During Hurricane Ian millions of gallons of pig feces whooshed across North Carolina. Pig poop gets my attention. I raised my kids on a hog farm and the water was too contaminated to drink due to decades of farming with gestation crates: a birthing invention of factory farms that is a stacked storage system to get the most pigs per acre.
In past years Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Matthew sent feces flying so we know which problems ensue: human sickness, contaminated drinking water, rivers, plants and fish. There’s a race issue as well. The farm owners are white and their pig shit lands on property Black people own.
We don’t see many politicians taking up this cause. The pork lobby owns North Carolina. The only other state with significant hog operations is Iowa, and you can’t win a presidential primary if you trash talk pigs.
But California sidestepped the fact that pork producers don’t live in their state and 68% of voters said California should not permit the sale of pork from gestation crate farms. Many attempts to control the pork producers have failed, so whiners dismissed this one as The Bacon Apocalypse, but attorneys shepherded the law through two appeals, and this week the Supreme Court will hear the case.
The state of California will argue that gestation crates are the worst example of animal confinement. The crates don’t allow any movement for pregnant pigs; they can stand or sit but cannot turn around for most of their life. I hope California also adds something about how pigs have an intense social-emotional life and a higher IQ than dogs.
But like all legal matters, conversation will probably stick to money. The pork industry will invoke interstate commerce laws to say replacing gestation crates with moderately larger pens is too big a burden on businesses outside of California. The Court will use the Pike Test to determine if the consumer’s moral cost of eating ill-begotten pork outweighs the producer’s financial cost of reconfiguring crates to be larger.
The cost argument only works because the meatpacking industry controls farmers, and only the few financially independent hog farmers could study the cost of switching from gestation crates. But also, universities capable of producing this research are funded by gestation crate manufacturers.
My son discovered this problem first-hand. Our farm switched from gestation crates to free-range farrowing while he was growing up. The farmer had a degree in hog genetics and we collected data for nine years using a (mostly) scientific method which at the time was annoying, but created a data set like no other in the US.
The switchover was financially successful. There were fewer sows per acre, but each sow had a larger number of healthy piglets and the herd no longer required an antibiotic regimen. There were also huge cost savings for labor, because gestation crates have to be cleaned constantly and it’s disgusting work.
More dramatically, unlike their dull, inert created counterparts, free-range piglets at two-months could run around the pen in little groups like puppies. They were fun and curious and could always make their way back to their mom when she called.
In high school my son wanted to work with a professor to see if he might like being a scientist. So he gathered qualitative and quantitative data from 100 sows and more than 1000 piglets and presented it to agriculture departments at universities. Even though there is no data set that comes close to this in quantity or quality, there were no takers.
One professor said that for a study on this topic he would need comparable data for hogs in a state-of-the art gestation crate system and hogs out of crates with equivalent conditions. The key: state-of-the-art. All hog research from academia must be funded by the manufacturers of gestation crate systems.
My son didn’t get to work with a professor, but he did have a good answer for the college essay prompt: Write about a time you failed. And today he’s studying psychology, because he realized the question of why gestation crates have not been outlawed is clear. But the question of how farmers cope with daily abuse when they’re so close to their animals is a much harder question to answer.