A Pig Primer: Part 1 in a Series

Mar 22, 2016

For many families, ham is part of a holiday tradition.  The nation’s largest producer – Smithfield – is based in Virginia, and this state is home to more than a quarter of a million pigs.  This story is the first in a five-part series looking at the impact of a growing industry on the environment, on the animals and on public health.

Katrin Rahe, left, and Morgan Milne, right

When Morgan Milne and his fiancée Katrin Rahe bought their 17-acre farm last year, they had 25 hogs which they hoped to breed.  They liked bacon and pork chops, and they liked the animals. Milne says, “I love ‘em.  I love the pigs, but I obviously have them with the understanding that they’re for eating. We’re not raising them as pets, even though we treat them as pets.” 

For example, he and Kat gave their hogs names. “We call her Limpy, because she’s got a bum leg.  This is Goldie, Big Mama and this is Big Mama’s daughter,” says Milne.

Four of the females got pregnant, but Milne was about to learn the hard way that raising pigs carries significant risk.  One of the piglets was unusually large. He says, “It just grew too fast, and it was probably three times the size of the other ones coming out, and it got lodged in her birth canal.  It was stuck for 24 hours before I could get it out.”

Credit Sandy Hausman

 In the end, all of the piglets in that litter died, and after Milne nursed the sow back to health, she too passed away after being bitten by a poisonous snake. One day later the boar died from an infection. That’s when Milne decided to get out of the pig business and invest in mushrooms.

For bigger players in the pork game, it’s not so easy. These days an average pig farm in this region will have more than 8,000 animals, and to assure they make it to market the industry says it must control their environment.  Paul Shapiro is Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Shapiro says, “For the last three decades, the pork industry has been heavily consolidated, and animals have been more and more concentrated in smaller and smaller spaces with practices like extreme confinement of pigs becoming the norm, and when I say extreme confinement, I mean keeping pigs in cages that are so small they can’t even turn around for essentially for their entire lives.”

The industry claims it’s changing, and WVTF and RadioIQ hoped to find out where things stand in 2016, but our efforts to actually visit a large pork production facility were frustrated by farmers who claimed letting a journalist into a pig barn could endanger the animals’ health.  Humans and pigs are subject to some of the same viruses, such as swine flu, which was actually spread from people to pigs. Mark Estienne is a professor of animal science at Virginia Tech.  I spoke with him in a barn at the Tidewater Agricultural Research Center. 

“We had a new disease -- porcine epidemic diarrhea virus. It went from farm to farm to farm, and ended up killing well over 12 million pigs.”

Some producers might also worry that images of pigs in close quarters could upset consumers, prompting a number of so-called Ag Gag laws that make it illegal for journalists to visit farms and report on conditions without permission. Here, again, is the Humane Society’s Paul Shapiro.

“In response to the repeated whistle blowing exposes that have been conducted by groups like the Humane Society of the United States, lawmakers who are backed by big agribusiness have sought not to prevent abuses of animals but rather just to prevent the documentation of such abuses, because the pork industry is desperate to keep Americans in the dark.  They may not want to shoot the messenger, but they certainly want to throw the messenger in jail.”   

Still, we’ll take you inside the industry in our next report.