for warmth and comfort. Smaller pins allow them this closeness to help ease them into their new environment.

    Once they are older and more independent we open up the entire barn and they have the run of the place. The type of gates in our facility and in all the facilities that I have visited allow the farmer to have small pins, large pins, no pins, and any other size pin they wish to use. The gates swing open and shut to give different options.

    The next issue on the list is antibiotic use. I saw one post that mentioned the special suits worn into the building and asked the question, “why worry?” The pigs are not immune to everything; they can get sick just like outdoor pigs. One of the major advantages of confining the pigs is to control health issues. Just like your kids get vaccinated for common childhood diseases, so do pigs. Just like when you get sick and take doctor prescribed antibiotics, so do pigs. We don’t overuse antibiotics; we only use what is needed, when needed. As far as the suits go that is another pre-cautionary fact to minimize the use of medications. If you track feces from one farm site to another without these suits you run the risk of spreading disease. I don’t wear a special suit in the barns and neither does my husband or our children (yes our young children go in these barns and play with the baby pigs and have perfect attendance at school, i.e. they’re hardly ever sick). The farmers have people who are not normally in the barns wear those coveralls to protect cloths and keep possible contaminants from the pigs.

    We were just discussing with our field manager that we are seeing less diseases with the confined pigs because of greater control. Just like we see less chicken pox and polio in children, same applies for pigs. The level of control farmers have over the health of the animal has vastly improved since confinement not to mention the reduction in air born diseases that can spread from farm to farm with pasture animals.

    Last but not least, manure management. What do we do with all that poop? This is a big concern for non-farmers and farmers alike. One thing to keep in mind is the fact that in Missouri DNR (Department of Natural Resources) will not give a permit to a CAFO that does not have a waste management plan in place. These plans are created by professionals and are by no means cheap. We use our hog waste as fertilizer. We test the soil, test the waste nutrients and only apply the amount needed. We also have contracts with local farmers who purchase our fertilizer instead of anhydrous ammonia, a petroleum based product.

    I keep hearing people refer to non-CAFO operations as “sustainable” farms as if CAFOs are not in any way shape or form sustainable. But we use our hog waste to fertilize the corn and beans which is used for food for the hogs (and ethanol, among other products). Animal waste as fertilizer is a natural cycle that goes back to the first farmers. Also, most CAFOs are going to pits instead of lagoons. Only one of our three operations has a lagoon and it is our smallest location. The pits are built like basements on serious steroids; they don’t leak, seep, or otherwise lose any waste into the ground until we put it on the fields.

    Another fantastic product on the market is a methane capturing system. The system that I have seen looks similar to a grain bin. The waste is collected in the holding tank (bin), compressed, and the methane is used to power the entire facility. So, CAFOs produce their own renewable fertilizer that is full of nutrients that is wonderful for our crops (we have the soil tests to prove it) and with the proper equipment CAFOs have the capability to produce their own energy. That is the very definition of sustainable.

    CAFOs are not perfect but producers, like my family, and companies are working to improve these facilities and farming in general. Meat is part of a healthy diet; it is not a treat like ice cream or chocolate. We need protein and even though certain vegetables provide protein animals provide the most and best. Look at a food pyramid, meat is on there. Look at your teeth; we have cuspids for meat and molars for veggies. Humans are omnivores. We are built to eat both.

    I hope I have shed some light on this discussion. If any of you have more questions you can email me at I’m happy to answer any questions about hog operations. You can also learn more at It is getting a face lift right now but you can read a few blogs that are there.

    Again, thank you Shauna.

  50. I’ve been following this post and comments closely for two reason. First, I should mention Shauna is a dear friend. As I admitted to her, I was shocked when I heard she was going to visit a pig farm…in Iowa. Which leads to me second reason for following this discussion. My outlook and relationship with food has changed quite dramatically over the years, especially since my daughters were born. I now make food decisions based on what will benefit their bodies and lives not just today, but in the long haul. Much of that is connected to the way farming, be it to raise animals or vegetables, is conducted. I am a committed farmers’ market shopper and obtain my meat from a farm about three hours outside of NYC. I choose to for reasons of quality, taste and because I would like to know my food is not clocking thousands of miles just to get to my plate.

