A Tale Of Two Hogs

The pork board keeps reminding Americans how lean pork is, and if you don't believe it, you should look at some pigs. An obvious place to begin is in northeastern Iowa, where a farmer named Gary Lynch keeps 100,000 or so hogs at any one time, spread out over six counties in vast steel sheds holding 1,000 animals each. Lynch, whose license plate reads porkie--no small distinction in a state with 15 million pigs--calls himself "a family farmer," and he is one, in the sense that his family works with him, and he lives on the land. But his pigs illustrate the remarkable evolution of the breed from a byword for slovenliness into the poster animal for modern, high-efficiency corporate agriculture: uniformly pink-skinned and narrow-hipped, lined up at the trough as eagerly as so many CEOs. When George W. Bush visited Iowa last week, he ate Lynch's pigs, smoked and cooked by Lynch's barbecue company. You can't get more corporate than that.

But there's another farm, less than 30 miles away, in New Hampton, whose owner, Tom Frantzen, thinks corporate farming is as deadening to the souls of animals as it is to farmers. Frantzen, who like Lynch took over a small family farm in the mid-1970s, raises organic pigs, unfettered pigs, variably mottled and plump, who loll indolently on the ground or on the straw beds of their canvas-walled tent shelters. Last year he brought a total of 1,050 pigs to market, a day's production for Lynch. Frantzen and Lynch don't even think of themselves as being in the same business. Frantzen raises hogs. Says Lynch, with one eye on the big meatpackers to whom he sells: "We used to raise hogs. Now we're raising pork."

But when they get up each day, they face the same challenge of transforming, over six months, some 650 pounds of grain and protein into 260 pounds of pig, and figuring out what to do with the 1,200 pounds of waste left behind. The new "USDA Organic" labeling rules require farmers to give their animals "access to the outdoors" (the animals are not required to take advantage of it, but pigs tend to be more interested in nature than, say, chickens), and they prohibit antibiotics and artificial feed additives. When Frantzen's pigs get sick, he treats them with natural remedies of oak bark, walnut husks and the like. But essentially, an organic pig is one that is fed organic feed. To Frantzen, who raises as much of his own feed as he can--"there are years when I'm self-sufficient, and years when I have to buy everything"--that's the point. "I know what it's like to plant corn and have to put on plastic gloves to dig around in the ground because you don't want to get the pesticides on your skin," he says. To Lynch, who typically raises less than 5 percent of his own feed, the relevant statistic is that organic feed costs 50 to 75 percent more than conventional, and he probably couldn't buy enough at any price. Lynch raised 250,000 hogs last year, which might actually come close to the output of all the organic farmers combined. There were 97 million hogs raised in America last year, and George Siemon of Organic Valley, the farmer-owned cooperative that markets Frantzen's pigs, guesses that organic herds accounted for "much less than 1 percent" of that. His dream, modest as it is, is that the new labeling rules will eventually raise that figure to 1.8 percent, on a par with organic milk.

But from both the human and pig point of view, these two operations are worlds apart. The differences begin no later than conception, which is accomplished on the Frantzen farm when one of his six boars mounts a sow. Natural insemination is not actually required by the new rules, but it fits Frantzen's philosophy of trying to re-create the pig's natural environment as closely as possible, and besides, it's easier to let the boar catch the sow than to do it yourself. (Frantzen's only farmhand is his 14-year-old son, James.) Lynch's operation, committed to turning vegetable protein into ham as efficiently as possible, uses artificial insemination, based on Lynch's calculations that it's cheaper to buy sperm than feed a boar.

Actually, the differences begin before conception, with the choice of pig. Frantzen's boars are Berkshires, a specialty breed that yields a darker, juicier meat with more fat (or "marbling") than the Pork Board would like you to know about. Until now, few supermarkets have carried organic pork, because in the absence of a national labeling standard there was no way to persuade consumers to pay extra for it. Its most enthusiastic customers have been high-end chefs, like Chicago's Charlie Trotter. Trotter, who buys his pork from Gunthrop Farms in Indiana, praises it for "an earthiness" that allows "the flavor of the grain to come through." Lynch, whose pigs are sold to major national processors and might turn up in a supermarket case anywhere in the country, raises a Landrace, Duroc and Hampshire mix that lives up to its slogan as "the other white meat," an outstanding substrate for soaking up his own brand of barbecue sauce.

