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Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork
By Brad Weiss
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
PIGS ON THE GROUND
From Pigs in a Parlor to Ten Million Confinement Hogs
The geographical focus of this book is the North Carolina Piedmont, a region that lies in between the Coastal Plain and the mountains of Western North Carolina. More specifically, my research has been centered on two primary regions: the Triad and the Triangle. The Triad is formed by the three cities of Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. It lies roughly seventy-five miles to the west of the Triangle, which is formed by the cities of Durham; Chapel Hill; and the state capitol, Raleigh (map 1.1). There are important demographic differences between these two regions, which include urban centers as well as many rural and agricultural towns. As I indicated above, my work here included discussions with pastured-pork producers throughout the Piedmont as well as with restaurant chefs and staff members; vendors and customers at a number of farmers' markets; and academics, advocates, and activists working on behalf of this niche market in "real pigs." In this chapter I want to briefly discuss some historical features of hog production and consumption in North Carolina; describe the radical changes in pig production in the state in the late twentieth century; and give a somewhat more detailed account of the origins of the efforts to revitalize and, in some instances, invent outdoor hog production in the state, which has really taken off only in the past twenty years. This overview is intended as background for the practices that are discussed in more detail, and are accompanied by more ethnographic evidence, in the chapters that follow.
Raising hogs has a long and diverse history in North Carolina. While pig farming today is concentrated primarily in the eastern Coastal Plain, as described above, the enthusiasm for raising pigs across the state has been well documented. In 1982, John Raymond Shute, a politician and author, was interviewed for "Documenting the American South" and talked about his experiences growing up in Monroe, just to the southeast of Charlotte (at the very western end of the Piedmont). Born in 1904, Shute described farms in Cabarrus and Stanly Counties when he was young:
[Everyone] raised their swine and their chickens for their meat. As soon as the first frost came, that was the time to slaughter pigs and hogs. They would render their own lard; they'd make their own soap; they'd make their own sausage; they'd cure their own hams. Every house had a smokehouse. They'd burn hickory logs to cure the ham, and that ham was salted down along with the other [pork]. The sausage was put up in corn shucks. And you talk about something good to eat. Now you take sausage out of a corn shuck six months later with fresh eggs, and you've really got a breakfast. But as towns developed, they usually enacted ordinances prohibiting the raising of hogs or swine within the city limits. ... Consequently, you can see how it would develop as a separate industry located out where it was not offensive to anyone. You had what later became known, oddly enough, as "pig parlors." That's where they raised them and would slaughter them and cure them and everything. So that developed the swine business as really a separate industry from ordinary farming. But even so, every farm still had swine.
This account of a set of subsistence practices might seem romanticized, but it provides an image — though not an actual practice — that endured across North Carolina for most of the twentieth century (figures 1.1 and 1.2).
In 2009 an African American man in his twenties who had grown up on a farm in the far northeastern corner of the state — near Elizabeth City, in Pasquotank County — told me that he had only recently returned to his job near Burlington after "taking down the pigs back home":
There were five pigs from three families, and they got the whole thing done in four to five hours. The whole thing [killing and processing the hogs] takes two full days. You season the meat for a day and then you grind sausage. You take the joints [rear and front legs of the pig, or "hams" and "shoulders" in pork parlance], then there are middlings — fat back bacon and bellies — and you salt them and put them up in the smokehouse. After the joints are cut out, then the girls come. They season the meat and grind up the trim for sausage.
I heard similar reports from farmers in the Piedmont who had in very recent memory participated in such collective hog-killing practices. Some of them were still raising pigs in family "parlors" and using their pork for subsistence or, as the expression goes, as "money in the bank" — pigs typically raised to be ground up into sausage for quick and easy sales to neighbors and friends.
On the whole, however, this kind of practice has been almost completely displaced by industrial hog farming in the state — indeed, by confinement operations in the three counties of Duplin, Bladen, and Sampson (see map 1.2), where more than five million of the state's roughly ten million hogs are raised (Factory Farm Map n.d.). How North Carolina went from pig parlors and neighborhood slaughtering and packing facilities to Smithfield Packing's processing 28.5 million hogs in fiscal 2013 is a story that has been told in more detail and with more rigor than I can offer here. My purpose is not to offer a thorough critique of this historical process but to emphasize some of the ways in which this process of animal confinement, the financialization of livestock farming, and the megaconsolidation of the industry contributed to and helped shape the development of the pastured-pork niche market at the very end of the twentieth century.
While I would not suggest that the image that I sketched above of subsistence pig producers on small-scale homesteads was an unchanging model that operated throughout North Carolina for over a century, I would argue that there were a series of momentous changes in the final decades of the twentieth century that substantially changed the pork industry throughout the world. These also had profound ramifications for the pig farmers and pork consumers with whom I worked in the Piedmont.
