By: Heather Williams

We’ve talked about increased regulations in the food industry to help keep us safe, and while many of these regulations are aimed at the larger commercial farms the small ones might be seeing an impact as well.  We had an opportunity to sit down and chat with a local pork farmer to get her perspective.  For pork, the recent Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and Modernization of Pork Slaughter Rule are of current impact.

Meet the Farmer

Shiner Pork started as a bit of land with cattle on it.  Patricia Tieken, the Farmers Market face of the Shiner Pork brand, described the history of their farm.  Originally, the land was owned by her husband’s grandparents.  When her husband’s parents inherited the land, they decided to put cattle on it and rented out the house on the property.  23 years ago, they moved onto the land and primarily raised cattle for auction and had a few pigs for their own family.  As the kids were getting older and moved onto high school, she was looking for something to do with her time.  Her husband makes wood furniture, and she was looking for something to do for herself.  They decided to make the land pay for itself and 8 years ago Shiner Pork went from raising pigs just for their own family to increasing production to share with their community at local farmers markets.

When asked what made you become a pork farmer, she explained that the whole purpose in what they are doing was to raise cattle because they enjoyed having cattle and they aren’t too labor intensive.  The hogs were added to help the farm sustain itself. When you sell a cow at auction, you don’t get a lot for it, but when you sell it for meat you get considerably more.  Sometimes even more than double what you would get from auction.  They raise crops as well, including turnips, milo, oats, and haygrasier).  This is primarily for additional feed.

Farming Small Makes Better Meat

Shiner Pork raises Heritage hogs, which are a large, black, and slow growing old breed.  This breed is nearly extinct due to consignment farming practices, which don’t really work for this breed.  They do not do well in confinement and take much longer to raise than commercial farms are willing to commit to.  It takes a year and a half to get to 300 pounds, but it is well worth it.  The meat tastes much better.

The animals on the Shiner Pork farm have large areas to run around.  Some have grass 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  She said that the pigs are very destructive and like to dig everything up.  They got the idea to have the pigs in the crop area after harvest is done to till up the land.  They do not confine their pigs in small areas like the one animal per stall in some larger farms.  They currently have 70 pigs and sell 2 to 4 hogs per month.  When a hog takes a year and a half to mature, they need a lot on the land and additional breeding stock, explains Tieken.

The pigs eat mostly green grass and white milo (sorgum).  They run around and sleep a lot.  The pigs also get feed that they make by mixing their own ingredients with a local feed mill to add salts, minerals, and soybeans for protein.  They grind all of their feed themselves.

To sustain production, they breed pigs twice per year using four females and one breeding male.  They keep 6 to 8 piglets per litter and the male stays with the females all the time.  They are like their own little family unit.  When the females become too old to breed they get retired and become meat (sausage).  They live in this family unit for quite a long time, usually living for 12 to 15 years.

Like many farms, Shiner uses a third-party processor.  They have a relationship with two local companies that are a family operated, well-run, and a state certified kill facility that is inspected on-site both when the animals are killed and butchered.  They use another facility that is certified for sausage and bacon.

Q and A on Current Legislation

Shiner Pork is still considered a small, family owned farm compared to the large, commercial feedlot type farms.  They stick to their roots and operate responsibly, with or without legislation.  It’s just the right way to produce good quality pork, and customers can taste the difference.

Modernization of Pork Slaughter Rule

The Modernization of Pork Slaughter Rule’s primary tenets are two-fold.  First, it focuses on preventative measures to implement prophylactic measures to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter instead of addressing contamination after the fact.  It requires slaughter establishments to develop, implement, and maintain written procedures aimed to prevent contamination of carcasses through the slaughter process.  Second, it streamlines the inspection process, transferring some of the food safety responsibilities from federal inspectors to packing plant workers.

When asked, “How does the Modernization of Pork Slaughter Rule affect you as a pork farmer” Tieken seemed supportive.  “Me personally, I think it is a good thing because I use a trustworthy butcher.  I think the only problem I can see is if you are leaving it up to the butchers, they need to be ones of high integrity.  Food safety is really important.”

CERCLA and Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act

The CERCLA authorizes a Federal “Superfund” to clean up abandoned hazardous-waste sites as well as respond to accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants in the environment.  With this Act, the EPA was given power to hold those parties who are responsible for the release to participate in the clean-up.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act with respect to pork farming involves notifying the public emergency response officials of excess manure lots.  For farms that house many animals in small areas, manure pile up is an issue.  The waste is often collected into pits and eventually moved off-site.  These pits may build up methane and other chemicals that could be a release issue.

When asked her thoughts on the latest Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act’s emissions reporting requirements, she explained that being a small farmer, most of the requirements did not apply to her yet. “I am not sure right now.” She explained, “As a small farmer, I really don’t have waste issues.  I can see if you did consignment farming, it would be a big deal.  If you are consignment farming, you would need to get rid of waste.  Our animals are out and about, running in the fields.  Their waste is in the fields, going back into the ground.”

We asked if she thought the new regulations would give big farms an incentive to let their pigs run more often.  She talked candidly about the current issues in the food industry.  “I don’t think so.  This is a food cost issue.  Americans don’t like to pay a lot for groceries.  Big farms are really efficient in growing their animals, but they build these huge barns and concrete spaces. But they don’t usually have land, so they keep the usually caged.  There is a huge complex problem in this country as far as farming goes.  We all want to eat food, but most people don’t want to pay $5 for it.  If you want happy, healthy animals, they need the space.  So it is more cost efficient to cram a bunch of animals in a small space.”

Conversation About Pork Farming in General

There is a great deal of pride and work that goes into raising pigs the way Shiner Pork does.  Small farms are different than large commercial farms, just by nature of how they can handle the animals.

We asked, what is something you wished consumers knew about pigs?  She explains that they longer they grow the better they taste.  “People are moving away from pork because commercial farms are moving away from that.  They just don’t have to follow the same rules, so the meat is substandard.  The rule for small farmers, if you pig is sick, they just kill it.  Not for meat.”  She went on to say that she has never had a pig killed.  Her pigs have always been healthy.

We asked if there was something that you wished consumers knew about pork farming? Tieken explains, “I am not sure people would be thrilled to know how pigs are normally raised.  They live a short life.”  She goes on to say that “the rules that apply to small farmers do not apply to big commercial farms”.  In commercial farms, inspectors do not inspect each pig as they do with small farms.  “But for mine, each pig is inspected.”

We had a chance to discuss the difficulties she has as a pork farmer in the United States.  “Commercial farms are treated differently,” she says.  “As anyone who produces food, Americans are after cheap food.  It isn’t a big priority in our lives to eat well.  It is hard for small farms to make it as the cost of doing good farming is so high that most consumers aren’t willing to pay.  They don’t want to make good food a high priority.”  When comparing the United States to other countries, “other countries tend to pay more for their foods.  Big farms cut costs.  Small farms are doing better, use less medications, better meat, healthier animals, but it is expensive.  Most Americans don’t want to make good meat a high priority.”  She confesses, “that was me before I became a farmer, but I have learned good food costs more.  Food deserves to be a high priority in the home.  We think about what we eat and what we feed our animals.”  The bottom line, “if people want safer food, they should pay more for their food.”

UnsafeFoods would like to thank Shiner Pork for their time, pictures, and contributions to helping make our food system safer.