    Yes, I agree Americans need to reduce the overall about of animal protein they consume, but we need to approach this as a parent would a child. Sometimes they need to think it is their idea, so let’s give them solutions they can use. They’re called recipes. Perhaps if we can encourage more to people to cook, there will be less of a need to supply fast food chains that have so degraded the system, shortchanging our health and farmers’ abilities to make a livable wage.

    All that said, I will take the word of a trusted friend over any book or movie in regards to this particular farm. Ad I hope Shauna gets the chance to visit more of these farms to see if this the trend.

    And, Jo, I want thank you for joining this discussion.The information you shared was very reassuring as far as the future of industrial animal husbandry. Now speaking from the other side, the question I want to offer is how can we know the meat we buy is from a farm using these ethical and sustainable methods? For the people who will chime in with humane, that is not my question at this moment. There has to be a starting place for this conversation, and we have to be willing to at least talk. Knowledge is power, and there are more than two sides to every story. There are as many stories as there are farmers.

    Murray’s Chickens labels each of their packages with a code that the consumer can enter online and get the name of the farm from which their chicken was raised. It is called their Farm Verification code. I have used it twice and in one case, the farm seemed small and what I considered to be well run. The other time the farm was hard to find any information about besides the name. What I appreciated, though, was that Murray’s gave me the opportunity to learn more about the source of my food. Is there any discussion about doing something similar on a larger scale in the meat-packing industry as a whole? In all honestly, I will keep buying my meat from my local farmer because I prefer to put my dollars into my immediate local economy. However, I’d like to know that people like my mom and aunt who both live on a fixed budget can still afford to enjoy a safe-to-eat piece of meat once or twice a week.

  51. Britt, I’m going to start with your comment, because I do appreciate the tone with which you wrote it. Many of the comments here seem to be from people with a specific agenda, and I’m getting the strong feeling that no matter what I say, it doesn’t matter. So I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

    As far as your question about whether or not the farm was spiffed up for our visit? I really don’t think so. I wondered that myself before we went to the farm and was looking for signs. Nothing looked spick and span or polished to a shine. In fact, it looked worn and well-used. What was clear is that there was a system in place to take care of the pigs and keep things running well. The farm was very large, much bigger than your apartment or our house. I sincerely do not believe that the farm was changed from a horrendous place to a more peaceful one overnight and then allowed to go back to rot again. Those were busy people, honest people. Some will scoff at me for this, but Danny and I know what we saw.

    If you read the thoughtful comments left here by other pig farmers (or relatives of pig farmers), you will see that they clearly have a system and a rationale for what they do. I guess I’m confused as to why their stories and comments do not count here. Have you ever visited a pig farm? Is it so hard to believe that some of them might be different than you imagined?

    I have to say that I am utterly confused by your statement, that I was “…presenting the definite opinion you had formed regarding the farm you visited.” Yes. You are right. I was presenting the opinion I had formed after visiting the farm. That’s the point. I’m not a journalist, and I’m not obligated to give all opinions within this post or my comments. This blog is written in the first person. It’s clearly experiential. The post is a product of our experience in visiting the pig farm and the thoughts that tumbled in my head afterward. Writing, for me, is a way of understanding, as well as explaining. If you read the post again, you will see it is a first-person accounting. Yes, it is my opinion, based on my experience. You are free to not like my opinion or not like me. But you did not have my experience.

    I have not engaged in the discussion here about whether or not Americans should eat less meat because that is not the purview of this blog. C’s comment, which was once again personal in tone, suggested that I was painting a black and white picture. Nope. More, I am saying that this post was about our experiences in visiting this farm. If reading it made you think that Americans should eat less meat, that’s your right. I think there are many places where you can more productively have that conversation than in response to this post.

    C (and others), if you truly have been reading this blog for awhile, you will know that it is an exuberant, funny accounting of eating pork with gusto. It’s about restaurant lunches and bacon air fresheners and how to make sausages and roasted pork belly. This post is the first time (and probably will be the last) in which I addressed any kind of food politics directly. I have certainly allowed the conversation to happen here in the comments. But I haven’t joined that discussion — not because I’m trying to shut you up — but because I just don’t think it’s pertinent to this post. It’s a sidetrack.

