The Meat We Eat

See photo set.

One topic of conversation that comes up often in our house is the fact that most people these days don’t know where the food they eat comes from – who grew it or how and where was it raised. My parents, who are now in their seventies, tell me it wasn’t always this way. Used to be one could go to the local butcher who cut the meat right in front of you, who not only knew all the cuts, but knew the farm or the ranch where that meat came from. Over the years, this has changed. Most of us buy our meat already cut and packaged in plastic wrap at the supermarket. Gone are the corner butchers who would grind your hamburger meat fresh for you, or tell you the best way to cook the roast you just bought. Gone too are most small family farms. How many farmers do we know, by name?

Paul Willis

Paul Willis, a pig farmer for Niman Ranch, and I met by chance at the Fancy Food Show earlier this year. During a lively discussion in which I expressed exasperation at our modern culture’s collective ignorance about where our food comes from, including my own, “I’ve never even been to a pig farm!,” Paul invited me to visit his. In Iowa. Paul has a rather disarmingly calm demeanor. An invitation from him is no casual “let’s do lunch sometime” but a real come visit the farm. Paul’s sparkly blue eyes must cast a hypnotic spell, because for the last 8 months or so, all I’ve really wanted to do was to visit the Willis farm.

Wind turbines

A few weeks ago that opportunity arose. I hopped on a plane, flew to Des Moines, met up with food blogger buddy Alanna Kellogg and headed north to Thornton, Iowa.

Have any of you ever spent time on a pig farm? I didn’t know what to expect. Some people told me “Hold your nose!” And “Don’t wear your best clothes.” Completely unnecessary advice. Sturdy shoes were all that were required.

Some Pig

My first impression of the pigs as our caravan approached the farm was how curious they were. They ran out to meet us, as if to say “hey there, who are you?” As our afternoon unfolded, and we tromped out into the pasture with the younger pigs, that impression expanded to wonder at the joyful nature of these pigs. Paul’s pigs are indeed, happy pigs. They play, chase each other, munch on grass (30% of their diet is grass), frolic, roll around in the mud, and dig in the ground.

Love of mud

Paul had 10 or so sows who had just given birth, giving a few of us the chance to hold a day old piglet. Here’s some useful information if you ever have to pick up a piglet. Hold it by placing your hands under its belly. Do not touch or rub the top of the pig’s back or the pig will squeal in fear. Something about a pig’s instinctual reaction to coyotes.

chris-golub-1.jpg
Chef Christopher Golub holding a day old pig

Some of you might be thinking at this point, what’s the big deal? So what? It’s just a pig farm. (Some of you may also be wondering where the recipe is in this post; there’s link to a good one if you keep reading.) Actually, the big deal is this. Paul is unusual in that he raises his pigs on pasture, outside in nature. His pigs are free to roam, dig, quarrel, play, roll around in the mud, as pigs, the intelligent, curious, playful creatures they are, are wont to do. Paul also rotates his pastures so that fields that hold pigs (and their rich manure) one year, will be planted with the corn and soybeans used to feed the pigs the next.

sow-with-piglets.jpg

Most people don’t realize that the vast majority of pigs raised for our consumption have never felt the earth beneath their feet. They spend the entirety of their lives, from birth to death, in crowded, covered buildings, with slats to drain their waste. Sows are kept in pens so small they don’t have room to turn around. These Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, aka CAFOs, produce so much waste, the environment can’t absorb it, and as a result Iowa (10 million pigs, 3 million people) and North Carolina (10 million pigs, 9 million people) are now two of the most polluted states in the nation.

cafo.jpg
Rows of hog confinement buildings

Here’s a photo I shot of confinement operation. Each one of these long buildings holds anywhere from 1000 to 3000 pigs. We passed mile upon mile of rows of these confinement operations in the hundred mile drive from Des Moines to Thornton.

Ever wonder why the natural, antibiotic-free, hormone-free pork you buy at a premium tastes so much better than the regular stuff? It’s because in order to be able to live outdoors and survive the cold weather, the pig must have enough back fat. Only certain breeds, usually the older, heritage breeds have enough fat in them for the pig to survive outside. Pigs who are free to run around in pasture also build their muscles, another source of great flavor. Pigs raised in confinement are such lean breeds that they would die of the cold if not housed. They are also so close together that they must be regularly fed antibiotics to keep them from getting and spreading disease.

young-pig.jpg

Is it not ironic that we take naturally lean cattle, who just want to eat grass, and we raise them in feedlots to fatten them up while at the same time we take naturally fat pigs, and we breed all the fat out of them? Regular pork is so lean these days that it very quickly dries out when you cook it, which is why we tend to slather our pork in rich sauces; we need something to get the flavor back in.

So, where to buy pork from pigs that have been raised with room to roam and with fat on their backs? Niman Ranch is one nationwide available brand; you can even find it sometimes at Trader Joe’s. A natural brand I’ve seen at Whole Foods is Beeler’s. The Berkshire breed of pig makes exceptional pork, you can find more information about it at Berkshire Meats. Fatted Calf in the San Francisco Bay Area is a great source for outstanding pork products.

Oh yes, before I forget, I did promise a link to a great recipe, right? Paul’s wife Phyllis makes the best pork burgers in the world. Think Swedish meatball, but in burger form.

If you have a good local source of pork from naturally raised, antibiotic and hormone-free pigs that I haven’t mentioned here, would you please let us know about it in the comments? Muchas gracias.

81 Comments

  1. Pille

    Thank you for a lovely, lovely, post, Elise. These pigs and piglets look truly happy (just like the chicken I met earlier this summer:) I wish people everywhere were more aware about the conditions their food is grown and raised and bred. We’d all – including the animals and plants – be much happier..