Pigs gestate for three months, three weeks and three days, at the end of which Frantzen's sows go into a field, mound up a heap of straw and deliver seven to nine piglets. They will suckle for the next six to eight weeks, living in plywood shelters surrounded by pasture. "A little pig," says Frantzen, "from the day he's born until the day he leaves here, is exposed to a constantly changing world all the time--sunlight, shadows, mud, grass, basically everything you can think of that a pig might experience." Regrettably, it's also exposed to the danger that its mother will roll over and smother him. Lynch, by contrast, following standard industry practice, confines his sows and piglets--typically around 11 to a litter--in pens five feet by seven, designed to make it impossible for the sow to roll over. He weans the piglets no later than 21 days, the exact point beyond which they no longer require the antibodies in their mother's milk and will gain weight faster on their own. He clips their tails, a common precaution against pigs' tendency to bite one another on that tender and undefended part of the body. Frantzen views biting as a cry for help from overcrowded, overstressed pigs, and flaunts his pigs' tails as emblems of their wholesome upbringing.

After weaning, the pigs move to feeder houses. Each of Frantzen's three "hoop houses"--with floors of crushed limestone, open at the ends when weather permits to admit natural breezes and sunlight--holds around 140 pigs in a loose huddle. If they were spread out, they would have around 15 square feet of space per animal. On the Lynch farms, the sheds are divided into pens 19 feet by 10, holding 24 pigs each--giving roughly nine square feet per pig. The real function of a feeder house, however, is less to house pigs than to contain their manure. Pig manure is nature's answer to a tanker spill: foul-smelling, loaded with E. coli and potent concentrations of nitrates and phosphates. The same qualities that make it an excellent fertilizer on land make it deadly to fish when it washes into a river or stream and touches off a lethal bloom of algae. Frantzen lays down straw to soak up the dung and urine, and when the straw is saturated he puts down some more. Keeping the waste dry, he believes, is the key to controlling its notoriously pungent, ammonialike smell. When he sells a load of pigs, he spreads the straw on his fields, along with crushed eggshells, turning it in a rough approximation of composting. In fact, on the September day that NEWSWEEK visited, with the temperature in the 70s, the smell was noticeable but mild, by pig-farm standards--which is to say, it came out of a pair of jeans on a single washing.

But the same was true at Lynch's farm, which by the standards of industrial agriculture is a model of environmental correctness. In his feeder houses, the pigs walk on slats above a 500,000-gallon concrete waste pit, which he pumps out twice a year and applies directly to his fields, injecting the waste through a nozzle six inches below the surface. Lynch's technique is the preferred one for conventional farmers, according to Julie Nelson of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Other farmers just spread the manure on the ground, spray it or impound it in giant lagoons holding up to 20 million gallons, and prone to leaking or overflowing in storms.

But Frantzen and Lynch are both fighting the same battle, the farmer's eternal struggle to break even in the face of dismal returns that have reduced the number of pig farms in the United States by 90 percent since 1969. "I don't think there's another hog in the seven miles between here and Lawler," says Lynch. A generation ago, most of his neighbors supplemented their income from field crops with a few litters a year, taking their chances that after six months of fluctuations in the cost of feed and the price of pork, they wouldn't know how much they'd lost. Now the farmers have outside jobs instead of hogs, and Lynch stands alone on the precarious margin between his cost of production--currently around $40 per hundred pounds--and the price he can negotiate with the big meatpackers. He tries to lock in most of his production on long-term contracts, but on the open market, prices have been as low as $8 and as high as $60 in recent years; currently, they are around $27.

For his part, Frantzen figures his cost of production at $51 per hundred pounds, but his price from Organic Valley is $55, so that after six months his profit on a 260-pound hog comes to all of $10. Frantzen and Siemon, while dreaming of someday capturing less than 2 percent of the market, maintain that if consumers were willing to pay for it, organic farmers could in theory feed the nation; Lynch and most mainstream agronomists scoff at the idea. Meanwhile, though, the pigs are busy at the trough, and they keep getting leaner.