    If, for you, the conversation about whether or not Americans should eat less meat is vital, then start talking about it. Start a blog and write. Start a Twitter feed and convince people. But writing snotty comments to me about it here, on this pork blog, is just not productive.

    Karlynne, my goodness, you certainly had an abrasive tone on the manure question. Don’t you think there’s also an implication that the farmer or I is lying in there? I didn’t write about the intricacies of the manure question because that is not my strength. Nothing was withheld from me. Christianson explained that they use all the manure for growing corn and other crops. I didn’t grill him as to how. Since he is a fourth-generation pig farmer on the same plot of land, I assumed that he had a working system in place. I trusted his experience.

    Please see the very specific comment from Jo Windmann for more details about how the manure is used, including turning it into energy for the farms. And thank you, so much, Jo, for giving us part of your story.

    Finally, those of you who believe that pigs should never be raised indoors in these kinds of systems are unlikely to be persuaded by anything I write or anyone else here writes. That’s fine. That’s your right.

    However, there are many comments here from farmers and family members of farmers. I strongly urge you to read them. If you have an open mind, perhaps you might be persuaded, as I was by visiting this farm, that the situation of how meat is raised in this country is more nuanced than you might like to believe.

    This is my last comment here. I have spent nearly the entire work week on this post and the reactions to it and I have to get back to my other work. I’m pretty sure there’s not much new to say at this point. I’ll leave comments open until Monday and then close the comments on this post. Thank you.

  52. I’m sorry if I came off as abrasive. I just read my comments again and I don’t see how they could be construed that way. I was asking very specific questions about numbers. Your original post didn’t cover this important aspect of pig farming and I was wondering why.

  53. I’m hesitant to respond, because it makes me feel as though I’m trying to get the last word in (seeing as how you said you’ll be posting no further responses) and that’s not my intention. I do want to say one last thing.

    I’m sorry if what I had said about forming a “definite opinion” was confusing. Let me clarify. I was simply speaking to the fact that–just as you would like people to be open to the things you are saying here: “Is it possible that my experience could shift yours, just a bit?”–those of us who disagree with some of the things you say are hoping you’ll be open to the things that we’re saying. Sometimes, even if a person “knows what they saw,” they can come to understand it better or in a new way by engaging in conversation with others, especially when those people disagree and raise questions. It was an inciting post and that’s kind of an amazing thing. Not every blog post out there elicits such a flurry of emotional, informational, and thought-provoking responses. On the other hand, I can’t imagine what some of the comments you haven’t posted have said and perhaps that has had an unfortunate affect on any potential desire to have this discussion.

    You said earlier that “this post was meant to open a conversation.” It’s difficult to start a conversation about one aspect of the food industry, especially this one, without minds exploding in a million directions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and it saddens me that you would dismiss some of these points as tangential. I feel as though you feel a very strong need to defend yourself and what you experienced–and I mean that in the most kind, uncritical way. We read what you wrote and many of us had further questions and thoughts. That doesn’t take anything away from your post or your ideas. While a lot of the responses here were strong and direct, I don’t think that precludes anyone from speaking productively about them.

    You’re right–this blog is mostly a ton of fun and we all appreciate that. I think that this post was also greatly appreciated–at least I know it was by me. Sure it may not have had me shouting “Hooray for large-scale farming!” from the rooftops, and my opinions may not have shifted wildly, but it gave me an opportunity to listen to a lot of interesting and passionate people on both sides of the coin. I do have my beliefs, I do know what my heart feels is right, and I’m going to speak from that side of things. That doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate what everyone has to say or that, because I trend toward one side, I see things entirely in black and white.

    Thank you for starting this conversation, Shauna. I know you may have regrets about it now in the midst of what I imagine are some unsavory responses, but I truly hope you won’t hesitate to post on these topics in the future. It’s important that people see these things and whether it softens or strengthens their resolve to either end, you’ve done something important by putting it out there.

