Nedry, Rose and Pearl, chowing down on spent pea plants I pulled from the garden
After a few days, we opened the gate of the small enclosure and allowed them to roam into the pasture area. They have been living the high life since then, rooting for bugs and plant tubers, sleeping in the mud wallows we create for them, wandering about happily. When we come over to visit, they run over excitedly and greet us with a chorus of grunts and snuffs, looking for food and a scratch behind the ear. It makes me grin every time. They are the picture of contentment.
I had the hardest time getting photos of them relaxing in their enclosure- they kept running over to the fence to greet me, grunting and snorting in glee. If you have never seen a pig run, take it from me - it's hilarious.
Contrast this to the lives of pigs living in confinement situations or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). These unfortunate creatures are stuffed into a barn with a concrete floor, sometimes up to 10,000 pigs in one building, never to set foot (hoof) outside or feel the sunshine on their bodies. Imagine how horrifying this must be - constantly crowded by other stressed-out animals and standing on concrete all day (YOU try standing on concrete all day and tell me how you feel... and for the record, I also think it's cruel to keep a dog in a concrete kennel/run all day too). Imagine the stench of 10,000 pig's feces and urine on concrete. Imagine being denied your most basic desire, the purpose for which you were created - rooting in the dirt. Can't root when you live on concrete. Imagine having your tail cut off because other stressed pigs are chewing on it. Imagine having no stimulation, no change of scenery, nothing (remember, pigs are the 4th most intelligent mammal, preceded by humans, apes/monkeys and dolphins - try to fathom how bored they must be. I think I'd go insane.). I can only imagine this must be a living hell for these creatures.
In order for these pigs to reach a slaughter weight, they are constantly fed antibiotics to keep them from dying of disease and infection. I don't even want to enter into the whole scary realm of "anti-biotic resistance" - you can do the research yourself. The question is, do you want to be eating animals that are sick, their symptoms being masked with heavy doses of drugs? When my son was a toddler, we discovered he is allergic to certain antibiotics. It occurred to me one day that if I was feeding him meat from animals raised in these conditions, he was almost certainly getting small doses of anti-biotics whenever he ate the meat. This made me furious. I was done.
Please know that I'm not trying to make out the farmers to be the bad guys here. They are simply trying to make a living and the swine industry told them that if they built a big barn with concrete floors, they could raise pigs more efficiently and make more profit. Concrete is more sanitary, they were told. Well, perhaps it is but I have 2 problems with that - One, just what DO they do with all that poop and urine that collects on the concrete? Manure lagoons? Good grief, do you know how toxic manure lagoons are? God never intended for so much animal manure to collect in one spot - humans have managed to take something that can be useful and life giving, and have transformed it into a toxic substance that pollutes the land and waterways. Two, I simply cannot get over the fact of raising an animal on concrete for it's entire life, especially an animal that was designed to dig in the dirt!!!! I'm sure there are lots of great farmers out there who truly care about their animals, who are doing their best to provide a good life for their livestock. But raising animals (any animal) on concrete or in small cages is far removed from the way these animals were intended to live. It's like preventing a chicken from scratching or a cow from eating grass (which happens all the time in confinement operations).
A few months ago, I was rummaging in the "free magazine" drop off basket at the library and I fished out an issue of Time magazine from 2009. I truly think God placed it there for me. Why else would a 3 year old magazine be in there? The featured article was "The Real Cost of Cheap Food" by Bryan Walsh. Please, please, please, take the time to read this article. It's a sobering read about how the horrific living conditions of animals and how it is effecting human health. The author makes a convincing statement about we can't afford not to choose sustainably and humanely farmed food.
If you are purchasing your meat at the grocery store, you should automatically assume you are eating animals that were raised in CAFOs, unless it specifically says otherwise ("organic", "pastured", "grass-fed", "free-range", etc.) However, even these labels cannot assure you that the meat was raised in the manner you assume - there is a lot of wiggle room in the regulations. You've got to dig deep. Call the company and ask questions. Do your research. In the face of these difficulties, I understand why so many people have chosen to give up meat altogether. I probably would too, if I had no other options. But there ARE options. Remember, if something is important to you, you will find a way to do it.
