Pharma to Farmer
My Journey Toward Food Enlightenment With the Help of a Little Black Pig
by Lori Bell of Colton, OR
I love animals and always have, however I am also a meat eater.
In my early 20s I did a short stint as a vegetarian, but my meatless existence was short lived. A few years actually with some chicken snuck in here and there, I sheepishly fell off, or leapt off, the meat-free wagon as the result of an “encounter” with bacon. While at the time I felt some associated guilt, the truth is that I have never really looked back and never gave vegetarianism vs. meat eating a second thought.
When I became a mother of two boys while trying to maintain my full-time pharmaceutical sales rep job, food was often an afterthought for my family. I was living life in the fast lane, juggling the job, daycare, bills, and diapers. Meal choices were often made on the run and in the car, dropping by the drive-thru on the way to one appointment or another. I gave no thought to eating meat, let alone the kind of meat that my family and I were eating, how it was raised, and what it meant for our bodies.
And then something happened – I lost my job.
At that time, my world was shattered. My income came to a screeching halt and I had to make some life adjustments in order to simply survive while staying within a very tight budget. No more Nordstrom or eating out for my family. Even the cheap fast food was a no go for us as I began to realize how quickly those “fast and cheap” meals at the drive-thru can take a toll on the family budget. The unexpected changes in my life resulted in deliberate lifestyle changes, which meant a lot more cooking at home for my family.
The silver lining to losing my job was that I had more time to spend with my family during the day. It was nice to not have to rely on the daycare to raise my children and instead the boys and I could spend quality time together. We actually started eating breakfast together. Every day. Cooking dinner for my family wasn’t so bad either. With my new budget, I clipped coupons and went to the store to buy cheap meat and then fingered through cookbooks to figure out what tasty concoction I would come up with that night for dinner.
In order to keep making ends meet, I started looking for a local job. At the time, it really didn’t matter what I was doing, I just needed to make some money and ideally maintain the lifestyle of sitting down to meals with my family. I started working a few hours per week at a local non-profit organization called Friends of Family Farmers or “FoFF” for short. I didn’t know that much about the organization, but the name sounded great, I knew a few cool farmers, and FoFF would pay me, making the work a great fit for my needs at that time.
Upon starting that job, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had a lot to learn when it came to the food I fed my family and the way it was produced. Friends of Family Farmers is an organization whose mission is to promote and protect socially responsible agriculture in Oregon and while that all sounded good, I really had no idea what that meant. Then one day, while I was waiting for someone in the office, I picked up a coffee table book called “CAFO – The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories” and began to thumb through it.
The book is a large oversized picture book filled with graphic photographs of animals being raised in horrid conditions. On the pages I saw pigs cramped in cages, where they spent all of their waking days unable to even turn around. There were giant metal sheds crammed full with white chickens that never had the chance to feel the sun on their backs or scratch in the dirt. And there were awful photos at slaughterhouses, where sick and decrepit animals were left to die in misery. As I flipped through the pages, I remember pausing and looking up to ask the ladies in the office, “This isn’t real, right?”
That specific moment in time, looking at those images, was transformational for me. I could never look at meat without wondering how it lived again. A personal transition was taking place.
The majority of our meat in America comes from animals that are raised in what are called concentrated animal feeding operations. These operations, called CAFOs for short, are about as far away from Old Mac Donald’s farm as you can possibly get. In fact, unlike the pastoral scenes that color the walls at the grocery store depicting animals on grass and living in red barns, almost all animals raised for meat in the United States are confined to metal sheds, where they live out their days on concrete floors with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of other animals. These poor creatures live in their own feces and breathe in all of the toxic gases that are associated with untreated waste. These animals are not healthy, so in order to keep them alive until they can be slaughtered and turned into meat for my family, they are fed copious amounts of antibiotics. In addition to keeping the animals alive, they have the “benefit” of also acting as growth promoters.
This is the ‘food’ I’m feeding my family? CAFOs provide the most unnatural setting for these animals to be raised. I came to wonder how farmers could treat a living creature with such disrespect. When I asked this question, I learned that individual farmers aren’t the ones raising the bulk of the meat in this country and that instead, giant international corporations own and slaughter upward of 90% of all our meat. These agribusiness giants contract with “growers” to raise the animals in CAFOs, emphasizing “efficiency” at the expense of the welfare of the animal – living, breathing, pain-feeling creatures.
