I recently was asked to come on a farm press trip with the International Food Information Council Foundation (the lovely people behind FoodInsight.org). Naturally, I like exploring things that are new to me – and traditional farming is definitely not something I’m well-versed in, or something I even have the appropriate clothing for. So I gathered some flannel, and some way-too-expensive-to-be-in-mud boots and flew out to Chicago to head to rural Indiana at Fair Oaks Farm – about 1.5 hours outside the city.
We started off the day at the farm with their Pork Encounter. Close Pork-counters of the Third Kind. It was…well…enlightening.
When I’m at home, I buy Global Animal Partnership (GAPS) certified meat at Whole Foods (roll your eyes now) whenever possible because it gives me the illusion that my meat led a happy and fulfilling life outside frolicking among the flowers before it was murdered for my consumption. I figured, if I eat meat, I might as well buy the most humanely-raised meat possible. Yes, pigs are really smart creatures. I’m sure there’s many of you out there that think I’m a monster for eating them – so if you’re about to leave a rude comment, you should probably just move on. Our best friends are vegans – I love vegans. However, I don’t love vegans that make me feel terrible for how I eat. I can do that to myself just fine.
Anyways, back to how I pictured my meat. I pictured animals that I eat frolicking – always frolicking – with access to outdoors and sunshine. In fact, the GAPS certification stresses “natural living” raising animals in environments most natural to them bot indoor and outdoor and environments that allow them to be “inquisitive, happy, and playful.” You can probably guess this is where I got the frolicking part from. I guess that’s what I was expecting when I visited Fair Oaks Farm in Indiana. However, my farm experience was a bit different, and certainly eye opening.
Fair Oaks Farm pig tour led us through several barns that each held different pigs for different purposes in their life cycle. Imagine my surprise when the first image I see of an animal is this one below.
Where is their space? Their room to roam? Their access to the outdoors? Their will to be inquisitive and “happy”? Tears welled up in my eyes. This isn’t a “factory farm” – this is just a family farm (although most major meat producers purchase from these smaller family farms). While it may not be a farm that I pictured in my head, it’s very much a working farm where pigs are raised, and then sent to slaughter (elsewhere – thankfully). It’s time to meet your meat. This is how pigs are raised.
But there are reasons for all these things. As much as we might not like seeing them, these are all designed for animal welfare. The floors, for example, are slotted so manure falls through and it’s a cleaner environment for the pigs (learn more about this on PorkCares.org) They’re indoors and temperature regulated. They said the pigs are less likely to be sick indoors where they can be monitored and kept from outdoor influences. We weren’t even allowed to come in contact with the pigs, since it’s a working farm. They could get sick from us – not the other way around. Workers have to have multiple vaccines and go through cleaning processes to keep the animals healthy.
Learn more about raising pigs indoors on PorkCares.org.
It’s difficult for me to understand that these practices are better for the animals, but I think reading all the literature on the topic makes me feel slightly better that perhaps the farm image I had in my head is not the norm.
After we saw how the pigs were raised in separate rooms, based on ages, we got to witness something I was not expecting. Artificial insemination. Witnessing artificial pig insemination at the breeding and gestation barn was probably the coolest part. The machine that included the insemination wand was tied to a male pig (that seemed pretty happy being fed to just walk around all day and smell like a manly pig) – seen in the left hand side of the photo you can kind of see it). As the male pig walked by a female, you can see her ears perk up. Apparently that means she’s down to get inseminated. It’s a quick process and pretty cool just to watch it all happen.
We also go to see the automatic feeder (in the lower right corner. Each pig walks through it, and the pig’s tag is scanned. The pig is then fed based on it’s daily food allowance. It makes sure that one greedy pig (pigging out) doesn’t eat all the food. Everyone is fed individually and happy.
The “miracle of life” then happened at the end of the tour at the farrowing barn. I was shocked to see so many giant sows in pens just popping out babies. All of the sows are induced at a similar time so they can all give birth while farmers are around and able to monitor the health of the sow and her babies. While I thought the pens looked barbaric, apparently they cut down on pig death around 50%. The sow can easily crush her tiny babies by just rolling over. The sow can get up and down in these maternity pens without rolling over the babies. According to PorkCares.org, these maternity pens have been used since the 1960’s.
I saw quite a few piglets shoot out. I can’t even explain this experience still. I’ve never seen a pig give birth any other way before, so I don’t have another comparison to judge this on. I will tell you it was hard to think about that each of these babies being born had one job only – to get fat and then get eaten. While I don’t expect pigs to grow up and become school crossing guards or english lit professors, it’s a strange feeling to see a tiny adorable pink piglet being born and then thinking about bacon.
If you’re at all thinking about becoming vegan, definitely don’t look at how cute this pig is. Because it was really cute.
This pig was born the same day we we’re there – just minutes before the end of the tour. FYI It still has its umbilical cord on because it helps the pig fight anemia. After our close pig encounter, we made our way to the cow tour. I was pretty excited about this part because I don’t eat any part of a cow anymore (on purpose – stupid gelatin). No bad feelings here (unlike my bacon vibes I had in the photo below).
The cow part of the tour was significantly less vegan-inducing. It was actually a cool part of the tour, despite not being able to pet – or even see a cow not behind glass. Here are pictures of some baby moo cows in their little barns. The adult cows were in freestall barns on sand. We learned all about how sand was the best for the cattle, and it helped them get up and down easier and not get sores. It was a short, but cool, tour of their barns.
I was so excited to see the milking room, even though I myself do not drink milk or eat any dairy products. This rotolactor is designed like a Disneyland ride for the cows. They wait in line, hop on, get milked, and hop off, and can do it several times a day. There is no forcing the cows in, they genuinely want inside. And we even saw a few trying to stay on for a second ride – sorry ladies, you gotta get back in line! It was fascinating to see how technology and farming have grown together to provide production scale, while also keeping the animals safe.
Fair Oaks Farm also offers agriculture education in their Crop Adventure. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to spend time there, but if you visit the farm, be sure to carve out some time in there.
While I’m not sure what my personal key takeaway was from this trip, I’m happy I went on it. It’s better to live with more knowledge than be blissfully ignorant about how food gets on your plate. Animal safety is this farm’s most important priority, and that’s to be respected. While I wish that every farm could be the farm that is inside my head – with everyone frolicking together holding hands (or hooves?) – we must be more aware of the entire food industry as a whole. Where does our food come from? What does our food eat? What about food waste in the food industry? What about animal welfare? We must keep asking questions and keep being informed on industry standards.
I’d like to thank IFICF for allowing me to come on this farm tour. Follow @FoodInsight on Twitter and sign up on their email list to get the latest no-woo news. I’d like to thank Fair Oaks Farm for being totally transparent in their farming process, for keeping animals safe, and for stressing sustainability in your farming practices.
While my travel was complimentary, I was not compensated for my trip or for this blog post.