A good place to start is a local butcher shop. All the choices there may not be perfect, but at least you can talk to the manager of the shop and ask them questions directly. If they cannot meet your needs, chances are they know someone who can. A Farmer's Market is also a good place to look. Here in West Michigan, I know that Crane Dance Farm and Woodbridge Dairy Farm sell at the Fulton St. Farmer's Market. Even though this sounds sketchy, Craigslist can be a fabulous tool for seeking out "safe" meat. There are several small farms advertising on Craigslist that are raising animals that you could purchase and have custom butchered at a USDA inspected slaughter house (by the way, buying a whole animal or part of an animal is the way to go if you want good meat at a reasonable price). Ask if you can come out to the farm and see the animals. If they say no, then move on. Farmers need to be fully transparent - if they are trying to hide something, then you don't want what they have. When you visit the farm, don't expect everything to be pristine. Animals poop. A lot. All day long. Even the cleanest operation is going to have a lot of poop. What you are looking for is to make sure the animals look comfortable, that they are being raised in a manner you see fit. Get involved - know where your food is coming from. Nicolette Hahn Niman offers some great suggestions about how to avoid factory farm food in this article.
This past spring, I read the book "Righteous Porkchop" , also by Nicolette Hahn Niman, which is the story of the author's discoveries as she delved into the world of factory farming. I'll admit, I cried. I am not an animal rights activist. As much as I love animals, I still feel that human rights and issues should be first and foremost. But this tore me to pieces, to see how we humans have twisted our calling in life, the call in Genesis to be stewards of God's creation. Instead, we torture animals so that we can have "cheap" food. We abuse them and call it "advances in technology and efficiency". And now, we are discovering that human health is suffering as well because of the way we treat these animals. This is what happens when we deviate from God's design - ugliness, destruction, death.
We need to get back to God's design. We need to step back and observe these creatures, look for their strengths and use those to our advantage. Sustainable farming pioneer Joel Salatin (sigh... my hero...) uses pigs to aerate and turn over the soiled bedding that cows have been on all winter. Genius. He utilizes their natural rooting abilities to benefit the farm. When the pigs are done, he is left with a barn full of compost, ready to go out onto the fields to make crops grow. We're using our pigs to "rototill" some unusable land, so we can convert it to usable pasture. Other farmers plant crops for the pigs and use strategically placed electric fences to turn them loose in the fields little by little - the pigs feed themselves and then rototill and fertilize the field as they go. We need to embrace the qualities of these animals, not prevent them. Historically, farm animals were used to do work on farms - cows mowed the pastures (spreading manure as they went), pigs rototilled the fields, chickens spread the manure and kept the bugs at bay. Now we use machines and chemicals to accomplish these tasks instead, confining the animals that are are no longer needed... and look what has happened as a result. Sick animals, sick land, sick humans.
Pearl grazing in the grass
I urge you to consider your role in this problem. With every item of food you buy, you have the ability to promote health and healing or sickness and destruction. I know that sounds overdramatic, but it's the truth. And I know it's overwhelming. Don't expect to overhaul your entire diet and lifestyle all at once. Be gentle on yourself. No one is perfect - it's not all or nothing. Start with one small step. What could you do to support sound farming practices? Maybe you start eating less meat in general -think of meat as garnish, not a main entree. Maybe you stop purchasing meat at the grocery store and start seeking out sustainable farmers in your area instead (a good place to start is checking out farms that supply West Michigan Coop). Maybe you choose organic produce over conventional. Maybe you stop consuming fast food. Maybe instead of buying the next latest-and-greatest cell phone, you spend the money on purchasing a 1/4 of a grass-fed beef from a local farm. Little choices can make a big difference. Just some food for thought...