Agribusiness is a model of vertical integration, where the multiple stages of a product’s creation and distribution are all owned by the same corporation, often headquartered and making decisions from out of state. In the case of animal production for meat, this results in a competitive disadvantage for family farmers that are trying to raise animals in a way that is respectful of the creature, the environment and the community in which they are a part, and for whom producing the cheapest meat possible is not the goal. Intensive industrial livestock production not only means a terrible life for the animal, but it is bad for the local environment and community, bad for the local neighborhoods that have to put up with it, and results in equally awful working conditions for the workers. Not to mention the nutritional impact on human bodies.
Scientific studies show that meat, eggs, and dairy products from pastured animals are ideal for your health.1 Compared with commercial products, they offer you more “good” fats, and fewer “bad” fats. They are richer in antioxidants, including vitamins E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, and they do not contain traces of added hormones, antibiotics or other drugs. Because they are not confined in crowded facilities daily antibiotics are not required to keep them alive. This means pasture raised, humanely raised meat is drug free food for my children. What’s not to love about that? I also learned that grass fed meat is lower in fat and calories. Often the meat is very lean, due to its diet of grass and its ability to roam freely. CAFO beef can have one third more fat than a similar cut from a grain-fed animal, resulting in lower calorie meat. Even better, I found out that grass fed meat is naturally significantly higher (two to four times more) in omega-3s , the ‘good’ fats. One less nutritional supplement I now have to take.
1 J. Animal Sci 80(5):1202-11
This is not true only for cows. Housing chickens indoors and depriving them of their natural choice of greens, their meat and eggs also become artificially low in omega-3s. Eggs from pastured hens can contain as much as 10 times more omega-3s than eggs from factory hens. And the taste? This does not take a science experiment. You can see the color difference in each cut of meat and every egg you break open from a pasture raised farmer. Happy meat is healthy meat.
After learning about modern meat production in America, I can never look at a meat counter the same again. The first time I went to the store after reading “CAFO”, I remember pausing in the meat section and feeling an overwhelming sadness for the animals that ended up there. I felt disgusted at the quality of ‘meat’ I’d been feeding my kids. The styrofoam packaged pork was once a pig that likely never got to root in the dirt, have his belly scratched, and eat what nature intended him to eat, or do the most natural things that a pig should do. Those chicken breasts likely came from chickens that were unnaturally bred to reach maturity at 6 weeks of age and were fed profuse amounts of medically necessary antibiotics just to keep it alive until it could be slaughtered. And the steaks came from cattle that were stuffed into feedlots, fed corn that gave them ulcers, and had hormonal implants so that they would “beef-out” more quickly. I couldn’t bring myself to feed that to my children and I trotted off to the meat substitutes section, for which I had no coupons.
As meat options in my home freezer dwindled, my husband began to take notice. He and my youngest began to protest the veggie meats. It didn’t matter how hard I campaigned, the males in my household were not going to leave their carnivorous cravings behind in order to adopt seitan or ground soy meat. So, we had to find a compromise and I was not willing to move on my values and overlook the suffering and misery of countless creatures so my family could have meat in their tacos.
I went on the hunt for humanely-raised meat. Could there be such a thing? The phrase in and of itself seems like an oxymoron. With an open mind, I began to talk to family farmers and visit farms. I spoke to neighbors who raised chickens outside on grass, and went to people in my community whom I knew had pigs and cattle in their backyards. With kids in tow we talked with the farmers about their practices and what they did to ensure that their animals had happy lives, despite the fact that they would be turned into poultry, pork and beef in the days to come.
I quickly discovered animals don’t need to be raised inside in atrocious conditions in order to provide meat for my family. The farmers that I spoke to were actually more akin to my mind’s eye image of Old Mac Donald’s farmer. These folks, my neighbors, enjoyed working with their animals. They gave the animals names, ensured the animals had comfortable places to sleep, and allowed the livestock to go outside on grass. Pigs were rolling in the dirt and chickens were sunning themselves, soaking up vitamin D. These were the type of farmers that I wanted to support with my family’s food dollars and this was the kind of meat that I could feel good about feeding my family.
