This trip was sponsored by Animal Agriculture Alliance. The opinions expressed here are all mine. I wasn't paid to write this post - I wasn't even asked to write it. My travel and lodging were provided to facilitate the experience.
Type. Backspace. Type. Backspace. Stare into space and think. Type. Backspace. Stand up and walk around. Close up the computer, walk away, try again the next day.
I've done that for the last - day? Four days? I've mentally written and rewritten this post over and over, and I have absolutely zero idea if I will ever be able to adequately explain exactly what this trip meant to me and what I experienced.
Let me backtrack.
I was invited to attend a sponsored trip, affectionately tagged #farmtopork. I go to a lot of sponsored trips - because, at the heart of me, I love to learn. And I've learned a lot about a lot of not related to my daily life stuff in these trips. Typically, when I return from a trip, I have a new subject of interest. I've read a lot about vaccines and their safety and efficacy, how processing plants work, what makes cars work the way they do and how automotive manufacturers take the steps to make cars more safe every year.
This trip was presented as a opportunity designed to show me - and 11 other bloggers - the steps detailed in bringing the bacon to the people. To open the barn doors on an industry that has historically been buttoned up tighter than a nun on a pirate ship. Farm agriculture has lately been foremost in people's gray matter negatively, thanks to activism on the parts of the people and the press.
Here - David explained it more succinctly than I ever could in his post, in which he says, in part:
The Alliance told the true, complete "farm to fork" story, using pork as the example. They invited twelve bloggers from across the country to see first-hand and learn about the entire process - from insemination on a sow farm, to a nursery, to a finishing farm, to processing. The bloggers met with farmers, with veterinarians, with environmental engineers, with scientists and nutritionists. No question was off the table.
I have long been intrigued by food. (Yes, I know, my body tells this tale better than my words. Shut up.) I'm not just a lover of food, but I have become fascinated by how it gets to us, what it's made of, and how we can improve the food supplies and the quality - having children who are on the spectrum and dealing with food allergies means that I really need to know exactly what I'm putting on the table. I've become disenchanted with fast food, convenience foods and the like. I prefer to cook from scratch and make much of what we eat from the ground up. I've recently wondered the dynamics of how we can get better food in a cheaper delivery system to financially challenged areas of the world.
It also helps that I thoroughly love cooking. It's relaxing and satisfying to me. I'm also lucky to work from home, so I have the luxury of time. Food is me. I am food. I like to cook good food, and cook it correctly. So I wanted to know more, when the opportunity presented itself. And what an opportunity it was.
My mother's parents farmed the land. My sister raises hogs. My father is an avid hunter and I've gone hunting with him and been around as he's dressed game. To me, meat, the hunting/purchase/preparation/ingestion of it is a part of life.
Never, at least in my mind, has the agriculture industry been so open with regards to what we saw. And what I saw, and what I experienced, was not what I was prepared to see.
To begin with, let's talk waste.
My husband's late step mother was of the Smithfield family, and so pork - and Smithfield - were constant topics. I clearly remember when Smithfield was hit with the largest Clean Water Act Fine ever - $12.6 million. MILLION. This fine was for violating the Clean Water Act, and basically being lax with their offput. It was the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA.
This story was all the topic in our family for quite a while, and on local news reports and the like, as I live very close to Smithfield. It was really interesting to me to learn that the man who was behind much of the investigation, Dennis Treacy, was solicited and ultimately hired by Smithfield as their Chief Sustainabilty Officer to help them improve their Environmental Impact with regards to the difficulties that "sustainable food production" is creating. (Really, really intriguing interview here with Dennis, as he discusses the roadblocks he faces. It's the fourth page down, and really worth your time. He doesn't pull any punches. Talk about loving your enemy, eh?)
See, here's the thing. The world has pretty much decided that we need to eat, and we need vast quantities of food. Raw material in meat form is really pretty much what the world wants - and yes, I know that there are many, many people in the world who do not eat meat or use any form of animal product. But, the world as a whole is more often than not carnivorious - and so there are going to be issues that come up in the production, processing and delivery of said meat, both animals and byproduct.
