When a New Yorker meets porkers

“Ham it up, ya gotta ham it up,
if ya hope ta get by!
Ham it up, ya gotta ham it up,
ta have a home in our sty!
— “Ham it Up,” John Jacobson and John Higgins

ROUND LAKE — It had been hard enough to get this darn song out of my head earlier this month. My second-grade daughter was preparing with the rest of her classmates for the presentation of their short musical play “E-I-E-I oops!” and was regularly belting out this tune around the house.

In the key role of Mrs. Old MacDonald, Grace had no shortage of enthusiasm, which I suppose given the proper perspective would have made “Ham it Up” less fever-inducing than it sometimes was.

So it was somehow appropriate that, in the midst of this theatrical bovine bonanza, Daily Globe reporter and “Today’s Farm” editor Julie Buntjer asked if I would write a column about a tour of an area hog farm. I couldn’t help but be “all-in” — if I was going to be hearing about pigs day and night at home, I might as well expose myself to the real deal at the same time.

Actually, there is a bit more to this than merely getting an assignment to pen a pig piece. A few months back — in the publication of our previous “Today’s Farm” — Julie featured a story about New Fashion Pork and the enterprise’s disdain for law changes the Humane Society of the United States (H.S.U.S.) is advocating. Well, to make a long story somewhat short, the article sparked a bunch of letters, both from H.S.U.S. officials and supporters to pork producers around the region.

At some point, a few weeks into the controversy, I got a call from Emily Erickson, New Fashion Pork’s animal well-being and quality assurance manager, inviting me to come out and take a personal tour. I’d visited JBS a few months ago and got to see a good share of that facility, but a hog farm would be an entirely new experience.

“Sure,” I said.

On April 2, I drove out to the Freking Sow Farm, one of nine such operations under New Fashion Pork’s umbrella, in rural Round Lake. Simply entering the place brought a bit of the unexpected.

“Hey Curly!”
“Yeah, Cue?”
“Did you hear the one about the hog with no nose?”
“No! How’d he smell?”
“How’d he smell? … Terrible (laughing, snorting, etc.)
— “Ham It Up”

Emily Erickson met me outside the main door to the farm’s office area and escorted me inside. Almost immediately upon the door’s closure, I heard some kind of air conditioner sound kick on. Emily, without questioning, quickly explained that the air was being purified to ensure no contamination from the outside took place. And, by the way, I would now have to take a shower, she said.

An email sent in advance of my tour had mentioned something about “showering in,” but for whatever reason it didn’t register — perhaps it was because there was nothing added about bringing a towel, change of clothes, etc., as well as the assumption that I certainly couldn’t make a pig farm filthier than it already was.

But sure enough, I was directed to a showering area in which there was everything from soap, shampoo, deodorant, boxers (no briefs) and a clean pair of coveralls waiting for me. I did what I was told and before long was in “Farmer Ryan” mode, ready for whatever sow scenes were in store (not to mention free of any outside germs that could sicken the farm’s pigs).

Except, again to my surprise, I was led to a break room area in which I sat around a table with some New Fashion Pork employees. Emily — along with co-owner Meg Freking, sow farm manager Ben Clarke and sow farm service manager Kerri Hopkins — proceeded to present information and answer some likely silly questions in what I’d describe as a “Pig Farming for Dummies” session. Naturally, I was the dummy, but the New Fashion Pork folks never made feel like an agriculturally ignorant buffoon. They were gracious hosts and willing to impart any knowledge they could on this city boy from New York.

“Hey Curly!”
“Yeah, Cue?”
“I lost my baby pig!”
“That’s awful! Why don’t you put an ad in the paper?”
“Don’t be silly … he can’t read!” (laughing, snorting, etc.)
— “Ham It Up”

I can’t help but feel — at least from my standpoint — that some of the things I learned at the farm that morning could fill a number of the “Fascinating Facts” spaces we used to feature. For instance, the gestation period for a pig is three months, three weeks and three days. Who knew? And a sow’s litter subsequently can include anywhere from 12 to 18 babies, and the sows are bred twice a year and commonly have in the neighborhood of seven litters. (So, I marveled, these sows are the moms of an average of 84 children? They must be Catholic, I joked to some laughter.)

At the New Fashion Pork sow farm I visited, the baby pigs are born (“farrowed”) and weaned; they are then moved to nursery sites at about 21 days of age. Each litter is kept together in a pen until the pigs are around five weeks old, at which point they are split out and moved to finishing sites at one of two outside locations. At this point, each pig weighs about 50 pounds. When they go to market — at the age of five months — they’ve grown to 260 pounds.

It seems as if there were enough pig-related statistics given to me, in fact, to fill a miniature Guinness book. Among some of the others: 1,000 pigs at the farm site I visited leave each week for finishing sites; a total of 1.2 million pigs are sent to harvest plants company-wide over the course of the year (New Fashion Pork has five sow farms); and Minnesota’s pork production annually generates $6.7 billion in the state economy and creates an estimated 55,100 jobs. I am able to glean such data thanks to a handy-dandy, two-sided piece of paper titled “Oink Outings” that was provided to me. I’m hoping I can order my own subscription.

“We’re a family of silly sows,
people would say I’m a ham! Oink! Oink!
Acting worse than a herd of cows.
Come on y’all, let’s jam!
— “Ham It Up”

Later, as we toured some of the barns at the farm, I have to admit the entire experience was more educational and interesting than I imagined. It’s next to impossible to cover it all, though I’ve got to single out the sows’ protection of their young (the moms show they’re threatened if you walk directly in front of their line of sight) as one source of intrigue. It made plenty of sense that New Fashion Pork also produces its own feed for its pigs — there are many varieties based on different ages/stages. I also didn’t know there was a “pecking order” for pigs, too, though I suppose this shouldn’t be a stunning revelation. Pigs apparently always line up in the same order to eat, which I guess was so fascinating if only because my own young children often fight about where they’re going to sit at the dinner table.

That pecking order, though, can come into play in a negative way when two pigs from different litters are put together in the same pen. The way pigs are housed is at the heart of a national controversy that has seen the HSUS push to remove individual sow houses and, instead, have them gestate together in a pen setting. But, at least from what I observed, this can lead to one pig attacking another, and New Fashion Pork showed me an actual example of one pig that had been wounded by another after being placed in the same pen. Clearly, this isn’t safe for the pigs, never mind the individuals working with them.

I can by no means pretend to be an expert on pig farming based on a couple of hours at a hog farm but, from what I saw, the New Fashion Pork folks clearly had the interest of the pigs as their top priority at all times.

“Well,” one might argue, “if that was really true, why would they be raised for eventual slaughter in the first place?”

While that’s clearly a point that can never be fully refuted, I guess my take on that is at least the pigs are given the best attention, treatment and care possible while at the facility, and that fact is a better alternative than a bunch of wild pigs running around. Or, I would imagine if pigs and humans switched places, the swine would probably harvest the people.

Either way, I came away from the time at the farm with a new perspective and sense of knowledge, all while still having that mildly annoying “Ham It Up,” song in my head.

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