Recently, a guy named James McWilliams has made it his business to criticize pastured pork in this online opinion column, among other high profile places. I took exception to a few of the points he made in this latest installment, so I sent him the following response. I also sent it to the online magazine who published the Op-Ed, but they apparently weren't interested. So, I present it for your consideration here...Enjoy!
An open letter to James McWilliams, History Professor from Texas State University.
Dear Mr. McWilliams,
Since you have done another literary drive-by on the pastured pork business, it seems only fair to address a few statements that you've made in your latest Op-Ed piece (Slate.com, June 29,2009).
I thought that I might provide some perspective from someone who actually raises pigs on pasture, since you apparently did not feel the need to interview a pastured pork farmer for your story. I'm sure that this rather glaring omission was just an oversight on your part, and not intentionally done to avoid clouding the waters in this latest installment of your indictment of pastured pork.
Let's talk about nose ringing first. It so happens that I agree with you that ringing pigs inhibits their natural foraging behaviors, and for that reason, I do not use rings on my pigs. On my farm, I have developed a management system that tolerates the inevitable rooting done by pigs in their natural environment and quickly repairs that damage to the pasture. I feel that this system is superior to a system that uses the ring to prevent rooting.
However, I do take issue with the fact that you reach the conclusion that "Ringing is nearly universal on free-range pig farms in the United States." Based on what data? Do you reach that conclusion because the most well known pastured pork farm in the country, Niman Ranch, allows it? Perhaps a citation of some quantitative measure of the use of nose rings on pastured pig farms would be in order here, instead of misleading your reader with relative terms like "nearly universal." I suspect that such data is very limited or nonexistent, and because of that I would challenge you, as an apparent academic, to take it upon yourself to design and execute a study to determine the actual prevalence of this practice.
Your second criticism deals with castration and spaying. Until now, I have never heard of anyone spaying a female pig for commercial purposes. I suspect that the mortality rate of such an invasive surgery performed by a layman would be very high, and the cost to have it performed by a veterinarian would be prohibitive. For these reasons, I don't think spaying would be commercially viable in the United States.
However, castration is an absolute necessity for all male pigs, regardless of production system or philosophy. Meat from an intact (uncastrated) male is inedible, due to the overpowering muskiness that is present in it.
If pain management in the animal is necessary, then what boundaries do we set for pain in the animal? If we are to use anesthesia, how should that be administered? If it is injected, is the pain caused by the needle acceptable? Would the pain of the needle be greater than the actual castration? You may answer no, but are you aware that dentists in the U.S. now fill cavities in children's teeth without anesthesia for this very reason?
On another level, many consumers who seek out and purchase pastured pork do so because of their desire to have meat free from chemical contamination. Would the use of anesthetics be acceptable to these people? How about analgesics (pain killers) after the procedure? Where is the line between the administration of adequate pain medication and overuse of drugs that pervades the commercial pork industry? This becomes a matter of individual choice to the consumer.
Conveniently though, the small, family operated, direct-to-consumer, pastured pork farm offers just that--individual choice. The relationship built between the farmer and the consumer allows the consumer to relay their feelings on these issues directly to the farmer. If enough of a farm's customers want the practice (non-anesthetized castration, for example) to change, it will. Quickly. In no other production or marketing system is this possible. I would highly recommend that you find a farmer of your own, and cultivate a relationship with him or her. You will be amazed at how powerful that connection is.
I hope that in the future you will include a farmer's perspective in your criticisms of pastured pork. I hope that you will do more investigating than the apparent cursory internet search that you based this story on. Finally, I hope you find a conscientious farmer of your own, and that you are able to build that relationship and experience pastured pork to the point that you can rethink your position that managing pigs on pasture is "far from the ideal that most people imagine it to be." Granted, producing pork on grass, like any human endeavor, is not a perfect system. But it is as close as we can get.