And Smithfield was one of the companies not doing things correctly - and they were caught. Found guilty and fined. There was argument back and forth as to the extent of the damage, how much should be punished - but at the end of the day, they were punished. And I find it admirable that after this event, they hired the very man who investigated them, the one who sued them - and he now works WITH the company to try to get it right.
Do they succeed all the time? Nope. Neither do I. I've got a few things I'm trying to do right by, and not 100% successful. But I'm trying, and so is Smithfield.
Soooo. Back to pigs. Which, really, is the focus of this post.
On the #farmtopork trip, we visited farms, plural. We had to shower in - completely removing all clothes AND washing our hair to let it air dry (I think God is truly trying to teach me to not be so vain, the idea of unbrushed, air dried hair was KILLING ME) and wearing new coveralls and undies and socks and great big boots. We showered out as well, returning to our own clothes. The farms are SERIOUS about their germ management. Gloves, hair nets, coveralls, boots - it's a good thing I didn't wear fancy clothes because no one saw it. Every farm, we dressed in and out - luckily, the only one that required the extensive showering was the nursery.
We were able to see the process of pork production - from insemination to the kill floor. And when I say insemination, that's what I mean - two of the ladies in our group inseminated sows. What I thought was interesting was the process of discovering if the sow is in heat - the boar is on a remote control cart, and he rides around pens. That has to be a gravy life, eh? When sows are in heat, they stand up, their ears perk up, and boom - they can become mamas again.
And these pigs are HUGE. Way bigger than I thought they'd be - even in my wildest imagination did I never even come close - the first glimpse I caught of one I literally gasped.
I saw 12 hour old pigs, laying on a warming mat in a pen with their mamas. These pens have come under vast amounts of discussion, because the sow cannot turn around. She can stand and lay down and go from side to side, but cannot turn around. Kind of like this:
I know that I wouldn't find this comfortable - but I also know that I'm not a pig - and putting human emotions and thought processes on animals has never stricken me as a fantastic idea. I will say this - the sows that I saw, and the babies I saw, did not exhibit, at any point in time, any sort of irritation or anxiety, and frustration or pain. Ever. Telling me that, "If an animal feels pain, they will act out in x, y or z manner - and this behavior really means that other action" - well, I'm from Missouri for a reason.
What I saw was good. What I found out was even better - Smithfield has announced that their company-owned facilities will be gestation crate-free by 2017, and will move to group housing. I know that the reality of group housing is not without it's own issues as well - pigs jostle for dominance and injure each other - but that's a start.
After the nursery, we went to a second farm, where pigs grow from 12-50 pounds and then are moved to the finishing farm, where pigs grow to their true adult size - approximately 300 pounds. We learned about lagoons and the steps that the farmers take to minimize environmental concerns - after all, that's a lot of pig shit, day in and day out.
The farming families I met - for the owner of Prestage Farms (supplier to Smithfield) uses other farms on contract - loved what they do and who they work for. Ultimately, they work for us, the consumer - and they know they work for the consumer - and their actions and decisions are directly as a result of that knowledge.
I never at any time saw pigs mistreated in any way. Yes, I know, people put their best foot forward while on display - but the people I saw loved what they do and it shows.
The next day, we visited the Smithfield plant, where the pigs are transported for processing. Yes. It's a kill plant. The pigs are trucked over, taken off the truck, walked through and killed, using a CO2 gas. Honestly? This is the part with which I was most concerned. I've seen pigs die on film only - and my grandpa used to shoot them in the head - and it's all very loud and pigs squeals sound *very* human like - but I think that CO2 is the way to go. The pigs are then hung, dipped in boiling water to dehair, gutted, fileted, further cleaned out, and processed down.
And when I say I saw it all, I even saw the processing of the organs and such into pet food. It was very hot. It was smelly, and it was very, very visceral.
Let me insert here that I'm not an animal person. Whatever that may say about me, however that may denigrate my character - I get no warm fuzzies from animals. It's just me - I also am not a flowers, jewelry or candy kinda gal. So that might have had something to do with it - I wasn't bothered by what I saw. It was a business, pure and simple - and a business which takes enormous precautions to ensure that the product they sell is safe, prepared in as humane a way as possible, fair to the workers and at the minimum not horrific to the environment.
And? I saw bacon. Lots and lots of bacon.
And lots of pigs.