  2. David

    That was an excellent post, Elise. I read it twice!

    I recommend the book, The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I learned so much about meat and pork, mostly about why we need to learn more about the foods we’re eating.

    Thanks for taking us along with you to the pig farm. Now I want a cute little piglet of my own, though…

  3. Ian

    As cruel as these factory farms are, how they are slaughtered is even worse. I almost quit eating meat because of it. I found some family farms where they are pasture raised and humanely slaughtered. As a plus the taste is fabulous!

  4. Ellen

    Thanks for the very interesting post Elise. As a veterinarian, I am displeased, to say the least, about how our profession has refused to stand up to production farming operations and defend the needs of farm animals. If more people knew about the reality of meat production in this country I believe they would demand more humane conditions and accept the costs that may be involved. I would much rather have smaller (probably healthier) portions of tastier humanely raised meat, than the “super-sized” portions of bland meat we’re told we should want.

  5. Laura

    Thank you so much for this post. It’s sad but true that most people don’t think about where their meat comes from, and most would rather remain ignorant about it. Farms like this one are better for the animals, better for people, better for the environment…people like Paul need to be recognized!

  6. Alanna Kellogg

    Elise, your ‘Wilbur & friends’ photos so beautifully capture the pigs’ curiosity and intelligence – happy pigs, indeed!

    Seeing the pigs romp and roam so freely in the open air was amazing, my favorite memory of our time on the Willis farm — there’s a short bit of video showing them play at the end of the Sarah Willis video that you’ve linked to – it’s worth a look-see.

  7. Mercedes

    Elise, this is just wonderful, so much great information, and I hope more people will start spreading the word about naturally raised meat.
    My family’s Argentine and insisted on grass-fed beef growing up, and I always wondered why American steaks were comparibly terrible. There was a great article in Slate about grass vs. corn fed beef.

  8. Kris

    Imagine how much happier the pigs, cows and chickens would be if we simply stopped eating and exploiting them.

    Note from Elise: Well Kris, given that we raise these animals to eat them, they wouldn’t be alive in the first place.

  9. Jacquie

    What an amazing opportunity you had! Your post sounds very similar to a great book by Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma). Not sure if you’ve read it or not but it sounds like you’d love it.

    I am currently in my own search for a local farm where I can purchase meat from naturally raised cows/pigs. I’ll definitely be monitoring the comments for any suggestions… :)

  10. Jesse Gardner

    I just finished watching a disturbing video from meat.org, but I wonder what I can do? Especially living out here on the east coast, it’s hard to find any large local farms that raise livestock or pigs for meat. Am I resigned to buying assembly line meat?

  11. rhiannon

    I grew up in eastern North Carolina. And the pollution from pig farms is a constant news topic. It is especially bad after a hurricane comes through, because if a pig farm floods you’ve got kajillions of gallons of pig waste washing straight into the rivers. fun times.

  12. MrsC

    Thank you for drawing attention to this food ignorance situation in America today, Elise. I first heard about CAFOs in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and I have to say that book changed many things about the way I value food resources and farmers. I heartily recommend it.

  13. joanne

    One of the downsides or positives of mass marketed meat, and not knowing the farm or seeing the animals, is that many people humanize them. It does make it harder for most consumers to look at their food and realize I just saw this guy the other day and now he’s gracing my plate. I grew up with my parents buying live birds and watching the slaughter. I’ve never seen a cow or pig in person, nor seen a slaughter house. I believe, I would be squeamish. Until I smelled that wonderful roast of course.

  14. Gary in Massena

    My wife and I have a small farmette. On it we raise goats, chickens, a donkey and a pig. At this point they are all landscape animals in no danger of the butcher block.

    The chickens pay thier way with almost a dozen eggs a day which just about matches the consumption of our kids.

    When the goats freshen we have milk.

    The donkey serves no meaningfull purpose but to annoy our neighbors.

    The pig is a pet.

    It was not always so.

    We had raised several pigs that found thier way to the freezer. As well, many chickens have made the same pilgrimage. We had the kids involved in the whole process of raising them because we wanted them to know where the antiseptic (mostly) flats of meat in the freezer case come from.

    The key was we did this when they were really young, before the grossout factor could enter into the picture. Also, up front they knew the final destination of those cute, adorable little animals.

    As I remember we named the last batch of three piggies to go to slaughter Ham, Bacon and Sausage.

  15. Kelly Mahoney

    Enlightening post.

    My family tried to raise a turkey one year for a special meal, but my youngest sister was 2 at the time and named the turkey and became quite attached to it, and thus, we ordered pizza that year instead.

  16. Heidi

    I’m a new reader and when I saw your blog post this morning, I was really excited, since I’m from Iowa myself! It is with good reason that your friends warned you about the smell when you told them you were visiting a farm with pigs. On your way up interstate 35, I’m sure you noticed the horrifying smell from the other hog confinements. While the massive farms will probably never subside, we are finding more and more farms like the Niman Ranch in our area. They’ve entered a niche, local market and many have been quite successful. A family farm near my home (http://www.hansendairy.com) has experienced great success, though people thought they were crazy when they started a few years back.

    We are what we eat, so thank you for posting such a great story educating people about our food options.

  17. farmgirl

    Thank you so much for writing this, Elise. The only thing better than reading it was reading the e-mail you sent me from Iowa. Your excitement over seeing these pigs (and holding the baby!) was palpable all the way down here in Missouri.

    I believe the main reason disgusting factory farms are flourishing and our meat supply is in such a sorry state is due to ignorance. As you said,

    “Most people don’t realize that the vast majority of pigs raised for our consumption have never felt the earth beneath their feet.”

