Welcome to the Q&A series, a project aimed at examining food politics and the “food debate” through the eyes and minds of people involved in making and thinking about food. My questions are in bold; the interviewee’s responses are in plain text. Today’s guest is Wanda Patsche.
Q.: Tell us about your personal background: Did you grow up on a farm?
A.: I grew up in a small town in south central Minnesota. I did not grow up on a farm and even though I lived in a rural community, I knew very little about farming until I met my husband. We have been married and farming for about 35 years.
Q.: As to the hog farm itself. How many head? Do you feed or breed? Do you contract or is yours an independent operation
A.: We are considered a small farm relative to other farms in our geographical area. We crop farm about 1000 acres (corn and soybeans) and finish out about 4400 head of hogs per year. We are part owners of a sow farm (which is located about 20 miles from our farm), which is where we receive our weaned pigs.
The advantages of part ownership in a sow farm is we are in control of the genetics and animal care protocols before they come to our farm. We believe this contributes to a healthier pig.
Pigs are about 3 weeks old and weigh about 13-15 pounds. When the pigs arrive at our farm, they come in about 4-5 group deliveries (all arrive within a week) until we have a total of 2200 head. We do this twice a year. It is considered all-in, all-out, in that we receive all the pigs at one time and then sell all the pigs before any new pigs come to the farm.
Again, this management strategy contributes to healthier pigs. It takes about 60-70 hours to wash the barns between turns. We have two barns on another building site that we rent out to a neighbor.
Q.: Something like 90% of American hog farmers are “contractors,” so let’s talk about that.
I should explain to my readers that in the second half of the twentieth century, contract farming became widespread among livestock producers (it’s been standard among produce farmers for nearly a century). Today, virtually all chicken growers and most hog farmers work as “contractors” for corporations: The farmers don’t “own” the hogs and chickens; they grow them under contract for a company such as Perdue or Tyson (the latter produces both hogs and chickens). The company tells the growers how many head to feed, what to feed them, and stipulates the conditions under which the animals are raised, right down to the ventilation system.
Contract growing is the subject of much debate and, frankly, much condemnation. Critics complain that growers are nothing more than hired hands who are easily exploited by corporations that routinely cheat them of their profits.
Wanda, is yours a “contract” hog operation? If so, why did you decide to go that route? And if you’re not, why do you prefer to remain “independent”
A.: We are considered an independent operation. The decision to be independent or contract grower really is the farmer's choice. Some farmers are more comfortable with being a contract grower as the cost is less than being an independent grower. The benefit is making it a little easier for farmers to enter hog farming.
The situation with contracting in southern Minnesota is a bit different than in other parts of the country. We do have contract growers, but these contract growers build the hog barns and then pair up with another local farmer. The local farmer will usually provide the pigs and the feed, where the contract grower provides the barn and labor. We have found that many times it is a good way for new or beginner farmers to get started in hog farming.
And another advantage and reason to building a hog barn is to use the hog manure. This lowers the fertilizer cost on the crop farming side and many times is superior to commercial fertilizer.
We have no corporations like Hormel or Tyson in Minnesota that use contract growers. Many people are confused with our farms because many of our family farms have “corporate” names. For example, our farm name is CW Pork, Inc. We incorporated purely for business reasons. Our day to day activities did not change when we incorporated. We were still a family farm.
Our farm consists of my husband and I and we do have one full-time person, although we really don’t need a full-time person. We do need extra help but it is hard to find part time help so we decided we would just bite the bullet and hire a full-time and realize we are paying extra to have that extra help. It was worth it to us to have someone hired so if we needed days off the farm, we had someone to cover.
Contract growers are not looked at something negative in this area. Now I know this may be different in other parts of the country and also with poultry farmers. This is the situation in our area.
Q.: As you know, modern hog farming has been attacked as inhumane, unsafe, and as a source of pollution. I’m assuming you use a confinement system. Why? And why is confinement better than, say, running the hogs on open pasture?
A.: Our barns are confinement-style barns. There are many reasons that we have confinement barns. And I would estimate at least 95% of the hogs raised in this county (we are one of the top counties in the US in pork production) are in confinement barns.
By bringing the hogs inside we can take much better care of them. In Minnesota, our weather varies significantly. We have blizzards with temperatures well below zero and at time, wind chills of -70 degrees. In the summer, we have hot, humid weather and many times temperatures nearing a humid 90 degrees, and that doesn’t address sunburn or insect bites. Neither of these weather extremes are good for hogs.
In the summer, we have fans and a sprinkler system in our barns to help the pigs keep cool. Pigs do not sweat, so heat is tough on them. In the winter during blizzards, the hogs don’t even know it’s snowing or the wind is blowing. With heaters in the barns, they are warm and comfortable, which results in less stress and less sickness. Our finishing pigs are in group pens. That makes it easier to manage their health also because they are looked at daily for any visual health issues.