  54. Shauna,

    I appreciate what you are saying and I hope you see my comment as a fair and justified critique of CAFOs. As I noted in a previous comment, I am an engineer that works on these types of projects routinely. My job is to help develop solutions to address a gamut of different resource concerns (i.e. soil erosion, water pollution, etc). I have been to hundreds of these type of operations. Some of these operations are run by families and some by very large businesses. I have seen really bad family run operations and really well run large scale CAFOs. But a CAFO is a CAFO and in my years of experience doing this kind of work, I am convinced that this system is deeply flawed. At times I feel like my work is like putting bandages on leaks in a dike. However, this is the prevailing agricultural model by which most food is brought to people’s plates. It is what it is. And I do not blame many of the folks who are simply trying to etch out a living by doing what they love, which is farming.

    But having seen what is being done first hand I cannot in good conscience be part of this system. I grow what I can, eat the meat I hunt or catch, and/or buy my meat from small scale producers who often grow vegetables on the same land they raise their animals. I do this because I can and because I believe it to be better for the environment and better for my health and my family’s.

    This was driven home a few years back when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that impacts my kidneys and thyroid. I was told to avoid gluten and dairy as a hypoallergenic diet is believed to reduce the stress on my immune system and potentially minimize stress to my kidneys. Having grown up on the standard American fare of highly processed food and cheap meat I can not help but wonder if my diet contributed to this disorder. My family has no history of kidney or thyroid disease. Clearly, my work has shown me the environmental cost of this ‘cheap’ food. I can not help but think what the cost has been to my health.

    As a society we have elected to adopt the practice of using CAFOs. In doing so we must accept that there are certain risks (costs) associated with these practices — regardless of how seemingly humane some CAFOs may be. Until lately, those costs have largely been hidden from the consumer. Knowing what we know now people can make an educated choices about where they get their food. To those who strongly believe that CAFOs run against our values, our environment, and the health of our animals, then please vote with your dollars and give families like the Christianson’s an alternative.

  55. Jo, I appreciate you talking about the specifics of your CAFOs. Growing up in Iowa, I heard over and over again about air quality/smell problems from CAFOs that seriously damaged quality of life in surrounding areas. There were also regular manure spills, with big problems for local waterways. I know that CAFOs must have manure management plans, but the fact of the matter is that there are still dangers from the sheer concentration of manure that simply don’t exist on smaller farms. I’d be interested in hearing what you think about those risks, and how you and your family address them.

    Shauna, I appreciate you opening up this conversation. I want to address something you said:

    When you attack the person, instead of discussing an idea, you are not contributing anything.

    There’s certainly truth to this (though I’m not sure that pointing out the sponsorship counts as a personal attack). I feel, though, that your post suffered the opposite problem. You spoke movingly about Craig Christianson being a great person, but even the best of us may be mistaken. Without doubting your integrity or Craig’s, I think there are very important issues in confinement farming that simply weren’t fully addressed by your post. Manure management and antibiotic use are the two most important, but humane treatment – from the pigs’ perspective, with attention to their species-specific needs – could also use more attention.

  56. Laurel, the answer to how we address the risks…Common Sense and Careful Practices! We have a plan in place and we regularly test the soil and waste to make sure that we don’t under or over apply. We also keep up to date with all the regulations and permits. Spills happen in some cases from carelessness and that is a human element that I’m not sure how to fix. The other reason, accidents just happen. Sometimes even the most careful people come across situations that they have no control over; be it severe weather or equipment malfunctions. Farmers do take these risks seriously and many precautions are taken to avoid any accidents.

    Personally, we understand the risks the concentrated waste pose and we understand how to deal with it. By regulation, our pits and lagoon must stay under a certain level or we do not receive a paycheck and we could also receive a fine if not fixed immediately. We take the risks very seriously. We also use a method called “knifing in” the manure. With this method the manure is pumped directly from the pit into a specially designed transport tank. It is then taken to the slurry wagon. The slurry wagon, which is pulled by a tractor in the field, cuts a trench a few inches into the ground, releases a pre-set amount of manure into the trench, then, a set of wheels closes the trench. It is very precise and almost completely eliminates smell. I know many farmers are going to this method for those very reasons.

    I hope I’ve answered your question. Let me know if you have any more.

  57. I am coming to this conversation very late. I am just wondering… how can the author criticize everyone else’s responses without looking at her own? There is some serious hypocrisy displayed here. Very disappointing, to say the least.

Comments are closed.