Hog industry realities color Prop. 204 debate
Both sides agree pork-production methods have changed
By Amanda J. Crawford
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 28, 2006
Hidden off the road in Arizona's high country, past open fields dotted with junipers and the weathered remnants of family farms, lies the only farming operation in the state likely to be affected by a measure on the Nov. 7 ballot.
An intensive confinement operation called Pigs ForFarmer John (PFFJ) Inc., the facility on 3,800 acres north of Snowflake employs 140 people and ships a quarter-million pigs to slaughter every year for the Farmer John pork label.
At any one time in the long line of low-lying white buildings barely visible from the road, 140,000 pigs are housed, operators say. About 13,500 of them are perpetually pregnant in 2-foot-wide pens.
The breeding sows at PFFJ Inc. are at the center of the multimillion-dollar fight over Proposition 204, the humane-farms initiative. The measure would require that pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal be kept in enclosures large enough that they can turn around and fully extend their limbs. It would go into effect Dec. 31, 2012.
Proposition 204 asks voters to consider whether it is acceptable to use a 2- by 7-foot stall to house a 400-pound pregnant pig that is, eventually, headed for slaughter. And to decide whether that practice should be banned in Arizona, as it has been in Florida, Britain and the rest of the European Union in recent years.
Beyond that, it asks consumers to look within an industry that both sides of the campaign say has changed so dramatically in recent decades it is almost unrecognizable from the nostalgic image of the family farm.
"The consumer in America has no idea where that food supply is coming from that ends up on that grocery shelf," says Jim Klinker,executive secretary of the Arizona Farm Bureau and chairman of the opposition Campaign for Arizona Farmers and Ranchers. He says the significant support among voters for Proposition 204 is based, in part, on a "disconnect" among consumers about the way most of the food in America is now produced. Most pork now comes from very large industrial operations like PFFJ, part of a national network that is among the largest pork producers in the country. Consumers "know it comes from a farm. . . . That farm has changed, but they haven't realized that."
Call for awarenessSupporters of the campaign for Proposition 204, led by the Arizona Humane Society, say it is time the public became more aware of the realities of industrial agriculture production.
"The plan is to allow the public to begin to consider whether modern-day factory farming techniques purport with our values about human responsibility toward animals," says Jay Heiler, a spokesperson for Proposition 204. "A lot of people aren't aware of these things and some people don't want to be made aware of these things.
"Arizona has the opportunity to consider within our boundaries: We are going to slaughter them. We are going to eat them. In the meantime, we have an obligation to treat them humanely."
Arizona has no veal industry and is not a major pork producing state, like Iowa or North Carolina.
Over the past 25 years, the number of farms that raise hogs in Arizona has steadily declined, from 630 in 1980 to just 180 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. PFFJ is the only farm in the state with more than 5,000 pigs in its inventory, and Klinker notes most of the other farms are small and serve local or niche markets.
Klinker traces the decline of Arizona's hog farms to the closing the Cudahy packing plant at 50th and Van Buren streets in Phoenix in the late 1970s. That left small to medium family farmers without a market, he says. Others point to residential construction that has crowded out farmland, a lack of interest among younger generations to continue family farms, a decline in pork prices in the 1990s and growing competition from industrial operations like PFFJ.
Stephen Campbell, a University of Arizona associate extension agent for Navajo County, says the hog industry was still going fairly strong when he got there in 1990, with about a half-dozen major operations each producing about 20,000 hogs for slaughter every year. But as prices fell, those farms went under or were closed.
It was about the same time that Michael Terrill, a veterinarian with a degree in agribusiness, left a hog farm in North Carolina for Arizona. Terrill, now vice president of PFFJ, began renting an existing hog farm in 1991, bought the land a year later and became part of the Clougherty Packing Co. (now a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp.). Over the next five years, he and the company would construct the 127-building, "state of the art" facility along a railroad track that is now able to produce almost as many hogs as had ever been produced by all the state's farmers previously combined.
The Arizona Republic and other media outlets were denied entry to the hog farm. Terrill points to bacterial concerns and notes that all employees must shower and change into company clothing when they arrive. But he described the facility and discussed the operation with The Republic.
Inside PFFJAt PFFJ, he says, about 90 percent of the pigs are kept in group pens. The floors are concrete with slats that allow waste to be washed away to huge lagoons beyond the barns. There is no hay or mud in the stalls; supporters say the system is much cleaner than in traditional farms.
The hogs at issue in Proposition 204 are the breeding sows, the core of a hog farm's operation. Known as "gilts" before they are bred, the female pigs are raised for seven months in group pens before they are artificially inseminated with semen collected from the facility's boar studs.
Once impregnated, the sow is moved to a 2-by-7-foot enclosure known as a 'gestation stall', the specific system at question with Proposition 204.
In a gestation stall at PFFJ, a sow can move forward and backward and, Terrill insists, lie down and stretch its limbs. It cannot turn around.
The sow spends the rest of its life in that gestation stall, except for when it gives birth and nurses its young. It is pregnant for three months, three weeks and three days. When the sow is ready to deliver its litter, it is moved to a farrowing stall specially designed to keep it from crushing the piglets. (Farrowing stalls would not be affected by Proposition 204.) After 20 days, the piglets are weaned. The sow is re-bred within a week and returned to the gestation stall.
Terrill says the pigs are walked between the gestation and the farrowing stalls and that the workers wash and "pamper these pigs" before they give birth. After about seven litters, usually at about three years old, the sow's breeding life is through and she is sent to slaughter.
Cheryl Nauman, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Humane Society and chairwoman of the Proposition 204 campaign, calls that last act one of mercy: "The very best day a breeding sow has is the day that she is taken to slaughter because she finally gets removed from that hell of confinement and her misery is ended."
Welfare vs. efficiencyNauman says there are few regulations that govern the treatment of livestock. This reform, she insists, is modest and benign and won't affect small family farmers: "All this measure says is that a housing system in which an animal can't turn around is cruel and inhumane."
But opponents paint it as part of a global agenda to take meat off the dinner table that could cripple the U.S. agriculture industry and increase the price of pork if it becomes law around the country.
Klinker of the Arizona Farm Bureau says the measure fails to recognize the realities of agriculture today. Global competition has led to widespread consolidation, with facilities pushing for greater efficiencies through things like gestation stalls.
Terrill says the stalls offer advantages over group pens: They provide protection from other sows and allow individual feeding and examination. But the issue specifically at question with Proposition 204 is the width of the individual stalls. Why 2-by-7?
"There is a certain economic component to the size of the stall," he says. "But we believe this has been supported by animal science, common sense and veterinary medicine that there is nothing wrong with the size of the stall we use."
The campaign for Proposition 204 wants voters to consider whether efficiency is coming at the expense of a moral obligation of animal husbandry.
"What is the next step that agriculture can do to animals in the name of efficiency?" Nauman asks. - Updated: October 30, 2006