While November is undoubtedly the season of turkey, many holiday meals involve pigs as well, whether you enjoy bacon at brunch or a Christmas ham. If you’re a regular consumer of news, you’ll be hard-pressed to go a week without hearing a story about the pork industry. From the growing movement to abolish gestation crates to the use of antibiotics to increase pig growth (a practice deemed ineffective) to the impact of China’s purchase of a major American pork producer, pigs are in the headlines. This makes the recent arrival of Sue Weaver’s book, Homegrown Pork: Humane, Healthful Techniques for Raising a Pig for Food, all the more timely. Here, Sue answers some of our questions about why raising your own pigs for meat might just make sense.
Illustration © Elayne Sears
What inspired you to write Homegrown Pork? What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Nowadays my husband and I are vegetarians, but before we stopped eating meat, we ate a lot of pork. I'm 67 years old and grew up eating wonderful pork from what are now considered heritage breed pigs, so I know the difference between today’s sad supermarket pork and delectable, mouth-watering homegrown pork. And I like pigs. We kept pigs prior to becoming vegetarians and we still have pet pigs. They're charming, intelligent animals. I firmly believe that pigs intended for the freezer should be raised under healthy, humane conditions. And that's what this book is about.
In the preface of the book, you say that raising pigs “doesn't require a world of space.” If the amount of space isn’t a great issue, what are the common limitations people face when considering raising their own pigs?
The only limitations I can think of might be zoning issues or nearby neighbors who initially object to having pigs next door, until they discover that well-maintained pigs aren’t the smelly, fly-attracting mess that too many people associate with pigs.
And I don’t think the average person realizes how easy it is to raise a few pigs, so they don't consider raising their own pork.
|English-style A-frame pig ark|
Illustration © Elayne Sears
Why might someone who has never raised animals for food consider raising pigs? What advice do you have for people who are interested in raising pigs but are anxious or apprehensive about getting started?
Pigs mature quickly and yield a lot of meat. When first-time pig raisers buy healthy piglets from responsible breeders and they maintain their pigs under healthy conditions, they’re unlikely to encounter major problems. Pigs are mono-gastric animals (like us). Most other large food animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats are ruminants and far more prone to deadly maladies like bloat and acidosis. We've raised them all (and still keep two pet steers, sheep, and goats), so I know firsthand that pigs are the easiest food species to raise, especially for folks unaccustomed to keeping livestock.
Pigs have been in the news a lot lately, from stories about the pork industry and gestation crates, to the breeding of leaner hogs and the effect that’s had on the flavor and quality of pork. Why do you think this book is important, given the larger conversation that’s taking place?
I discuss those issues in Homegrown Pork, particularly gestation crates and humane handling, because I firmly believe food animals deserve to be raised and handled in a compassionate manner.
I'm not a fan of ultra-lean pork. Fat gives pork old-time flavor and can be trimmed at the table whereas there is no good fix for ultra-lean, factory-farmed pork.
Today it is hard to find pork in the grocery store that does not come from a confinement operation. Some of us, however, want to know our meat is raised in humane conditions — and we want flavorful meat. If there aren't any small farmers around that raise pigs, we need to produce the meat ourselves. Pig raising has gone full circle, from backyard pigpen to feedlot to confinement and back again. —Homegrown Pork
What’s the most rewarding and/or surprising thing about pigs that you’ve discovered in raising them?
Their keen intelligence and their well-developed personalities. They aren’t animated pork chops. They’re so endearing that taking them to the slaughterhouse can be hard. It’s important for homegrown pork raisers to keep in mind why they bought their pigs or they’ll end up with fun but very large pets.
Illustration © Elayne Sears
Many people who can’t raise pigs themselves are interested in knowing where their food comes from and that the meat they’re eating comes from animals that were treated well and slaughtered safely and humanely. What are the important questions for anyone who cares about these things to ask their meat provider? What resources are available for purchasing meat from trusted sources?
I'd advise them to visit these web sites for starters:
- Certified Humane (http://www.certifiedhumane.org): Certified Humane is “a national non-profit 501(c)3 organization created to improve the lives of farm animals by setting rigorous standards, conducting annual inspections, and certifying their humane treatment.”
- Animal Welfare Approved (http://www.awionline.org): This organization has the most stringent guidelines for producers. It’s only issued for meat produced on independent family farms. Animals must “be able to perform natural behaviors, have continuous access to water, outdoor access, and appropriate shelter. They cannot be overcrowded and must have ample room for freedom of movement and exercise.”
They can also visit their favorite search engine and enter sources humane pork in the search box.
For their meat to be certified USDA organic, pigs must be raised in humane, free-range conditions. Enter organic pork to locate organic pork producers.
Another option is pastured pork or grass fed pork, both of which are raised in free-range surroundings. Visit the American Grassfed Association (http://www.americangrassfed.org/) to locate producers of grass-fed pork. However, unless the consumer can personally visit a producer to see conditions firsthand, I’d recommend buying certified humanely raised pork.
Illustrations from Homegrown Pork © Elayne Sears. All rights reserved.
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Homegrown Pork is available everywhere books are sold.
Sue Weaver is the author of The Backyard Cow, The Backyard Goat, The Backyard Sheep, and The Donkey Companion, among others. She lives and blogs in the Ozarks. You can follow her on Facebook.