And, the taste! One of the most drastic differences in the meat I bought from farmers raising their animals humanely was in the flavor of the meat. My palate wasn’t the only to notice! My husband and boys commented on how the meat that I brought home was some of the best they had ever tasted. Even my main stream grocery shopping in-laws commented on how flavor-filled, succulent, tender and juicy our meat was. When I ate my first chicken raised on grass, I became a believer that happy animals make better meat.
I was also finding that I was able to purchase “happy,” also known as pastured, meat while staying within my family’s food budget. This made my husband very happy. Despite the fact that the meat was more expensive than meat at the supermarket, one thing we quickly realized was that the meat from our local farms would come in bigger chunks – whole chickens for example. From that chicken, I was able to provide a number of meals and when there was no more meat, I cooked down the carcass and made stock, which would go on to be used for soup later. Food from my neighbors went a lot farther than meals at a fast food restaurant and, more often than not, I found it to be just about the same price.
Having become enlightened about how the majority of food in America is produced, I found myself devouring whatever books or articles on food and food issues that I could get my hands on. For the first time in my life I began to paw through the pages of non-fiction books. Such as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Omnivores Dilemma. I read John Robbins’ The Food Revolution and Nicolette Niman’s Righteous Porkchop. I watched Food Inc., and found myself wanting to tell all my friends of the things I was learning. I felt proud of my lifestyle changes and of owning up to the responsibility of providing safe and healthy meat for my family without the fallout of the unnecessary suffering of helpless creatures. I was supporting my community by buying local, and by being deliberate with my food dollars, I was keeping within the budget, and my family’s health was all the better for it.
But something was missing. The more I began to read about people raising animals for meat, I found myself wanting to participate in the process. I wanted to understand the entire lifecycle of an animal that would go on to feed my family. Going against the advice of my husband and acting on a bit of an impulse, this is how I came to know the sweet little black pig named, “Eddie.”
When my husband and I married almost 10 years ago, he insisted we create our home in a little town called Colton which sits in the cascade foothills about thirty miles southeast of Portland, Oregon. I had never heard of Colton, and when I first visited this wasn’t surprising since there’s really nothing there except for Fir trees, wild lands, and what I thought were backwoods-type folks. There were certainly no Starbucks or sushi restaurants.
We bought two acres, fixed up an old home, and I proceeded to commute out of Colton whenever I had the chance to get my city fix. Over time, between having children and becoming more involved in my community, I found myself sticking closer to home on free weekends. I rarely gave a second thought to the two acres of weeds in the backyard other than that they served to host my boys’ dirt bike track.
With my newfound interest in growing my own food, the two acres in the back started to take on a whole new shape for me. I had a vision of a big garden, a green house, a chicken coop, and of course a place for my little black pig, Eddie. I could understand the reason why these two little acres in the middle of nowhere came into my life. He was delightful and I fondly remembered reading Charlotte’s Web and the wonderful pig story from my childhood. If I could’ve weaved ‘some pig’ in a web above his little snout, I would have.
The garden, greenhouse, and chicken coop went over well with the hubby, but when it came time to turn the dirt bike loop into a pig pasture, the buck stopped there. Despite my pleading and begging, there was no convincing the man that I love that we needed a pig to complete our family. It was simply a no go.
With the impending delivery of Eddie the piglet looming, I had already paid for this pig and they do not have a Nordstrom customer service policy. I had to work fast to figure out where Eddie could live. Another neighbor and dear friend, Kaitlin had also reserved a piglet for her family, and after chatting, we decided that it was much better for the pigs if they had a buddy and a deal was struck. The pigs would live at Kaitlin’s house, with her many more acres, horses, goats and abundant chickens to keep Eddie and Elton company. We would share the food costs, and I would help with the chores. Shortly after, Eddie and his brother Elton came home to live at Kaitlin’s homestead.