Here is what a former attorney general of North Carolina, Robert Morgan, wrote about the radical transformation in the state's hog industry. I quote at length since Morgan offers a concise summary of the extent of these transformations:
In 1984, there were more than twenty thousand hog farms in North Carolina populated by 2 million hogs. More than a fourth of these farms, mostly in the east, had fewer than five hundred hogs, and only a small fraction of these more than two thousand. A decade later, the number of hogs catapulted to over 7 million, but the number of hog farms fell below five thousand. In little more than a decade, the number of hogs produced nearly quadrupled, while the number of farms dropped by three-fourths. Hog farming suddenly became big business as only 2.5 percent of these farms had fewer than five hundred hogs, while 84 percent had over two thousand each. (1998, 138)
How can we possibly account for this unprecedented expansion and consolidation of hog production in an extremely short period of time? A series of policy and legislative shifts were put in place in the state in the early 1980s, in the period just before the decade that Morgan describes, which were designed to produce this consolidation and expand pork production to previously unimaginable levels. The story unfolds on a level that is both local and national (if not global) in its scope. As a student and analyst of social activity, I would normally be reluctant to suggest that a transformation of this massive scale could be attributed to the actions of a handful of people, but that seems to describe exactly what happened in North Carolina in the 1980s. Members of the state's legislature, led by Wendell H. Murphy, an assemblyman from Duplin County, sponsored and passed a series of laws that made this sort of expansion immensely profitable and appear — as some agricultural economists at the time suggested — inevitable. Murphy was an executive in Murphy Family Farms, a hog production company founded by his family in 1962. In the course of his ten years in the General Assembly, his family business became the biggest hog producer in the United States. Murphy and his allies, both Democrats and Republicans, passed a series of laws and amendments that paved the way for industrialization and contracting. They effectively eliminated state sales taxes on farm building materials and, later, on all farm equipment. Furthermore, they exempted farming enterprises from zoning regulations so that municipalities had very little ability to curtail the construction of facilities that housed thousands of animals. Finally, they gutted the environmental regulations that would have fined hog production facilities that illegally discharged wastes into surrounding streams and waterways. In effect, spills (whose existence the industry denied for years) could be dealt with only by reporting them to authorities at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who then had sixty days to take action. The combined effects of this legislation made consolidation of the hog industry much more viable and led to the development of the confinement systems known as confined animal feeding operations.
What made the industrialization of hog production not just viable but also enormously profitable for those who would come to dominate this process of consolidation were the drastically reduced costs of infrastructure that this legislation produced and the system of contract production that controlled the ways in which hogs were grown and marketed in the state. This system of contracts gives hog production its national, even global, character. The system was first developed and implemented in the poultry industry. As William Boyd and Michael Watts demonstrate (1997, see especially 154–57) the poultry industry became vertically integrated — that is, it consolidated the process of housing, feeding, transporting, processing (or slaughtering), and marketing the animal under a single company, or integrator — in the United States in the period right after World War II. They further show how this process was greatly facilitated by the political geography of poultry production — to wit, the fact that the American South was dominated by a series of small, near-subsistence farmers, whose marginal economic existence and skill set as farmers made them especially vulnerable to the generally onerous terms of the production contracts offered to them by the integrators to grow their chickens. Add to this the way that growers working under contract became, in effect, wage laborers for the integrators and the fact that ironically named "right to work" legislation was passed throughout the South in this era, and the conditions became ideal for poultry production to flourish in two states, Virginia and Arkansas, respectively dominated by the integrators Perdue Farms Inc. and Tysons Foods Inc.
This contracting system introduced tremendous efficiencies that allowed for scale to be ratcheted up enormously in the poultry industry. Hog production followed suit in North Carolina in the 1980s. The real profitability of the industry lies not in the volume and cost of the cheap meat that can be produced (indeed, the evidence suggests that pork is only profitable, when it is, because of the federal subsidies and tax breaks that the industry receives; see Blanchette 2013; "CME" 2014), but in the terms of the contracts that transfer most of the risks to the growers. These contracts require growers to raise their animals under conditions determined by the integrator, which generally require substantial investments in infrastructure to ensure that growers employ all of the infrastructure required by economies of scale and standardization in animal production: providing proper housing conditions, the use of temperature controls, administration of medications, meeting feed requirements, and so on. All of these costs are borne by the growers, who take out sizable mortgages to qualify for integrators' contracts. Farmers who are able to make payments on these mortgages — generally by selling off family-held land, usually to the integrator looking to find more land on which to construct confinement facilities — can be quite successful. The vast majority of growers, though, have to service their debt with the income they receive for their hogs, leaving farmers little or nothing on which to live. This story is far from unique: "John Cooper, a Newton Grove farmer who has worked under contract for three different companies, said he was lured into the business with promises of up to $100,000 a year. But after making $56,000 in annual payments on a $750,000 loan, he ended up taking a loss of $8,000 in his first year" (Warrick and Stith 1995a). The model created by this corporate success (that is, enormous profitability) — combined with the legislation passed by representatives who were direct beneficiaries of the laws they sponsored — certainly made the consolidation of pork production and the exponential expansion of the industry seem like an inevitable result of industrialization. Indeed, this expansion has proceeded apace, as the number of hogs marketed in the state reached 18,359,000 in 2013. Smithfield Foods, headquartered in Virginia, built the largest pork-processing facility in the world in Bladen County, North Carolina, in 1992 (in 2013 this facility processed 28.5 million hogs). In 2000 Smithfield took over the company that led the way in grower contracts in North Carolina, Murphy Family Farms (now Murphy Family Ventures), and Smithfield itself was taken over by Shuanghui International Holdings in 2013 for the price of $4.7 billion — the largest Chinese takeover of a U.S. company to date.