Q.: Gestation stalls. As you know, another source of controversy. Your take on both stalls themselves and the criticism of them?
The most controversial part of raising pigs is the gestation stalls used for sows. Again, about 95% of hogs raised in this area use gestational stalls. I wrote a blog entry that explains why farmers use gestational stalls.
Hogs running on an open pasture have risks. Predators, injuries, weather stresses, and hogs establishing a pecking order are all significant issues. Is this system perfect? No, but neither is free range or pen gestation. Either system works and it depends on what works best for the farmers.
Q.: You’re an avowed agvocat: You’re vocal in your support of farming and farmers. Why agvocacy? What made you decide to make time, in an already busy life, for political advocacy?
A.: I am agvocate because I am passionate about ag. I feel we have an extremely important job in feeding other families. “Our family is proud to feed your family” is written on a sign at the end of our driveway. And through social media and the Internet, there is a lot of misinformation about agriculture.
Unfortunately, this misinformation can lead to policy changes that would adversely affect farmers and ultimately consumers. I believe in choice. I believe consumers should have a choice in what they eat and farmers should also have choice in raising animals in the way that works best for them. Research has shown that it’s not necessarily what hog management system farmers use to raise livestock, but it’s how the farmers take care of their animals that makes for animal well-being.
And no secret to you, there is such a huge disconnect between agriculture and consumers. We need to start bridging that gap. That, I believe, is a huge factor in the food controversy or food crisis. With only 2% of the population involved in farming and people 3 and 4 generations out from having a family member involved in farming, consumers have lost touch in how their food is raised or grown.
Again, I am very passionate about ag and have made agvocacy a priority. My ultimate goal is to foster a respectful conversation with consumers by using social media and consumer outreach. I am also involved in Commonground, a volunteer group of farm moms reaching out and talking to other moms about how their food is grown or raised.
Q.: Switching gears a bit: Agriculture in general. Farmers are damned if they and damned if they don’t. They’re criticized for using technologies that can lower their production costs. But they’re criticized when food prices rise.
And what will happen to our food systems if the anti-science group gets its way? For example, if CAFOS and the use of antibiotics are banned, the price of meat will rise. Farmers will have to use more land (which is expensive) and livestock will have higher mortality rates. Consumers will not be happy (as I found during my research into the history of meat in America: when meat prices go up, consumers balk.).
What’s your take on all these controversies in general? Any ideas about how to make meat on a large scale (i.e., for millions of people) without science as a partner?
A.: Our country has taken for granted the wonderful agricultural resources we have. We are truly blessed as many other countries do not nearly have the agricultural resources we have in this country.
If we don’t allow farmers to raise and grown food here in the U.S., we will be importing our food and that would be terrible for national security. We all know how importing oil works for us. Can you imagine importing food? The bottom line is we do have one of the safest and most efficient food supplies in the world.
Q.: Let’s talk food politics and the “food movement.” I have to admit: the first time I saw someone refer to the “food crisis” in the U.S., I was a bit startled. Is there a food crisis in this country?
A.: I have a different view than most people. I think farmers have done a great job in growing and raising food. There are a lot of misinformed consumers in regards to their food. That is why farmers are trying to become more available and transparent. But it’s a big job when there are only 2% of us.
And I must admit, we in agriculture have not done a good job in the past in communicating with our consumers. Our society has changed. With information available to everyone at their finger tips through the Internet, consumers wanting to know about their food should be no surprise to us. And they should be able to access information about their food. We are trying to inform consumers about what we do and why we do it.
The vast majority of farmers have nothing to hide, but by nature we are private. And with hogs, disease transmission is a concern. This is why farmers typically won’t let the public in their barns because we don’t know where their feet have been. Unless the farm is set up to handle the general public.
Is modern farming perfect? Absolutely not. But I can say we are continually improving. Our farm and farming techniques are always changing – all to the better. Better for the animals and better for farmers and better for the environment. We are doing more with less, which makes us more sustainable. And we will continue to improve.
It’s also hard for me to hear terms like “factory farm” and “big ag” because, frankly, I don’t know what they really mean. In my mind, there is no such thing as factory farm. 95% of all farms are family farms. If factory farm means raising animals in an enclosed barn, than I guess I am for it. The term “factory farm” is really used by people who are against modern agriculture.
And I have questions on what big ag is, too. We sell our hogs to Hormel, so I don’t know if you consider Hormel “big ag” or not. But we need a market to sell our animals and we do have a marketing agreement with them. They want a certain type of meat, so we raise the specific genetics in order to fulfill that requirement. It is that type of meat their customers want.