    If you don’t know, you can’t care. . .

    Before I moved from urban Northern California to a farm in rural Missouri 13 years ago, I pretty much had no clue about how the meat we eat was raised. Just flipping through a vet supply catalog and seeing the pages and pages of medications, growth hormones, and other unnatural things to be injected into our meat supply was a real eye opener.

    When I was growing up, I never imagined that one day I would have freezers full of lamb and beef I raised myself, but now I can’t imagine it any other way. Our grass-fed animals are happy and healthy. Our flock of several dozen sheep roams freely about the farm, grazing on organic pastures, putting on muscle and staying lean as they travel a couple of miles a day.

    We no longer have hogs on the farm, because it’s impossible to stay in business if the market won’t even pay what it costs you to raise an animal, let alone enough to make a profit. But at one point 49 happy sows called this farm home, and I’ve never tasted better pork in my life.

    I believe that educating people is the key to returning our food supply to a much less scary state. Almost everybody knows that a juicy, vine-ripened tomato from the organic garden tastes a million times better than a mealy one that was raised in dead soil, sprayed with toxic chemicals, picked when green and hard as a rock, gassed so that it would turn red, and shipped thousands of miles from where it was grown.

    Hopefully one day soon almost everybody will also know that The Tomato Difference is actually true for every single thing we eat. And all it takes is one bite to realize it.

    Thank you again, Elise. Reading this article brought tears to my eyes. And now I think I’d better go feed the chickens some freshly picked greens from the garden, check on my happy flock of sheep, pull out a lamb steak for dinner, and take a deep breath of fresh farm air as I look around and remind myself that all this hard work is so very, very worth it.

  18. Alain Roy

    An excellent book that I’m in the middle of reading: The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It expands on issues that you touched on in your blog post.

    Note from Elise: Omnivore’s Dilemma should be required reading for all Americans.

  19. Erin

    A friend sent me this article because I grew up on a hog farm in IL. I would also like to point to the aging and shrinking farming community in America as another reason it is difficult to find anything but corperate pork. Most family farms had to incorporate and go “big” in the 1970′s and 1980′s in order to survive in the current economy. This has led to the large hog operations in states like Iowa, Illinois, and North Carolina. The midsized farms and small farms are disappearing because they can’t compete with the economies of scale that are found in the large operations. The small farms that are left tend to be operated by senior farmers, widow farmers, or in families where the farmers are forced to work at other jobs during the day and farm at night and on the weekends. With articles like this, I am hoping more of these small farms will form a niche market and be able to compete with larger operations. Not only will they be able to keep producing pork and maintain a valuable way of life, but also produce a healthful and tasty product that is less taxing to the environment.

  20. Randi

    I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilema too and I really wish I could become a vegetarian. I already don’t eat red meat and I’m seriously thinking about giving up poultry too. I now live in the country where I see Cows/Pigs on a daily basis. My heart breaks when I’m on my way to Michigan and I look over in the next lane and see pig snouts sticking out of the trucks that are transporting them to slaughter. All they want is some fresh air!!

  21. Chris Dattilo

    Wonderful post and pictures. Once I read Omnivore’s Dilemna I determined to change our families habits. I belong to a local Meat CSA. Every month I pick up 10 lbs. of naturally/locally, pasture-fed, organic raised chicken/pork/beef. My farmer takes great care in picking the abattoir (slaughterhouse), takes pride in the breeds she raises, names and loves their animals and loves to meet and educate her customers.
    I found my Meat CSA at Eatwild.com. I went to farmers markets and chatted with various farmers, tried small quantities of their meats and in some cases visited their farm, until I decided on the Meat CSA (http://www.chestnutfarms.org) I wanted to participate in. Eatwild has listings in most states.
    Lastly, Niman Ranch has a beautiful coffee table book about it’s history and philosophy. It’s worth picking up and reading – an education in itself.

  22. Garrett

    Great post. Thank you for bringing this topic up. Our family is trying to eat locally and be more conscious about from where the food is grown and raised.

    We recently went to our local county fair and had a great conversation with one of the father’s of a 4-H contestant who raised pigs. He said that it was required that each 4-H participant in the pig category raise two pigs. Usually however, only one pig would be taken to the fair. The other was sold to whomever would want it.

    He said that if you contacted a 4-H participant at the beginning of the season, you could literally have the pig raised for you and that they all went to the same place for butchering. All of the pigs are raised with care in a healthy environment, as this is the 4-H philosophy.

    Although the price may be a bit above market, anything above market value was a tax deduction since it would be considered a donation to 4-H.

    We’re going to be doing that this season with some friends. Just thought I’d pass on the information for folks who might be interested.

  23. tannaz

    In John Robbin’s book, The Food Revolution, he tells an amazing story about his encounter with a pig farmer — one of the ‘evil’ factory-farming, horrible-conditions, pig-stacked-on-top-of-each-other types of farmers, and how the experience changed both Robbins and the farmer. It really illustrates the stark difference between this and what you described above — how the even farmers themselves are emotionally affected. And, it happens to be online!

    http://www.foodrevolution.org/pig_farmer.htm

    definitely, definitely worth reading.

  24. Michael

    Your post speaks to the reason it is important to me to leave my urban academic’s life and mindset for a day now and then and hunt a little each fall.

    My favorite source of fresh, lean, hormone-free pork is tract of bottom land an hour from here that belongs to a friend’s brother. A herd of feral pigs runs on it, and I try to harvest one or two smallish ones each year.

