From sow housing to being ‘just a farmer,’ everything old is new again…

Sows housed in group pens

Sows housed in group pens in Europe.

I am fascinated with the study of history. Where we came from, how we became who and what we are, the mistakes made, lessons learned, achievements and accomplishments earned… Historical study and reflection provides so much return for the mere investment of time.

History seems to strike me fairly frequently these days on a number of fronts. Relative to my chosen profession as an agricultural journalist, two examples come to mind: sow housing, and the idea of being “just a farmer.”

This little piggy went to market…

As you’re likely aware, especially if you immerse yourself in our coverage of agribusiness issues at Feedstuffs, pork producers are moving, by hook or by crook, away from individual sow gestation stalls toward group sow pens. Setting aside the reasons for this change in housing and handling systems (as some would blame animal rights extremists and others would agree consumer sentiment is the main driver behind the housing issue), it is interesting that the pork industry is moving toward an (admittedly) updated version of animal handling systems of yesteryear.

Yes, in the not-that-distant past, gestating sows were housed in group pens. Over time farmers observed that the gestating sow is not always a particularly friendly creature, and as certain high-performance genetic lines exhibited increased aggression, solutions were necessary to deal with these often downright mean creatures.

Thus evolved the individual gestation stall, or what some call gestation crate. The individual stall solved a number of problems, most centered around the issue that aggressive sows would injure and possibly cannibalize other sows.

And all seemed right in the world.

Until, however, consumers became aware that gestating sows are housed in – shall we say – close quarters. Individual stalls keep sows confined in a stall that inhibits, at least in some demonstrable way, the movement of the sow. She is kept in this stall throughout the majority of her gestation, which amounts to a significant portion of her productive life.

As Temple Grandin puts it, it’s like being confined to a seat in an airplane for 80% of your adult life.

Now, let’s set aside the pros and cons of stalls for a moment, because that is a subject for another commentary. While many of my friends and colleagues could passionately debate stall vs. group housing all day long, the subject at hand is the turning of the hands of time, in this case, backwards.

Producers had an animal management issue – aggressive sows – that they were able to solve through technology – gestation stalls. Now that the public, and most importantly the customer (Kroger, Safeway, McDonald’s, etc.), have determined that this technological solution is unacceptable, the producer must use sound animal management principles to solve a technological issue.

Speaking on this topic to a pork industry audience in Nashville last month, I quipped that sow stalls allowed producers to “idiot-proof” pork production. My conversations with producers afterward confirmed that off-the-cuff assertion. While there are countless numbers of truly gifted practitioners of sound animal management principles in the pork business, it is also a given that there are at least some number of employees in the business of tending hogs that do not have a degree in animal science, and more importantly, have no prior experience or training in handling hogs.

So the technological solution was a smart business move as it allowed producers to better manage hogs with a pool of workers who lacked the traditional animal management skills or training (consider how many people in the past 20 years have actually grown up on a hog farm compared to the number of workers needed to staff modern pork production facilities). This, in the short run, improved the welfare of the animal because it solved the aggression issue, limiting sow-inflicted wounds and mortality (and worker injuries from dealing with sow fighting, etc.).

Now, the industry has to employ both a technological and a management solution – designing group sow pens that alleviate and eliminate some of the issues that necessitated the move to stalls in the first place, while recruiting, training, and managing workers who are well-skilled and well-versed in sound animal handling techniques and philosophies. The latter is, in my estimation, every bit as important as the former, if not more so.

The controversy over sow stalls rages on, but for all intents and purposes, the train has left the station, and one could argue that time, effort and money spent fighting a move away from gestation stalls is wasted, and that those resources would best be spent researching and strategizing physical systems and management/training programs to prepare the industry for a successful transition.

Just a farmer?

As my friend and colleague Mike Haley points out in this week’s issue of Feedstuffs, farmers play a lot of roles, and wear a number of proverbial hats (and, like my Dad, own a wide assortment of actual hats, most bearing the logos of their favorite tractor or seed corn company). Over the years, the public-relations gurus among us convinced us that we were “more” than “just farmers,” and should adopt appropriate nomenclature.

We ceased being farmers or ranchers, and instead became “producers,” or any number of other politically correct titles. As “Farmer Haley” explains:

In many aspects, if you were “Just a Farmer” during the tough economic times on a farm, you would not be a farmer for very long. Thus, the creation of new terms to describe farmers like “producer,” “grower” and even “food origin engineer” to help the farmer feel more respected and encourage him/her to start thinking differently about the business operations on the farm.

“Food origin engineer…” I love it. Have to admit, that one was a new one, even for me. His point is well made, however. Farmers stopped being farmers, at least in the collective wisdom of industry marketing.

And then one day we woke up to realize that our customers didn’t have the foggiest clue what we do for a living out on the farm. The central issue of the past decade (or perhaps longer, if you go back to some of the battles over pesticides in the waning years of the 20th Century) is the presumed “gap” between producers and consumers.

Studies have consistently shown us that our customers trust farmers, but they don’t trust modern farming. There is a disconnect in what they think they know, and what they actually know. For many, a farmer is someone standing in a field, wearing bib overalls and chewing a wheat straw while leaning on his pitchfork. What exactly they think he’s doing in said field with said pitchfork is unclear, but I digress. When customers picture a “producer,” on the other hand, they envision a Snidely Whiplash character standing on a big black machine belching out evil modified seeds and pollutants while laughing maniacally.

And so, we’ve come to realize that while we made the psychological leap from “farmer” to “producer,” the consumer/customer did not leap with us. They still think of farmers as, well, farmers, and think of producers as running those horrid giant factory mega-farms that poison our air and water and feed us products tainted with genetically modified organisms and other non-organic technologies (not to be confused with inorganic technologies, I suppose). For more on this mindset, read this piece on Monsantophobia and please note the heavy use of sarcasm in the┬ápreceding┬ásentence.

Like the transition of sow housing from the individual stall back to group pens, it’s time for the industry – make that, community – to wake to the fact that everything old is new again. We are, as Mike Haley puts it, “just farmers.” And when it comes to our customers, that’s exactly who they want us to be. We have some work to do explaining how farmers have learned and adapted to feed more people with fewer resources, but we have to start with embracing who we are and what we do.

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About Andy Vance

Grains and Biofuels Editor at Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper for agribusiness, and resident blogger at BeefProducer.com. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, I may be the most dangerous man I know...

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