Many think Monsanto is “big ag." To be honest, famers for the most part are appreciative what Monsanto has done. On the cropping end, for example, many people think we have no choice in what we grow. That is wrong. We can grow whichever crop we want, how much we want and where we want. Can we keep our seed back to plant the next year? No, Monsanto will not allow it. But in the 35 years we have farmed, we have never kept our seed because usually new seed is better than old seed. So why would we want to plant old seed?
We as farmers for the most part are thankful for the research in biotech that companies like Monsanto have done for us. Yes, we may complain about the seed cost, but our production increases have significantly improved. And with GMO crops, we now use less herbicides and insecticides. This is good for famers and for the environment.
Q.: It seems to me that much of the “food debate” boils down to who believes what about science.
For example: GMOs. When it comes to GMOs, it’s incredibly difficult to separate fact from fiction, or to get a straight story about their use. And many food activists are hellbent on disseminating falsehoods about GMOs (the butterfly thing and the “Indian farmers are committing suicide” claim have both been soundly debunked --- and yet, food activists keep running those two anecdotes up the flagpole).
But I think all of that is a symptom of a deeper issue: the politicization and fragmentation (for lack of a better word) of science. When each side of a debate claims that its version of the facts is true, then science has lost authority. That has troubling implications: Who should we believe? Anyone? No one? And if we lack a solid set of “facts,” how do we navigate the messy, complicated terrain that is our planet and our lives? If science loses all authority, we humans will have no choice but to rely on “moral codes” as the basis of decision-making, but --- that’s an even swampier morass than science. How can we make public policy if we can’t agree on the basics? Any ideas?
A.: The whole aspect about people’s attitudes towards GMO crops, biotech, and science is really scary in my mind. There are more and more people that don’t understand science, don’t want to know about science, and frankly, don’t care about science. If we can’t believe science in our society, I think it may result in the breakdown of our society as we know it.
Yes, granted, there are biases in some science research. But that is where we, as intelligent human beings, need to use our critical thinking skills to decipher between good and flawed science research. Credible science research needs to be peer reviewed and repeated.
We, as a country, generally lack critical thinking skills. We also have a tendency to fall into conspiracy theories. Even though the number of people that fall into these categories may be small, they are influential and they can “move the needle." And that is what we have to be aware and careful of.
It is important to me that people continue to have affordable food. But if we are not careful, we will not have food that is affordable to those that are really not speaking up. This is personal for me because growing up, food was scarce in my family.
My higher level thinking skills can’t imagine not having science to rely on. To rely on “moral codes” would be a disaster. Food decisions would end up being very politicized. If we used “moral code” and not science research in our medical field, our health system would be mayhem.
I believe, moving forward, we need to find ways to have more unbiased science research. But we need science. But perhaps more important we need to have passionate, calm conversations with consumers. As farmers, we need to be more transparent and listen to consumers.
Q.: I gotta be honest: The ideas presented for “reforming” our food system strike me as extraordinarily impractical. Indeed, my greatest frustration with the “food movement” is that its advocates resolutely ignore a fundamental issue: City people don’t make their own food. They rely on farmers. And for the past two centuries, Americans have demonstrated their preference for city rather than farm.
As a result, our American mode of food production (from seed to table) is designed to support an urban society; it’s designed so that a tiny minority can make food for an urban majority.
The food reformers, however, argue that we should abandon “industrial” agriculture and food production in favor of smaller, local, more artisanal-like modes of production.
Is it possible to feed American cities with what amounts to a retrogressive system of food production? For example, bare minimum, in order to return livestock to pasture, we’d have to raze thousands of urban structures --- malls, shops, housing developments --- and return that land to farming. And then we’d have to persuade people to move to farms. (N.B.: I’m NOT volunteering. I grew up pulling weeds.) Your thoughts?
A.: You are absolutely right about people wanting to reform our food system. Our society was built on farmers growing and raising food, which resulted in an affordable food supply, which allowed others to move into the cities to work at jobs. City dwellers did not have to grow their own food. It is my opinion that we cannot move agriculture back to “the good old days." Anything is possible but it is not probable. Farmers are the most efficient they have ever been – going back to the “good old days," we would lose that efficiency.
As an example, on our small farm, we raise enough pork to feed over 12,000 people per year (based on average pork consumption). And this figure is not counting the corn or soybeans that we raise. We in agriculture need to keep a healthy and safe food supply as our main objective.
I don’t argue with those people that want to grow their own food. Again, it’s about choice. And if they want to grow their own food, they should be able to. But they should not be able to impose their food “values” on someone else’s plate. Choice.
Q.: As a citizen and a consumer, what changes would you like to see in the contemporary food system?
A.: As a citizen and consumer, I like food choices. And we need to continue giving people food choices. Government should not be involved in our food choices. We need a society and country that relies more on people being accountable for their own decisions. Educate and advocate good food choices for consumers, but ultimately, it needs to be the consumer’s choice.