    Killing some of the meat I eat for myself keeps me grounded in the reality of life on earth, I think. I don’t do it cruelly or without a sense of loss. I believe it keeps me alert to realities of life and to the imperative of gratitude for it.

    A secretary in my department and her husband are taking subscriptions for a beef CSA project to begin next year, and I’ll also be participating in that as well.

  25. sarah

    My apologies…this is a long one!

    Here’s another perspective.

    I was raised on a second generation cattle and farrow to finish hog operation in Missouri. As the oldest daughter of an independent producer, I grew up seeing the pride that my dad and grandpa took in raising quality animals for others consumption.

    I saw the care that they took in deciding which vaccinations to administer and in selecting the right animals to breed and in mixing the feed themselves. I saw the care that he put forth for these animals literally break his body. And I saw him struggle as he exited the hog market in the nineties because he didn’t want to be a contract grower….he wanted to stay independent, to make his own decisions about the care of his animals.

    Alongside my dad, grandpa and sisters, I participated in every aspect of the care of these animals. I fed them in the evenings after school. I helped vaccinate the baby pigs after they were born. I helped wean them. I cleaned their stalls and houses. I worked with these hogs every day, from farrowing houses to the finishing barn until the day we loaded them onto the truck to take to the hog market. And I loved every minute of it. I learned responsibility. I learned to take PRIDE in what I was helping raise.

    The sound of the hogs, the smell of them, the feel of them was always comforting to me.

    Sounds like a pleasant childhood doesn’t it?

    And he had a confinement building. Does that surprise you after the childhood I just described?

    CAFO’s are not the end of the world. Most farmers who operate large confinement facilities are genuinally concerned about the impact they can have on the environment. If a spill does occur, rarely was it on purpose. If the smell is overpowering….well, perhaps you’re smelling it the wrong way. As my dad always said, “it smells like money” which to us, meant college. There’s a good chance that what some of you do may be offensive to us so try to keep that in mind!

    My grandfathers are both college graduates, one a veterinarian. My parents are both college graduates, my dad with a degree in Animal Science. I too, am a college graduate with a degree in Ag Econ.

    And I’m proud of my family. Proud that they made me work. Proud that I had the opportunity to do so….confinement building, vaccinations, and all.

    The conditions in which animals are raised in are important. But so is the care that they are given. My dad’s goal was to raise healthy animals, animals that he would be proud to take to market and proud to eat himself. He was a reputable farmer in our county and used a confinement building to help make his operation more efficient.

    So while everyone is raving about organic this and hormone free that and BST and CAFO’s are the devil, remember a farmer is a caretaker… a caretaker of the land, food, and their family. People like Paul are to be commended for their efforts, but his way is not the only way to be a caretaker of our land.

    In short, Trust Them.

    Most farmers are not in this for the money….many have to have their spouses provide off-farm income for living expenses. These men and women are in it because it’s a job they are proud of. A job that will allow them to raise a family with the values they were raised with. A job that contributes to the welfare and health of others.

    TRUST THEM!

    Thanks and I look forward to more delicious recipes!

  26. Peter Steinberg

    I’m right there with you. Driven by a similar desire I talked my way onto working for a week on a free-range pig farm (heritage pork!) in Shushan, NY this Summer.

    I have yet to write up my experience but you can get a sense of it from my friend’s blog entry:

    http://echensf.blogspot.com/2007/08/flying-pigs-farm.html

    Oh, and we also spent a week on an organic vegetable farm in the Catskills:

    http://echensf.blogspot.com/2007/08/lucky-dog-farm.html

    Keep up the great writing!

    Peter

  27. Karen

    I feel a great sense of gratitude to the farmers who are taking on the hard work of raising our food; those who make it possible for commodity livestock to live happy, healthy lives, whatever their motivations, are creating the foundation for reform in this country.

    I like to think that it’s probable that by the time my own kids have families, there will be a whole new system of food production in place, grounded in sustainable farming methods.

    Thanks for the post and snapshots of those curious, muddy pigs!

  28. courtney

    I could never do this. I am just too much of an animal person to see those piggies, and then eat a pork chop.

    However we did just have a butcher open right around the corner from our house. I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, but am really excited to. They left a flier on our door when they opened a week or two ago that they grind their own beef, and cut your bacon in front of you. They were also advertising ground beef for about half of what I pay at the market. I am curious to know if that was just a “Grand opening promo”, or their regular price.

    We’ll see.

  29. Heidi Dening

    Hey, just wanted to share the name of a good meat shop in San Francisco: A K Meats in the Richmond District (on Clement near 25th Ave). Their meat isn’t technically organic but it is all natural and not factory-farm produced.

    I am fairly new to the world of non-factory farm food. I never knew what I was missing until I ate lamb at my in-laws farm near Lindsay, ON (canada). They raise happy, pasture-roaming Katahdin sheep, and it shows in the taste. I am now a convert! And after seeing the amount of time, work, heart and soul that goes into farming, I don’t mind paying the extra money to support smaller farms.

    Thanks for sharing the pics!

  30. jackiecat

    Thanks for the person who posted the link to
    Eatwild.com. From that I was able to identify humane meat sources in my area. Try it! They have info on many different states.

  31. Jane

    Thank you for the reminder that not all animals are raised inhumanely. I stopped eating meat in May when I discovered how the animals that we eat are ‘raised’ and slaughtered. I also sadly discovered that most people do not want to know about these horrible conditions (I consistently hear, ‘don’t tell me’). If it is appropriate for this site, it would be nice to know about farms that raise and slaughter humanely. It might be a good follow up story.

