Sunday, December 21, 2008

MOAR Like This, Plz

The free market demanded deregulation; deregulation caused consolidation; the free market worked as it always does with most producers and almost all consumers getting fucked.

There are always reactions, of course. Here's one:

New breed of hog farmers let pigs run wild

By Georgina Gustin

FRANKENSTEIN, MO. — Hog farmer Russ Kremer stands at the edge of a pen, surveying his pigs as they scamper and snort in the mud.

"They like diversity," he says, pushing a camouflage ballcap off his forehead. "Some of them are down there in the water, some are grazing on the rough ground. Some are pretty cliquish; they remember their litter mates."

Kremer won't go so far as to say they're like children to him, but clearly his animals are more than meat products in the making.

Kremer raises nearly 1,000 pigs on his 160-acre farm in rolling Osage County in central Missouri. These days, though, he is often traveling around the nation, preaching the gospel of natural farming. "I'd rather be in my pen, enjoying my pigs," he says, "but some weeks I'm home just two, three days."

Over the last decade, Kremer has become an evangelist for raising animals outdoors, with fresh air, room to root and run, and without antibiotics. In the process, he has persuaded other farmers to go the same route, helping to create — and feed — a growing appetite for meat raised humanely and largely without drugs. The demand for naturally raised pork has become so steep that Kremer and small-scale farmers like him are sealing sales deals with companies around the country — and large industrial farm operators are taking notice.

While these independent farmers gain a toehold, some industrial farmers also have started to question what, exactly, constitutes a "naturally raised," and "antibiotic-free" pig. Farmers set their own standards — the only government designation that assures an antibiotic free meat is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "organic" label. At the same time, large corporations such as Cargill and Smithfield, have introduced their own antibiotic-free lines to capitalize on the demand.

"Usually these are market-driven programs," said Craig Rowles, a veterinarian and hog farmer from Carroll, Iowa, adding, "Antibiotic-free means different things to different people."

Kremer's transformation began 10 years ago when a boar gored him in the knee, causing it to balloon from infection. After being treated with six courses of different antibiotics, the wound hadn't healed. Kremer and his doctor came up with a hypothesis: his herd had become resistant to antibiotics, and Kremer, in turn, had, too.

"I looked at what was happening with me and with my pigs and I said, 'We have to change this,'" he remembers. "I was having the same problems as the pigs."

He never was able to make a conclusive connection but decided to go drug-free. He cleaned out his herd and started anew, filling his barns with deep straw, fencing in pastures and feeding the pigs an antibiotic-free diet. "Honestly, it's a lot easier to raise pigs this way," he says now. "You don't have to have a syringe in your pocket all day long."


In the 1980s, U.S. pork production moved indoors — into the confined animal feeding operations that now dominate the industry.

One major reason for the shift, hog farmers say, was the growing health concerns over fat in American diets. Farmers starting raising leaner but less-hearty pigs. To have a viable herd, farmers moved them inside into cramped quarters where disease spread faster. They started using more antibiotics routinely, not only to prevent disease, but for faster growth.

Soon critics began accusing the industry of rampant antibiotic overuse , saying these practices led to resistant microbes and growing drug resistance in humans. In 1998, the European Union responded to evidence supporting the link by banning the routine use of human antibiotics in livestock.

The livestock industry also was deregulated as confined feeding was on the rise. "Corporations could get bigger and bigger and bigger, and finally they started to control the marketplace," said Tim Gibbons of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, which runs its own 15-member hog farming cooperative in the Columbia, Mo., area.

Independent hog farmers went out of business, or were swallowed up by the large companies such as Cargill or Hormel, who contracted with individual farmers to produce their pork. Under those contracts, production, including the administering of antibiotics, was controlled by the companies.

Small farmers blame such companies for their disappearance. In 1985, there were 22,000 hog farmers in Missouri. Today there are 1,900, according to the Department of Agriculture, and 300 of those produce 90 percent of the state's pork.

Conventional hog farmers counter that confined feeding saved many farming families from financial ruin while putting safe, inexpensive, healthy meat on American tables.

"We put animals inside to keep them clean and healthy," said Don Nikodim, executive director of the Missouri Pork Association, whose membership includes most of the industrial hog farmers in the state.

Some large-scale farmers believe that consumers don't understand the extent of antibiotic use. "I think there's a misconception in the public that antibiotics are used haphazardly, and that really isn't true," Rowles said.

He recently testified at a congressional hearing on behalf of the National Pork Producers Council, urging leaders to vote against legislation limiting the ability of pork producers to use antibiotics. Rowles has an operation that annually brings to market between 140,000 and 150,000 pigs, which are treated with five antibiotics. He pointed out that government mandates withdrawal times for certain antibiotics before the pigs can come to market. "There are standards we have in place to assure the public," he said.


When Kremer made the transition to natural production a decade ago, there was little demand for naturally raised pork. So he launched the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative to develop a marketing strategy and a label, called Heritage Acres, and started knocking on doors.

At the beginning, store managers couldn't see the value in the "naturally raised" distinction and wondered whether consumers would pay a premium for it. But eventually, as chefs around the country starting seeking out "heritage" pork and activists decried industrial farming practices, consumers started wanting it, too.

Now Denver-based Chipotle supplies some of its 800 restaurants with pork from the co-op, and in St. Louis it's available at Whole Foods and Sappington Farmers' Market, where it generally costs a few dollars more than its conventionally raised counterpart.

"I wanted the best flavor, and that's how it got started," said Andy Ayers, former owner of Riddles Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar in University City, who started buying Kremer's pork about 10 years ago.

St. Louis-based Volpi Foods began buying pork from the co-op about six months ago for its salami and ham. Lorenza Pasetti, Volpi's president, said about 20 percent of its products are made with the co-op's pork, but the company can't find enough of it.

That kind of demand has prompted the corporate giants to launch their own antibiotic-free pork.

Some critics question, though, whether industrial farm operations can function without antibiotics. And even farmers who ascribe to natural methods, like Kremer, believe that antibiotics should be used to treat disease.

But for Kremer, antibiotics aren't the sole issue. It's the environment that usually accompanies their use. He says his pigs rarely get sick because they develop strong immune systems in a natural environment. And, more important, he believes their lives are respected from farrow to slaughter.

"We're all part of this equitable food system," he said. "When I speak, it comes from the heart."

This farmer's doing the right thing, but it amounts to a drop in the bucket. And the nature of the bucket won't change, thanks to the system of legalized bribery (the "free speech" of free marketers) through which the crappy farmers thwart the regulatory power of democracy. The degree of choice here for the average consumer is just large enough to superficially support the free marketers' Hitlerian lie* that the market is self-correcting. Actually, due to the expense and scarcity of decent pork, the only people who can afford it consistently are -- surprise, surprise -- wealthy free marketers. Thus the system provides in exactly the way they really want it to; they just lie about how, and most importantly, for whom.

*A nice code for the lie so huge, so outlandish, that it paradoxically seems plausible, at least to the congenitally credulous. Additionally, it is the lie so huge that it waylays its victims, just one of which is the truth.