Eddie and Elton are not your traditional “pink pigs” that were bred to grow fast in a factory farm setting. They look nothing like Charlotte’s Wilber. They are what are known as “heritage breeds,” which are old world pigs that know how to live outside, forage in the dirt and graze grass. Because of the increased standardization in the pork industry, industry pigs have been bred over time to grow quickly in an industrial setting and have certain meat characteristics. Selecting genetics for such characteristics has resulted in those pigs losing many of their natural instincts to survive outside on pasture or be good parents. Rather than being confined to crates during their gestation and during birth, Eddie and Elton’s mother Gretel had the ability to move around, be comfortable, and get what she needed in order to properly nurture her piglets. Since birth, Eddie and Elton had the ability to run outside and be, well, pigs.
Our first night at the homestead with the pigs began our adventure and the consequential lesson in pig rearing. We brought the two little squealing piglets to their home in the back of my husband’s work truck via 2 very loud gunny sacks. Frightened and scared, we should have heeded the advice of the farmer who bred them: to put them in an enclosed area for the night and befriend them before turning the little oinks out into their new pasture. Alas, we did not. Just as darkness fell on the quaint farm, Kaitlin and I arrived with our piglets, promptly getting the terrified little creatures out of the back of the truck and plopping them in their pasture. As one would imagine, the frightened piglets just ran. They didn’t look where they were running – they just took off and the electric fence didn’t stop them. Off they went, galloping as fast as their little trotters could take them… gone into the adjacent forest. I looked at Kaitlin and she looked at me. What were we going to do and how were we going to get these frightened little pigs back?
First thing first, we ate crow. We called the farmer we got them from and pleaded for help. “We’ve lost the piglets.” “You what?” said the voice at the other end of the phone. “I’ll be right over!” Apparently our farmer friend was on her way to a work function when we diverted her to the scene of the jailbreak. She showed up lickity split dressed in nice clothes and a long trench coat, but quickly slipped on some muck boots and called out to the little pigs.
After calling for about an hour with flashlights in the dark, the piglets showed themselves, although they wouldn’t be caught. We opted to leave food out for them in hopes that they would settle in. The next morning, much to our delight, we found both little piglets sleeping cozily under a heat lamp in their pig house. The piglets were home and comfortable in their new setting.
Once the piglets settled in, they quickly learned that Kaitlin and I treated them with belly scratches and food. The pigs would see us coming and would run to greet us with happy grunts and faces filled with anticipation of the goodies we brought them that day. I fell quickly for my little black pig – he loved to have his belly rubbed and his ears scratched. His soft nose liked to investigate the shoes I wore each day, taking the occasional bite just to determine whether or not they were an edible pair.
It’s amazing how social and smart pigs are when you get to know them. It wasn’t long into my journey with Eddie that I began to think about the inevitable – the day when he would turn from piggy to pork. I wondered how I was going to do it and if indeed I could do it. Mostly, I tried not to think about it, as I was becoming very attached to this little pig.
As time went by, we continued to have adventures with the pigs. They grew so fast and became very bold in their frolicking. One morning Kaitlin was awoken by a noise at about 5am. There was the sound of all sorts of rustling and things being shifted around in her basement. Afraid that there might be a burglar in the house, Kaitlin grabbed a baseball bat and slinked quietly down the stairs. When she arrived in her basement laundry room, Kaitlin found Eddie rooting through clothes piles and Elton stuck in the doggy door, just waiting to be rescued.
As time to slaughter grew near, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I needed to start making some plans. I called around to numerous mobile slaughter facilities, who would show up at the farm, slaughter the animal and take it somewhere else to be processed. The man I chose to do the job was someone who took the time to explain the process to me and spoke about humane handling of the animal. I told him about how much Kaitlin and I cared for our pigs and that it was important to us that their end be just as good as their life. I felt that he got it and a date was put on the calendar.
With the date encroaching, I began to get anxious. I found myself bringing Eddie and Elton extra treats and doubling down on the belly scratching time. I felt some guilt and I wasn’t sure that I could bring myself to be at the farm the day the mobile slaughter truck would arrive to carry out the “deed.”