  32. Kathy

    Excellent post! For the last two years I’ve had the opportunity to buy raw organic milk and cheeses, grass fed beef and heritage breed grass fed pork from Alvin Stoltzfus of Spring Water Farm in Paradise, PA. He delivers and sells at local farm markets in SE Pennsylvania. We are headed out to the farm tomorrow for a “customer appreciation day”. All around it is a better food and better relationship between farmer and consumer.

    Someone mentioned it is hard to find farms like this on the east coast – it may be harder, but there are more and more. Part of the problem is that many of the farmers who are good at raising animals aren’t necessarily good marketers. I encourage you to persevere, you’ll find them.

  33. garth

    hello elise,

    I just bumped into your article and I read it thoroughly. I enjoyed your facts regarding the importance of the well being of the pigs raised on farms. But what I am even still puzzled about is that you seem to omit the fact that the pigs on the farm you visited are still raised for slaughter. I can understand that the life that the pigs do lead before this event can at least enjoyable, but come on…either way they are destined to be killed and live an unnatural lifecycle based on market demand for pork.

    I was also amazed at how you could cast an evil eye on CAFOs and at the same time hold a practically newborn pig in your hands and cite recipes and talk of the tenderness of pig meat flavors in the same article. The respect for a pig lifestyle, lifecycle, and life should go hand in hand…no?

    I had this discussion with a few people a month or so ago one of which was an organic dairy farmer…faultless to me because at least he doesn’t kill the cows. Anyway, when he explained to me the fact that people are willing to pay more for food when they know where is comes from etc. (the point many supporters of alternative farming methods bring up when the issues of pricing are mentioned) I responded is these ‘people’ ones who are cutting coupons, living on food stamps and have poverty line or below poverty line lifestyles. For me these people are the ones that I think of when I consider the aspects of CAFOs and I understand that even with CAFOs some of us still can’t afford to eat.

    I am not ‘vegi’ anything but I find it a bit puzzling when people dehumanize animals and at the same time say that a process of killing something is inhumane. Aren’t all animals created equal? But I guess in this way the dogs, cats, and parakeets have got it good. I suppose nobody said life was fair …even for the animals.

    Personally, I find it a bit perverse to want to see someone slice open the belly of a pig when I purchase meat to eat for dinner (…it is nice to know that the meat I eat is healthy, high in nutrition, and of good quality, but this should mistaken for blood lust, nor the mistrust of the public in modern day animal husbandry methods be manipulated into a pitch for free range animal farming)…and I find it even more perverse to endorse the ‘fun filled’ lifestyle of a pig who’s throat I intend to slit when he gets enough back fat from the grass I feed him and the tasty muscles from the field I graciously provided for his ‘lifetime’ of enjoyment.

    Note from Elise: Hi Garth, who knows? Maybe next time I’ll visit a slaughterhouse and write about that. As my visit was only to the farm itself, that is what I chose to write about. Given that the title of this post is “The Meat We Eat” I think it goes without saying that I’m writing about pigs that not only are raised, but are also killed, for our consumption.

  34. mitsuko

    Pigs are cute and smart, just as cats and dogs. We don’t eat dogs, do we? So why do we eat pigs?

    Note from Elise: HI Mitsuko, actually dogs are eaten in many cultures. The difference in our culture is that we raise dogs for pets and we raise pigs for food. Pigs have been domesticated for our consumption for thousands of years. If we didn’t eat them, we wouldn’t raise them in the first place.

  35. Shannon

    A great book I just recently read was called “The Ethics of What We Eat”. The authors visit 3 different families: 1 that eats meat and shops at Wal-Mart for all of their groceries, 1 that tries their best to eat organic and free-range foods when possible and shops at TJ’s and 1 that is completely vegan. The authors go shopping with each family and then try to visit the places where each product is produced and in the book they go to both a CAFO and a farm like Niman’s. It’s a great book and I’ve been passing it on to all of my friends. I think the Omnivore’s Dilemma is next on my list.

  36. Shannon

    I also wanted to add that this book not only addresses animal issues but it also addresses free trade and environmental impacts of the food we eat. I highly recommend it!

  37. Genie

    Elise, I loved Alanna’s post and loved yours too! So great to see two fabulous bloggers giving the shout-out to Iowa. Sounds like it was such a fun trip, and I’m really glad to learn more about this particular farm and to have folks spreading the word about CAFOs. Scary stuff, they are…

    And newborn pigs are so adorable, aren’t they? I’ve only seen them at the State Fair, but got to pet a couple of them this year — so sweet!

  38. Andrea

    Elise, this is one of my favorite of your posts. The photographs are wonderful, (loved the photo stream!) and the text is informative as usual.

    I am very impressed with Niman Ranch and it is great to see they raise pigs too. I remain a meat eater but I feel we could all change the world if we would choose humane sources of meat.

    Thanks!

  39. omie

    My good friends mike and elsa are organic pig farmers, and you can buy their wonderfuly free range organic pork, as well as lamb duck goose and chicken, (all raised happily on their farm) at the Union Square Green Market in N.Y.C. The name of their Farm is Tamarack Hollow.
    Nieman Ranch is excellent pork, but to our taste, we found their pork to be better. I always read and enjoy Simply Recipies, but this time I just had to post! Mike is in Union Square every Wednesday, Although he may miss one comming up as Elsa is about to give birth to little farmer #4. Thanks for the great article. Eating organic is so deeply right.

  40. Amy

    GREAT post! But as a point of verification, in regards to Omie’s comment “Eating organic is so deeply right”. Niman is NOT organic! Here’s what they say in their own words on the subject:

    “Niman Ranch strongly supports organic farming principles. Many of our farmers and ranchers have organic farms or organic pastures and use organic feeds. However, for our meat to be certified organic, all the feed that we give our livestock would have to be certified organic. This would raise the cost of production of our meat by as much as 50%, depending on the grain market. There is currently a shortage of organic grain in this country, making feeding only organic feeds particularly difficult. We believe a better use of those limited organic grains would be direct human consumption.