Even before the recent activities of Smithfield, the rate of growth in the industry in North Carolina attracted a great deal of attention and concern. The Raleigh News and Observer series (Stith, Warrick, and Sill 1995) that described much of the history I have just outlined was published in February 1995, just as this decade of legislative change and extraordinary expansion concluded. The stories in the series proved to be enormously influential for a number of food and environmental activists throughout North Carolina (see the profiles throughout this book for examples). But what really alerted this community of scholars, farmers, chefs, and other advocates to the hazards of confinement hog production were a string of environmental catastrophes across the Coastal Plain in the 1990s. In June 1995, a few months after the newspaper series ran, a lagoon holding waste from a confined animal feeding operation growing over 10,000 hogs collapsed at Oceanview Farms, in Onslow County. More than twenty-five million gallons of hog waste spilled across tobacco and soybean fields and into the New River ("Huge Spill of Hog Waste Fuels an Old Debate in North Carolina" 1995). This led the state to reconsider some of the limits on environmental regulation that hog farms enjoyed. But the most destructive events for the industry were Hurricanes Fran and Floyd. Fran hit the North Carolina coast in early September 1996, making landfall near Wilmington. It caused $7.2 billion in damage and killed 16,000 pigs. Far worse, though, was the catastrophe brought about by Hurricane Floyd in September 1999. The storm hit North Carolina at Cape Fear and came straight through the heart of the Coastal Plain. Countless lagoons were breached, thoroughly contaminating surrounding rivers. This drew the attention of environmentalists across the nation, who descended on the plain at the turn of the century to develop programs for cleaning up the region and reforming the legislative framework that had generated these toxic conditions (Niman 2009). National nightly news programs broadcast footage of enormous herds of pigs standing on the roofs of their confinement facilities as the floodwaters rose around them. A hundred thousand pigs drowned in the weeks that followed (Randall 1999). Many contract farmers went bankrupt as the state endured losses estimated between six and eight billion dollars ("Hurricane Floyd" n.d.).
Of course, these disasters and the range of responses they generated did not impede the growth of the hog industry or diminish its profitability, as my summary above of the success of Smithfield Foods indicates. But they did create a widespread awareness of the costs and the wider impact of this industry that is critical to understanding the renaissance in pastured pork that is the focus of this book. Activists, academics, farmers, and consumers were aware of this devastation, and many wanted to take action to counter the effects of industrialized confinement systems. At the same time, some of the same forces of financialization and its consequent restructuring of class relations that transformed the hog industry have had a lasting effect on the demography and social organization of North Carolina as a whole. These abiding changes ushered in many of the conditions that also allowed the niche market in "natural" pork to develop and expand in the last two decades in the Piedmont. I will now turn, with a little more depth of focus, to the processes and agencies that promoted this niche market and that, although they were intended to reject the intensive confinement of animals, instead put pigs "on the ground."
Excerpted from Real Pigs by Brad Weiss. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface vii
1. Pigs on the Ground 21
Profile: Eliza MacLean
Profile: John O'Sullivan
2. Pigs in a Local Place 59
Profile: Sarah Blacklin
Profile: Jennifer Curtis
3. Heritage, Hybrids, Breeds, and Brands 107
Profile: Will Cramer
Profile: Ross Flynn
4. Pigs in Parts 155
Profile: Kevin Callaghan
5. A Taste for Fat 187
Profile: Vimala Rajendran
Profile: Sam Suchoff
6. Farm to Fork, Snout to Tail 219
Conclusion. Authentic Connections 243
What People are Saying About This
"I have covered the Triangle's food scene since 2007, interviewing and profiling many of the same people as Brad Weiss. Revealing layers to the local food movement and the production of pastureraised pork that were previously unknown to me, Real Pigs is a fascinating examination of a local market and, by extension, any local market in the United States."
"Moving beyond normative debates over whether eating local is a moral good, Brad Weiss shows us that locality itself comes into view through American understandings of what 'good' food is and should be. Real Pigs gives us rich fodder to think about the interconnections of taste and place, consumption and production, capital and labor, humans and animals in the contemporary United States."