Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ellerbe, North Carolina: Wayne McIlwain, Tar Heel Swine Farm

Besides being beautiful, one of the things that North Carolina is known for is hogs. The hog industry came under critical scrutiny a few decades ago when there were fewer restrictions on volume and management; a hurricane blew through the area and sent many tons of hog waste into the water systems. After that the EPA put a moratorium on lagoon-using hog operations and the media pointed many fingers at hog operations. There remains much criticism of animal production in the media and it is increasingly one of the major banes of people involved in this system. Despite that, it's important to remember that these systems have developed for complex reasons and are, in many ways, a response to societal demand for certain products at certain prices. All this said, Trav and I were a little surprised when we called a medium-sized hog operation and Wayne McIlwain agreed to speak with us with just a few assurances that our goal would not be to malign him.
We were even more surprised when Wayne asked right away if we wanted to come into the facility to see the hogs. We (our friend Rachel Milford was with us too) went through separate doors to showers and Wayne provided us with mechanic's coveralls and rubber boots to change into. The operation is vigilant about biosecurity: a standard system in these types of facility that protect the animals from outside disease; employees follow this protocal every day.
We followed him down a hall where a lone laboring pig was laying on the cool concrete floor. She was about to give birth, but could not stand up on her back legs and the crew had moved her to the hall to be more comfortable. Wayne spoke in the matter-of-fact way of the farmer and told us that she would have to be put down after she delivers. Wayne opened a door and motioned us into a room with hundreds of sows and their babies. The sows are braced on all sides with metal bars in farrowing stalls that keep them from stepping on their piglets (it is common, even in the most natural of conditions, for a mother to accidentally roll onto her children). The babies clamber around her and interact with each other. The room is filled with sounds of squealing piglets and snorting sows and the whir of large fans.

Wayne told us about his own upbringing and how he always had 5 or so pigs he was raising. He likes pigs and talks about how smart they are. Wayne blames mother nature's hurricane for creating the chaos that led to stricter standards, not the hog industry practices. There are only 4 people employed at this operation, all of them are Mexican. Wayne tries to help the employees however he can and takes them out to lunch once a week or so. He also is doing his best to help them all become citizens, and drives one to an attorney an hour or so away to sign papers and such.
I left this hog operation with very mixed feelings. It seems obvious to me that this is not a natural way for pigs to be raised, but Wayne and his crew are doing their best to keep the pigs as comfortable as they can be. Wayne made another point that really stuck in my mind and that was that, once again, the consumers (you and me) are the ones who dictate the system. If we want lots of cheap meat, then it will be raised in a setting like this, designed for volume and not necesarily quality of life. We cannot complain about the high price of food out of one side of our mouths and factory farms out of the other. If we buy the meat that is cheapest, we have bought the factory and supported it with our dollars, and our dollars wear the pants in this relationship.
Wayne himself is a little tired of this sort of agriculture. As with many of the larger-scale farmers we speak to, he is not thrilled with the scale he must work at. He is nearing retirement and has every intention to move to a cabin on a friend's land in western North Carolina, where electricity is limited, nature abounds, it is silent, he can fish, and there likely won't be a hog around for miles.


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