    More and more of the organic grains and soy currently available in the U.S. are actually imported from distant lands, mostly Brazil and other Latin American countries. We do not support importing feeds from distant foreign countries, believing instead that any feeds given our animals should, to the greatest extent possible, be grown by our farmers themselves or local farmers. Sometimes this means organic and sometimes it doesn’t. But it always means healthy, sustainable farming. “

  41. Porthos

    Great post E!
    I’ve actually worked with Niman Ranch for years as a purveyor to New York City restaurants, and you are right on with the article.
    Pigs that are raised outdoors wins hands down in any taste test conducted for retail and/or professional kitchens. Not only does it taste better, but it is better for you.

    Spreading the word through articles like your’s are the tools we need to save this country’s diminishing food quality standard.
    Keep up the great work!

  42. Micheline

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

    Ironically, my husband and I have been talking about this very thing – and the true importance of buying locally when possible. We’ve found a local cattle ranch that we’ll be picking up a 1/2 steer from shortly, we’ve found a relatively local sheep ranch to get a whole or two lambs, and we’ve located local pig ranches to buy a whole hog. This was all in the past month, your post was truly timely.

    Maybe someday, we can supply others with locally grown produce and/or meat. We’re going to be starting a rabbitry in our backyard soon and we’ll be building a hen house to house 5-6 hens for fresh eggs and the occasional chicken. Too bad there are not more options for locally grown free range chicken in our area.

    There is so much each individual person can do to support humane treatment of animals and to support reliance on locally grown produce and meat. There is absolutely no reason any animal, cow, sow or hen should be transported hundreds of miles from their “home” for consumption – live, fresh or frozen.

    Thanks for this post as it truly reinforces our perspective and viewpoint.

  43. Monica

    I just have to say this article really catched my attention, I’m a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat for animals rights reasons, but I understand many people can’t stop consuming it or don’t really care too much for all the suffering animals are put through in most farms in order to become food.

    It’s a a relief there are still farms like the one described at the beginning of the article, but they are not the mayority, I think mainly because they don’t seem as profitable as the others.

    So I just want to ask all of you who eat meat, please try to get it from places like this one, where animals are bred with the respect they deserve, and if you happen to not particulary care about the animal in question at least remember that it will become your food, so be respectful to your food, be respectful of what you put in your body, care about your health and most of all BE GRATEFUL to those animals that nourish you everyday

  44. Kelli Harrington

    Full Disclosure – I work for Niman Ranch. In response to Jesse Gardner’s post- “I just finished watching a disturbing video from meat.org, but I wonder what I can do? Especially living out here on the east coast, it’s hard to find any large local farms that raise livestock or pigs for meat. Am I resigned to buying assembly line meat?”

    Jesse, no you are not resigned to buying CAFO meat! Niman Ranch products (beef, pork, and lamb) are available online at http://www.nimanranch.com. Products are shipped fresh overnight across the U.S. We support over 500 family farmers like Paul and Phyllis Willis around the country. You can meet more of them in the “meet our farmers” section on the website.

  45. Linda

    Hi Elise,
    Great photos, I am glad you enjoyed your time on the farm. Do you know pigs are raised in Fallbrook Calfornia?
    Let me share a little of my family history with you. I grew up eating what is now called organic produce. I do not like butter beans (lima beans?) to this day because I picked and shelled so many of them. My parents both worked but we planted each year a 1/2 acre garden to survive. We ate mostly chicken. My mom never had a steak till she married my dad. My mom had 9 siblings. Only way my grandmother who was widowed in her 40s could feed her large family was raising chickens to eat. The days of raising your own food or going to a farmer are gone for most of us.
    Look at the big picture; most families cannot live where organic foods are locally sold at afforable price.
    The meat from a commercial farmer can keep kids from going hungry each day. Organic anything is pricey for a family barely able to survive especially true if you live in a larger city. I ask do food banks get anything organic donated to them? Organic food is great if a person can afford to buy it. But please let the commercial pig and chicken farmer do their jobs because they are an important ones.

    Linda in Washington

    Note from Elise: Thanks for sharing your perspective Linda. Please do note that I have not said anything about “organic” in this article. Niman Ranch pork is not labeled organic, for the reasons given on their website, noted by Amy earlier in the comments.

  46. AnnaW

    First-time poster! Yay! Thanks so much for the awesome post, Elise! And thanks to all the people that left links to food source alternatives – I’m definitely checking those out.

    Both of my grandparents were/are farmers – my mom’s parents are (retired) dairy farmers, and my dad’s parents raise breeding pigs (I think a very different process from raising pigs for meat).

    I think my parents did a pretty good job of raising me and my siblings to be more connected with our food – we had goats (for milk), chickens (eggs), and at one point even raised rabbits (for meat – I know, I know, they’re cute and fuzzy, but it’s one of the easiest meats to digest, and my sis had severe allergies… we had some as pets, which we named, but the ones we knew were destined for the kitchen we just viewed differently somehow…)

    Anyhow, even with all that, I still find myself disconnecting from the meat at the grocery. Maybe it’s the plastic wrap, or maybe it’s that I just get in a rush and busy with all the other things I have on my mind these days, but I’m so very glad and thankful for the reminder. I love your blog and your recipes – keep up the good work!

