A year and a half ago my husband and I were on the brink of an opportunity with an Iowa based pig contracting company to raise pigs for Chipotle. We were already contracted through this company raising pigs for them for about 2 years. The company who we loved working with was looking at niche market opportunities to grow their company and potentially grow their profits. My husband and I were one of the few hired contractors for this company that finished pigs out of half slat barns. This means that the barns are solid concrete floors through the middle of the barn including the middle walkway. The first half of every pen was solid cement, and then slatted cement makes up the other half of the pen towards the outer walls so waste can be removed from the pens. The selling point to these barns was that they are partially underground, there are no large and loud fans in the barns making them less “synthetic” and we were “able” to use bedding in these barns for our pigs. Two summers ago we got the opportunity to do a trial run with our contractors to see how the pigs would do being raised a more “natural” way, A.K.A. adding bedding to our barn and raising half than normal pigs per pen. Newer conventional barns have fully slatted floors throughout the entire barn. Here are some reasons it didn’t work for us and our particular barns.
1. The pigs that came to us for this trial run were pasture raised pigs and the tails were not docked. Pigs find tails interesting. Pigs will bite other pigs tails, and this biting problem lead us to use pepper spray on each of the pigs tails so the taste would be less than satisfying (I mean WAY less) and they would learn to stop biting each other. We DID have a few pigs that had tail biting wounds, this led to bacterial infections getting into their spinal fluid and most of the pigs that had this ended up not being able to walk and eventually dying all because of a little open wound on their tail. We had to monitor pigs very closely the first few weeks we had them and apply pepper spray whenever we suspected a group of pigs were biting tails. In conventional production the tails are docked when they are a day old, it barely hurts them and is a quick fix to what could be many problems down the road.
You can read about tail docking here.
2. The bedding. They wanted us to use pine wood shaving bedding in each pen. For us, this could have been the worst problem we would have encountered. This was a trial run so bedding was not required 100% of the time. I am not sure what kind of extra expense this would have incurred for the contracting company but bedding for three 1,100 pig space barns could have been costly. We were only doing a trial run in one barn and we put bedding in once. Our major concern was that our pump was not going to be able to handle the wood chips when pumping out the pits daily. We already had clogging problems on a regular basis and calling in a jetting service every other day was not our idea of fun, especially since it costs about $500 per visit.
You can read more about raising pigs indoors here.
3. The pasture raised pigs that came in at a younger age and lower weight than usual had a different attitude than the pigs that were raised more conventionally. They weren’t more aggressive but they were less friendly. This made it less enjoyable to watch and be with them.
4. Once we really started raising for Chipotle or Applegate, were they going to bully us and our contractors into making decisions for us? If this happened at what would the cost be? Would they start making us feed non-GMO corn and soybean meal in our feed? Note: Non-GMO feed is not part of Chipotle’s protocol right now. If it came to it how would the contracting company source non-GMO corn and beans? Remember there are only 8 GMO commodities that we grow here in the United States they are Corn (field and sweet), Soybeans, Cotton, Canola, Alfalfa, Sugar Beets, Papaya & Squash. How many of these commodities are on the Chipotle menu? I’m guessing only sweet corn and possibly soybeans if tofu is served. (I have never been to a Chipotle mind you because I have never supported them).
You can read more about what our pigs eat here.
People with our contracting company and larger niche marketing companies like Chipotle and Applegate came to visit our farm, ask my husband questions, and visualize overall what production would look like for their company at our farm. We were so grateful that the contracting company we were working with respected us enough to do a trial run with a very large niche market company. We do not rent this particular farm anymore and therefore have ended our contract with the company, but would love to work with them again (conventionally) if the opportunity arises. We did two more turns of feeder to finish pigs with the company before we decided to not rent those particular barns anymore. We are not sure, nor will we ever know why the companies like Chipotle or Applegate (the two companies that visited our farm) decided not use our contracting company. I am sure there were many more kinks to work out like sourcing “ethically” raised pigs to steadily fill our barn. Price setting would be a key factor in a make it or break it decision with a niche market, especially when you have middle men like us who are paid a steady wage to contract feed pigs.
I felt so at war with myself when we were on the brink of feeding niche market pigs. I felt that we as producers were giving in to temporary upscale consumerism and that it would affect the other more conventional producers around us. I didn’t want to be forced into “taking” sides. I felt like I was giving in and giving way for consumers and large companies that advertise based on emotion, misleading information, and “hot button” issues to sway public opinion. Chipotle has been on the forefront of pressuring consumers and producers into believing that their way is the “healthier” way. I could go on and on about their track record and confusing marketing campaigns they spend millions of dollars on. A friend of mine Nicole from Farm Girl Facts of Life has a wonderful blog on this. You can read it here. It’s called 6 Things Chipotle Doesn’t Want You to Know.
On the other hand, this opportunity May have had the potential to make more money, but would it have been worth it? We never got the chance to actually raise pigs for Chipotle or Applegate so we may never know what our income potential would have been, but the big question is (as always) would the labor have been worth it? My husband and I feel that we are very fortunate as producers that we have a choice in how we raise our pigs. We stand for all aspects of the hog industry and advocate for all producers but believe that one way of doing things shouldn’t trump another.
As an agriculture advocate and CommonGround volunteer, I encourage you to do your research on your food. Having food marketing companies tell you how their product is raised is not always true, and marketing campaigns that are directed towards a niche market always have another side to them. If you choose to “sway” towards a niche market I challenge you to look at all aspects and ask a farmer, the very person that spends the most time with those animals.
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