For this edition of Pleased to Feed You, I took several Ohio consumers to see for themselves a family farm that provides pork found in many Ohio grocery stores. Here’s what we learned.
– Seth Teter, Our Ohio editor
“Where are all the pigs?”
That was a question recently posed to me by a perplexed friend. Ohio is home to about 3 million of them, after all, and there are thousands of hog farms across the state. But you rarely see the animals as you drive through the countryside.
A farmer once told me he thought it a compliment when a delivery driver asked him what was in his nearby barn. The answer was hundreds of pregnant hogs resting in their climate controlled home on a hot day. The well-ventilated barn, the farmer said, provided no olfactory clues.
There is also a lot of negative speculation about what takes place behind closed barn doors. Videos showing animal mistreatment understandably make people uneasy.
That’s why I decided to get in touch with Randy Brown, whose family operates Maken Bacon farm in north central Ohio. I told him I wanted to find a few people who had never been on a larger, contemporary livestock farm, let them go into his barns and ask questions.
“Yeah, we can do that,” he told me.
So I contacted a couple of friends, Michael and Julie, and Eliza, the sister of one of my colleagues. “Want to see what really goes on inside those barns?” I asked. Let’s go.
A few days later we arrived at the farm to find Randy and his son Kyle waiting for us in the driveway in the 90 degree heat. Randy explained how his grandfather and father worked on the farm, while he sought a job in an air conditioned office.
As it turned out, “I didn’t care for it,” he said. So back to the farm he went.
Kyle, on the other hand, went to Ohio State University to study animal science. Although he grew up on the farm, “It wasn’t easy by any means,” he said, recalling a class on swine production.
Randy’s brother Tom also helps run the farm, and “Mom still does the books – she’s 81,” Randy said.
Pointing to what now is a cornfield, Randy told us that several years ago they kept their pigs on outdoor lots. But they faced a number of challenges: The pigs were subject to parasites and weather extremes, it was hard to closely monitor them for health and pregnancy issues, they fought over food and the family members took their share of hard knocks when working with the animals.
Eventually, they decided to move the pigs into a more controlled barn setting.
“It’s not that we don’t like seeing animals on pasture,” Randy said.
From there, our group suited up in blue coveralls and plastic boots to protect the pigs from outside illnesses we might have inadvertently tracked onto the farm, and Kyle took over the tour.
“If there are questions, by any means – I don’t have a problem answering anything,” he told us, opening the door to a barn that held about 650 pregnant pigs.
There would be little need for questions. Kyle, who was quiet while his father talked earlier, suddenly became animated. He described how to pick out a good mother pig, the way they keep the animals cool in the summer and warm in the winter, how they regularly clean the barns, the value of the manure for their crops and how to identify any health problems. I wondered if the other guests were blushing as Kyle described, in depth, the art and science of impregnating a pig.
“You cannot imagine how much detail there is to this,” he said to his wide-eyed audience.
A meticulous record-keeper, Kyle is a self-described perfectionist, passionate about what he does and he has taken the farm further into the computer-age. He almost appeared self-conscious about the cobwebs in the overhead feeding system.
“We do knock down cobwebs, but there are higher priority things to do sometimes,” he said.
All of this works toward Kyle’s primary goal: pigs that are “healthy and comfortable.” That includes customizing the feed and care for each of his family’s animals.
As we made our way through the barn’s birthing rooms and headed back to our cars, I was under no expectation that the guests I brought to the farm would feel warm and fuzzy about every aspect of what they had seen. Farming is a dirty job, after all. My only hope was that they would conclude that this modern livestock farm was driven by values, rather than solely by profit.
As Randy told us earlier, “We like animals. That’s why we’re in this business.”
So I was glad when Julie told me she felt OK with how the farm was run.
“Once they explained it, it made perfect sense,” she said. “I don’t know how else you could raise that many pigs.”
And on the drive home, I asked Michael his feelings about eating pork after spending a couple hours in the barns with the Browns.
“So how do I like my bacon? I probably would look for their product because I know a little more about how they treat their animals,” he said.
But Eliza would later tell me she had mixed feelings about the visit.
“They were very nice farmers, they do care about producing humanely,” she said. “I hope they are the norm rather than the exception.”
But she also feels uncomfortable with keeping animals in cages and hopes farmers can find ways to maintain the controlled conditions of the barns while providing a more natural environment for livestock.
“I have that picture, but it might not be reasonable, so a dialogue would be useful,” she said.
In any case, she hopes more people simply take the time to learn where their food comes from.
With that, I agreed.