  47. Tracy27

    My husband went into the hills past Los Banos, CA a few months ago and shot a 600-lb wild boar. (They’re descended from domestic Russian pigs mixed with a local boar population, and they are so plentiful that hunting them is encouraged; there’s no season and licenses cost all of $15.00). The meat we yielded from the sow he shot was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten – rich, flavorful and all-around amazing. We hoard the bacon fat like semi-liquid gold.

    Obviously, hunting isn’t an optimal solution for everyone, but we are actually pretty proud of having a freezer full of 100% organic wild boar, which presumably lived a happy life compared to most of its domesticated cousins, and which one of us personally harvested. Not too many omnivores today can say that.

  48. Marti

    When you keep a kosher diet, it’s more like the old days. We know the butchers’ names, we know where the animals were raised, we know exactly how they were slaughtered (kashrut is VERY specific), and there are fewer weird hormones and feeds given the animals b/c they have to be raised in a healthy way, free of injury. This isn’t to say that I don’t pick up some kosher chicken, when it’s needed, from the plastic-lined grocery aisles when I can’t get to the butcher. But it’s a concession.

  49. Morrighu

    I have to tell you that I’ve had this discussion with someone at work. He’s from New Jersey and what I would call a total “city boy”. Our backgrounds couldn’t be more opposite. I was raised in a very rural area on a working farm/ranch.

    We raised and butchered everything from catfish to rabbits to cows. I never ever had any doubts growing up that what I was eating had been wandering around in our pasture. I learned not to name things you’re going to eat later with the rabbits. It’s one thing to eat rabbit. It’s a whole ‘nother deal when you’re gnawing on Mr. Fluffy.

    My coworker grew up thinking that meat was something that came wrapped in plastic from the store. It never occured to him that it was a living breathing animal at any point in its existence. He’d never even seen a cow up close until he came to Texas. He’d never seen a chicken up close until he came to my house and went to look at my neighbors chickens.

    Just the fact that his food used to be roaming around grosses him out. He flatly refuses to consider where his food comes from. Now that we’ve had a couple of generations who have gotten used to the prepackaged nature of everything at grocery stores, we now have a huge disconnect going on.

    People neither know nor do they care to know where their food comes from. It is sickening to them to think that their nice sanitary little Styrofoam and plastic packages were once up running around, much like the family dog.

    Worse yet, Disney, Pixar, etc. have humanized animals to the point that we’re anthropomorphizing them. Animals do NOT speak. They don’t do song and dance numbers. Animals have the disturbing habit of eating each other while they’re still alive. Anyone who thinks humans killing animals is inhumane should see what lions do that they *don’t* show on Animal Planet.

    Here’s the thing. If you follow all of this through, you have to admit a lot of other uncomfortable truths. Animals will kill you. You’re on the menu too. That’s a concept that most people have issues with.

    2 cents…

    Mor.

  50. Bob

    I’m glad that these animals are free to roam; people should be more aware of how their meat is raised. However, people should also be made aware of how their meat is killed. Maybe that’ll be an article for next time.

  51. Jessi

    Thanks for your article Elise, it caught my attention too.

    This is a reply to Morrighu, oh yes, they DO show all the gruesome stuff on Animal Planet, including chimps who hunt a monkey and start ripping it apart to eat it. They also show documentaries that show a wide range of animal behaviors, as it’s not a channel limited to showing ‘cutesy’ animal stuff. I disagree with the presentation of the opinion as facts. I thought I could share my opinion of what I have seen myself. :)

    The channel also shows a doc of a lion who adopted a baby oryx for a period of a few days. The lion did NOT eat the oryx; it attempted to suckle, nourish and protect it from hyenas. There are other docos showing behaviors some people are more reluctant to acknowledge animals can and do display. Anyway, I digress, sorry for that. :)

    I thought of a great book by a vet I admire as I was reading your article Elise, it’s “Kindred Spirits” by Dr. Allen M. Schoen. He discusses, though not at length, about humane production of the meat we eat. At the back of the book, he lists some books for further reading, one of which is “Eating with Conscience” by Dr. Michael W. Fox. Acknowledging that a lot of animals we eat do have what is termed awareness (even if it doesn’t manifest as planning a college education, marriage, etc. doesn’t discount it), and being grateful for the nourishment is a forward step.

    I’m not vegetarian, although I hardly eat any meat. The last time I ate bacon I made sure I bought some produced from pigs having lived good lives. It’s a shame that it’s cost-prohibitive to be able to afford more humanely- produced meat. I live in Melbourne, Australia by the way, there are fewer choices from what I’ve observed here than in the States, simply from the consumer perspective of more buyers=more choices.

    Like another poster suggested, it would be great to see a follow up Elise on slaughterhouses. Keep the good work and recipes, they are much appreciated! :)

  52. Jody

    I enjoyed this article very much. Lucky me, I’ve been living on a cattle and sheep ranch my entire married life (26 years) and we DO know where our food comes from. Just this past week we took two lambs (raised in the pasture) to the butcher for cutting/wrapping. Tomorrow we’re having fresh lamb chops for Sunday dinner! Our cattle are mainly breeding stock, but we also butcher enough beef to feed our family. We have fresh eggs too. I wish everyone could eat like we do!
    Love your blog.
    ~Jody

  53. Lisa

    I really enjoyed reading your and Alanna’s posts about this farm, Elise. Thank you for doing it.

    Here in east-central (Champaign) Illinois, my husband and I get our poultry, beef, eggs, and pork from Stan Schutte of Triple S Farm. Here is a link to information about his farm.

