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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.