The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Monica Everett
Todd Geisert knows the ins and outs of the hog business, and he knows his pigs.
"[Pig] characteristics are very much like humans’," he said. "The age that they’re at right now it’s more like third or fourth graders. At six months of age they act like junior high schoolers—they think they know everything. And the older sows I call my old ladies at the grocery store. It’s like they’re saying ‘get out of my way—I know what I’m doing.’"
Geisert is a fifth-generation hog farmer in Washington, Mo. Not much has changed on the farm since 1916 when his great-great-grandfather started raising hogs, but much has changed in the hog industry.
As a small, pasture-based operation, Geisert Farms is now a rarity. Today 94 percent of hogs are raised indoors, according to a 2006 University of Missouri study.
A common form of raising livestock indoors is through concentrated animal feeding operations.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website defines CAFOs as large versions of animal feeding operations, "where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. CAFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area."
CAFOs are often called "factory farms" by critics, who say the farms have negative social and environmental effects, including improper waste treatment and lack of fair treatment for animals and workers.
George Jesse, University of Missouri animal sciences professor, said that confinement evolved as a factor of economic efficiency.
"If you have an individual trying to farrow sows and raise pigs, you can’t take care of as many pigs as you can inside," he said.
Despite the physical and economic hardships of raising pigs outside, the Geiserts’ commitment to pasture-based farming did not waiver when the industry transitioned from outdoors to confinement.
"If you go into a pig confinement operation you smell like pig s*** all day," said Geisert.
But Geisert doesn’t raise pigs on pasture just to avoid the smell.
"There’s no way I would do a confinement operation, he said. "I would quit raising pigs. I don’t think it’s how animals should be raised."
With roughly 150 sows that produce 1,500 market hogs a year, Geisert Farms is more than just a tribute to tradition. The farm is a reflection of a growing consumer demand for what many call sustainably raised food, and that demand makes Geisert financially successful.
Geisert Farms’ market hogs are sold mainly to Niman Ranch, a strategic partner that connects farmers’ livestock to chains like Chipotle.
Niman Ranch has strict qualifications for its "premium" meat products, including no antibiotics or added hormones, and hogs must be raised humanely and sustainably.
Geisert said Niman pays about twice the current market price for hogs.
But larger operations still dominate the market. The 2006 University of Missouri study also found that operations with 1,000-2,000 market hogs made up only 5 percent of the market share, but operations with 50,000 or more market hogs held 65 percent of the market.
Premium Standard Farms, one of the largest CAFOs in Missouri, has 98,000 sows according to Holly Boxley, public affairs manager for the company.
"We expect to produce 1.8 million market hogs this year," Boxley said.
Formed in 1988, Premium Standard Farms became the first vertically integrated hog operation in the world, she said.
Vertical integration—controlling all aspects from production to consumer—allows Premium Standard to be economically efficient. The company also achieves economic efficiency by minimizing space and maximizing number of hogs.
A 2005 Iowa State University study found that the average amount of space per pig in a confinement facility was 7.19 square feet.
Geisert’s pigs roam freely on 100 acres of land, contained only by a 1-foot-tall solar-powered electric fence. A-frame structures made from old billboards provide voluntary shelter, but except for pregnant pigs in the birthing process, pigs are not forcibly kept inside.
"If you could talk to the pig, I would suspect the pig would probably say, ‘let me be outside,’" Jesse said.
He said that despite issues with CAFOs, society will never go back to a market dominated by small, diversified family farms because of the economic efficiencies CAFOs provide.
But Mary Hendrickson, University of Missouri rural sociology extension associate professor, said CAFOs are only economically efficient because of the way prices are set by government policies.
"It’s not a question of productivity—it’s a question of political, social and economic arrangements," she said.
Retired agricultural economics professor John Ikerd has spent the past 10 years writing about sustainable agriculture, including many papers examining hog confinement operations.
"You can produce just as many hogs, just as cheaply and just as efficiently as a large CAFO," Ikerd said. "We can produce just as much food…but it would take more farmers and farms would be smaller."
Hendrickson envisions an economic model that would require what she called a change in values.
"The perfect model would have partners from production all the way into retail," she said. "So everybody gets to share in the prize but nobody makes it big."
Ikerd said that the current belief in economic self-interest is not serving the needs of communities and the environment, and that a system based on interest of the community as well as the individual would allow sustainably produced food to take hold of the market.
Ikerd said CAFOs are unnecessary. But not everyone, even Geisert, is so sure.
"It would be tough nowadays to be able to produce enough pork to supply the U.S. and the export market," Geisert said.