  54. Wendy

    Great post, Elise.
    I always buy outdoor bred pork/free-range chicken/etc. It sounds like it’s tricky to come across in the states? Local butchers here in the north of Scotland usually supply these kinds of locally reared meat and the supermarkets are stocking more and more as time goes on too. They are more expensive, of course, but I’d rather eat a little ethically reared food than lots of dubiously raised produce. :)

  55. Marlene Halverson

    Thanks for this wonderful post on the Paul Willis farm and Niman Ranch. I noticed in the photo set the banner for Animal Welfare Approved, a program of the Animal Welfare Institute.
    From the beginning, Animal Welfare Institute has provided the husbandry standards by which Niman Ranch pig farmers as well as a growing number of other family farmers who market food from their animals locally are raising their pigs.
    Mike and Suzanne Jones of MAE farm, Eliza Maclean of Cane Creek Farm, and Renae and Randall Parker, along with several others, all in North Carolina, and Tony and Sue Renger of Willow Creek Farm in Wisconsin, raise farmers’ hybrid, Ossabaw, and Berkshire pigs, respectively, and market their products locally and regionally.
    Recently AWI has expanded its husbandry standards program to include other livestock species. Dick and Kim Cates of Cates Family Farm raise beef cattle in Wisconsin and Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Turkey Farm in Kansas, with a network of local family farmers, breed and raise standard bred (also known as ‘heritage’) birds and are representative of these other farms.
    Like the Niman Ranch farmers, all of these farmers practice exceptional husbandry and together with their animals produce exceptional food for consumers.

  56. Vanessa

    Thanks for this wonderful and thought-provoking post, Elise. It’s great to see all the discussion this is generating and how thoughtfully your audience is approaching this subject. Even though I’m vegetarian, I’m happy whenever the subject of who/what/where/how food is “produced” is brought up.
    The worst is when someone says “Don’t tell me that” or “I don’t want to know.” This sort of thoughtlessness can only harm in the long run.

  57. Lisa

    Locally (sacramento), you can also get free-range, locally farmed, pork at the Sunday morning farmer’s market (under the W-X) from John Bledsoe. His farm is in Woodland, and all products he sells (hot dogs, sausage, pork) come from his farm.

    Nice to meet the guy who takes care of the pigs.

    Love your blog, by the way.

  58. Marcie

    Thanks, Elise – I am a first-time reader and this quite frankly was one of the most beautiful posts I’ve read on a blog to date. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for pigs (not sure why) and, for the record, I don’t eat any four-legged animals myself. I particularly enjoyed the photography, each picture really spoke to me and brought me into the experience you wrote about. Anyway, I was interested to read after posting my thoughts on pork after going to the NC State Fair (http://feedingblackmail.blogspot.com/2007/10/what-filters-you.html)
    and the statistic that there are more pigs in NC than people really blew me away!

    There has to be some kind of correlation between eating “unhealthy” meat (and food) and being unhealthy. Thanks for your story, it was inspirational to me to look into this issue further. ~Marcie

  59. Leisureguy

    The comment above about the family that was raising a turkey for Thanksgiving only to be stymied by the tot’s having named it, reminded me of something my wife told me. She was visiting her niece on Salt Spring Island, where her brother and sister in law were raising two pigs for food: the butcher would keep one and butcher the other for them in exchange. My wife asked her niece, who was a tot at the time, what the pigs were named. The niece pointed at each and said, “Freezer 1 and Freezer 2.” :)

  60. Matt Thomas

    Very interesting post Elise. I have been raising pigs for a few years now and it all started because I wanted better quality meat. My wife and I asked the same questions you do? Where did the meat come from? What chemicals did they put in this?
    Now we raise our own. And we know they are medicated or hormone injected. If you are near central Florida give us a call.
    Litte Pig Farm

  61. Jodie H.

    Just checking into organic pig farming since a group of 5 pigs is soon to be set up RIGHT next to our home in northern Thailand. I am a wee bit worried. I have been reassured not to be concerned about the smell, but I have visited a pig farm in Saskatchewan, Canada before. The smell was horrible!! I have been looking at sites just to set myself at ease. We are here temporarily, from Canada, and these pigs will feed the 40 children at a boarding house here. Will the plot that the pigs are on need to be rotated regularly, once they have consumed all the grass on it? What about foodscraps? Does this factor in to the feeding of the pigs? Could this create additional smell problems? Not sure if you are able to answer these questions. I will be continuing my search for information.

  62. Vintage

    Jodie, the best way to prevent the smell of a pig farm is to give the pigs room. Their waste is just like ours, if there is a lot of it it smells! Fence an area so they can wander around and not stand in their own filth, as most modern pig farming does.
    As long as you aren’t feeding them anything rancid, their food shouldn’t be a smell issue. Allow them to graze, but food scraps are fine. Pig farming has a stigma that I think it doesn’t deserve, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  63. Jeni

    As a vet student in the UK, I recently took an exam that focused primarily on the care and regulations for commercially raised animals. My husband, who helps me study, was surprised and appalled at the way commercial livestock is raised, especially laying hens. We are doing all we can to eat more humanely raised food here, and plan on raising some of our own when we are no longer transient.

    Also, I lived and worked on an organic free-range farm (pigs, sheep, cattle) over Christmas, and I learned that it isn’t just how you raise pigs that affects their flavour, it’s also in how you slaughter them. Pigs that are subjected to stress right before and during slaughter develop pale, soft, exudative (PSE) meat that is disgusting to eat, whereas pigs who trot happily and at their own pace around a corner where a “surprise” awaits (i.e., they never smell or sense death) have dark, firm, delicious meat. The Spanish have done this method of slaughter for some time, and they have quite delicious pork.

I apologize for the inconvenience, but comments are closed. You can share your thoughts on our Facebook page ~ Elise.