When I would talk about my anxieties over Eddie and Elton with friends, I did not get the reassurance I was looking for. Most of my friends would give me this look of dismay and ask “how could you possibly kill and eat an animal that you know?” or “you named it?” The irony was that the friends that were the most disapproving were also the ones quickest to order the ham sandwich on the menu without even the slightest pause for reflection.
I did not take this issue lightly. I did a lot of soul searching about my choices with Eddie and I decided that if I were to eat meat and provide it for my family, I wanted to ensure that the animal we did eat lived the best possible life. I wanted that animal to know the kindness of humans, to experience the enjoyment of being scratched, rubbed and loved on. I wanted that animal to eat treats and eagerly wait the time of day when the apple sack arrived. Animals in CAFOs never know the kindness of humans. They live their lives in misery from the day they are born until the day that they die. They give their lives for people and get nothing in return. This was not the case for Eddie and Elton. We were devoted to appreciating the gift of delicious nutritious meat they would provide for my family.
Eddie was 250 pounds and his job was nearly complete and my decision was made up that I would be present at Eddie’s slaughter. I had never been hunting or even seen an animal death, but I decided not to be present was selfish. I wasn’t thinking of the pig. How could I do my best to nurture this sweet animal and then leave him to die with strangers – without one final scratch or a last apple?
On the day that the truck rolled up, my stomach was in knots. I had gotten to Kaitlin’s house early to spend extra time with my sweet ‘little’ pig. I scratched him and he lay on his side with an expression of bliss. I thanked both he and Elton for doing their jobs well, for being good pigs, and for what they would give to my family. I cried and felt a deep sadness for my impending loss but also so much appreciation and honor to have these two creatures in my life. And quick as he could, Eddie waddled over to check his new visitors for treats, sat down and got a scratch under his chin, and bang. Done.
The man had walked up to the pigs and shot them directly in the head one after another. Neither creature knew what was about to happen. When the pigs were dead, their throats were slit and the blood drained out, coloring the ground. I wept for my loss and in just a split second, my little pig went from animal to meat.
Kaitlin and I stayed with the carcasses while they were broken down into halves. I noticed the beauty of the pigs’ skin, the depth of their fat as it stretched over the bodies, how bright and healthy their organs looked, and the beautiful vibrant color of the meat. The slaughterer noticed too, telling us that our pigs were some of the best he had seen in 20 years of being in the business, attributing their quality directly with the quality of their life and their breed. ‘This is a nice pig’, he kept saying and I thought again of Wilber and Charlotte when the spider wrote ‘Terrific’ in her web to honor her friend, the pig. Eddie too was Terrific; even the men who slaughtered him gave him the respect he deserved.
It sounds silly to say that a pig changed my life, but as I look back and reflect, that’s exactly what Eddie did for me. I have gone through a transformation over the last year and that sweet little black pig has helped me in my journey. As a meat eater and animal lover, I can’t imagine any creature suffering so my family can benefit. Eddie was not an anomaly – most animals are kind and respond well if treated with kindness and respect. He never suffered and the respect and kindness were mutual.
Just because we raise animals for meat, doesn’t mean that they have to live lives of misery and torture. The fact that the majority of Americans don’t want to “know their meat” is purely for selfish reasons. I believe it is the moral responsibility of meat eaters to ensure that the animals that we consume are not made to suffer and if I can’t look my “meat” in the eye – maybe I shouldn’t eat it.
When our freezer is empty, I will get another piglet and start over. It will be another emotional experience for me, but I am committed to staying connected to my food. If I am going to eat it, I want be able to thank it. My boys will grow up knowing their food choices and that our meat came from animals that were treated with love and respect, not from the store and not from a factory. They will benefit from the nutritional value and know the taste of real meat raised by real farmers, most of whom are our friends. We will continue to bring our wagon to our neighbors to load up on pasture raised chickens, continue to buy our beef from a local rancher, and of course we will stick with the pigs. I cannot unsee the pictures from the CAFO book and I don’t want to. It feels good and right, and not as hard as I thought to spend my food dollars locally with farmers and ranchers who deserve it. Eddie was ‘Some Pig’, he didn’t win a blue ribbon like Wilbur, but he had his belly scratched every day and we loved him for what he gave us.