- Tracey Kuehl lives in Davenport.
I don’t believe California Prop 12, upheld by the US Supreme Court on May 11, specifically speaks to hogs raised in Iowa (if I am wrong, I welcome the correction). What is does state is that California consumers have collectively decided they do not want to purchase pork products from anywhere when those products are derived from pigs housed in inhumane conditions. This holds true as well for eggs and veal products.
It is curious but not unexpected that suddenly Big Ag and Big Pig leadership is decrying the move. Perhaps Big Ag and Big Pig have come to the uncomfortable realization about the manner in which 54 million pigs in Iowa are raised each year, and its flaws.
Leadership states how difficult it will be for those producers in Iowa who raise thousands of animals and house thousands of sows to adjust to this situation. Yet, farming is all about innovation and change, including in livestock production.
I can still remember when raising pigs meant you raised them for meat and lard. The consumer marketing efforts of the National Pork Council and Iowa Pork Producers convinced consumers that pork was a healthy alternative to red meat, in the same category as chicken. Hence, the “Pork, the Other White Meat” campaign.
So producers had to adjust from raising lard to raising loin, and the Iowa chop was born. Along with US consumers, growing foreign markets, especially in Southeast Asia, were hungry for American-grown pork. These combined with other consumer drivers to see a major expansion in the hog industry in Iowa starting in the 1970s. The explosion that led to today involved devising new methods for handling millions of pigs.
This rapidly expanding industry, supported by an integrated corporate ownership of animals from birth to slaughter, started the equally rapid demise of small- and mid-sized family hog farms. Giant companies like Smithfield Foods, following the pattern of the broiler industry in the southeast part of the U.S., took over all aspects of hog farming, ultimately contracting with rural folks to raise Smithfield-owned animals for Smithfield processing facilities. The top pork producer in the U.S., Smithfield Foods, has about 530 company-owned and 2,100 contract farms producing about 18 million pigs every year (including 1.2 million sows) and joins three other meatpackers — JBS, Tyson, and Hormel — in controlling nearly 70% of the market.
In a March 2021 study conducted by Dave Swenson, then a research scientist with the Department of Economics at Iowa State University, Iowa marketed over 54 million hogs in 2019; however, there are relatively few hog farmers in Iowa. In 2017 there were 6,221 hog producers in Iowa, representing just 7.2% of all farms.
The concentration of hogs in Iowa has demonstrated its detrimental impact on water quality due to the amount of untreated manure that is disposed of on millions of acres of farm fields, the degradation of soils as the result of the need to grow massive amounts of corn to feed these animals, and in many respects, the emptying of Iowa’s rural communities.
Is it any wonder the citizens of California have decided this is not a method of farming and food production they don’t care to be a part of? And if the Iowa pork industry was honest, it would also recognize its system’s shortcomings. In fact, in the July 2021 issue of Iowa Pork Producer magazine, the company PigTek was actively running advertisements, letting producers know “PigTek has your Prop-12 solutions” for more humane gestation and farrowing stalls. The writing was on the wall.
That was two years ago. For two years, the Iowa pork industry could have been encouraging and assisting its growers and members to start transitioning. It didn’t.
Yet not everyone raises hogs in this highly industrialized manner, and there is a community of small to medium-sized hog farmers that have embraced another method of pork production. Niman Ranch, is a diversified group of agricultural producers nationwide and with strong roots in Iowa. Hogs, cattle and poultry are grown by Niman Ranch producers under a set of humane standards far-exceeding what industrialized pork production offers, and its end products are marketed nationally. Participation in the Niman Ranch program is voluntary.
California Prop 12 is not anti-farming or anti-Iowa or anti-bacon as some would like all consumers to believe. It is the result of consumers, recognizing a food industry that through its production practices, is causing myriad issues from environmental, to societal, to animal welfare. This community of consumers haa said, “we will not buy those products produced in that manner.” They recognize they have a choice, and they chose a more sustainable production model for their food.
Perhaps a tipping point has been reached; perhaps it is time for a change.
Tracey Kuehl lives in Davenport.