We sped along the asphalt, cocooned in our little white hatchback, chasing the ever-retreating heat haze mirage. I don’t want to talk to a pig farmer, I thought, defensively. I felt dread rise up from my gut. My dad chattered happily.
I had been an animal lover since childhood. As I grew up on the farm I saw many situations where animals suffered and these disturbing childhood memories morphed into some sturdy grown up neuroses. As an adult, my mind bombarded me with images of animal tragedy. I dreaded the reality of the piggery we were catapulting toward. I certainly wasn’t keen to meet a man who might willingly provide fodder for my active imagination. Despite my emotional aversion, and partly to humor my dad, I had agreed to be taken to meet the pig farmer. He wanted to help my writing career, and I wanted to please him.
My father drove me out to some salt flats near my hometown of Port Broughton, on Yorke Peninsula, South Australia. The wide expanse of flat, monotone landscape splashed with saltbush and mallee trees was a familiar and comforting sight. This was the land of my youth, the place where I was shaped. We turned off the bitumen onto a salt-encrusted dirt track. The southerly wind whipped the summer dust up around us as we drove over bumps and into potholes.
Emerging through the dust, on the horizon, was a series of long, round-roofed structures that looked like the plastic greenhouses used by market gardeners. A half circle of daylight shone through the tops of the sheds, revealing that they were partly open. This was not typical of an intensive piggery where long, enclosed sheds are the norm. We were approaching a “weaner-to-finish piggery,” where pigs, newly weaned from their mothers, were raised until “finished,” and ready for slaughter (truly finished). My heart lurched into my throat as I imagined the scenes that awaited me inside the sheds.
We got out of the car and my hat blew away in a cloud of dust while the flies identified me as a new sweaty surface and latched on to my legs. The sun was bright - it was a scorcher of a day - and I yearned for the air conditioning of the car again. Nevertheless, we were at Brian Schmitt’s place and I had come to meet the pig farmer.
Brian strode over to us. Sunglasses hid his eyes and a baseball cap - the sort handed out by pesticide salesmen at agricultural trade shows - covered half his suntanned face. There was a relaxed and unassuming manner about him. I smiled politely while the burly man grasped my palm with his big hand.
I had come to research Brian. As I snapped photographs, he laughed uncomfortably, clearly a little nervous about having his actions and words recorded. I wrote furiously as he explained the process that began with the little pigs (weaners) arriving on trucks and scuttling out into his sheds. He told me that some of them arrived in bad shape.
I imagined that some might even be left flat and lifeless on the bed of the truck, overcome by the crowded conditions and trampled by their traveling companions. This was what I had expected to learn about – animals being treated badly. He told me that the unhealthy weaners were put into the “sick pen,” but that some had to be euthanased. Yep, this was confirming my suspicions.
However the constantly emerging and dissolving images of abused animals in my head did not fit with the profile I was building of this man. His thoughtful words were disarming. He didn’t speak the way farmers do when they regard the wellbeing of their animals only as far as it translates to sale yard prices. My interest was piqued while the full force of my harsh judgment was restrained.
Brian told me why his operation was special. Conventional piggeries use a lot of water - pigpens have bare concrete floors and water is used to wash the feces, urine and spoiled pig food off into the drain. In a drought-plagued country where water restrictions have become the norm, conventional piggeries are an antiquated practice. In contrast, Brian’s pig shed floors were lined with deep litter. He used straw until the Australian drought inflated straw prices and he changed the bedding material to sawdust, the byproduct of pine plantations up north. The pig waste mixed in with the thick layer of bedding, which could then be removed and used as compost material.
Brian showed me an environmental report he commissioned in 2002. It calculated the amount of sawdust needed to ensure dry, low-odor conditions for the pigs. The report also looked at the quantities and types of nutrients in the spent bedding and how to responsibly store the material for later use as a soil amendment. Around 30 percent of pig farmers in Australia use similar deep litter methods.
We walked over to huge piles of steaming compost behind his sheds. He told me the compost was spread out on farmland hungry for nutrients after generations of maladaptive soil management. He told me that the acid in artificial fertilizer – the sort used by most farmers - kills off earthworms, but that his compost was safe. He shook his head as he wondered out loud about the state of farming in the future. Large tracts of Australian soil were poor to begin with; a few hundred years of European farming practices hadn’t made them any better.
We stood by the compost heaps and looked out at the expanse of golden stubble - dry stalks left standing after the cereal harvest. The still, flat land was backdropped by the muted colors of sprawling mallee, one of the few trees that can hunker down and withstand the dryness. Apart from the flies, dust and blinding sunshine, this was a serene and romantic sort of place. I was suddenly struck by the fact that Brian’s piggery didn’t smell like a piggery. The typically pervasive stench of rotten sewage – the sort that flattens nearby housing prices - was absent. Brian’s piggery smelled like compost. I had expected to be assaulted by putridness; my spirits lifted in relief.
We walked toward the nearest shed. A flurry of activity erupted inside as startled pigs, awakened from their afternoon nap, sprang up and skidded away, kicking sawdust in their wake. Then something unexpected happened: As quickly as the wave of pig bodies retreated from the side of the shed, the pink tide turned again. Pigs were running toward Brian. As he leaned over the railing, little hairy creatures approached, nosing the air to catch a whiff of anything edible he might have for them. They were very expressive, huddling together for safety when they felt threatened, then venturing forward when curiosity got the better of them. But they trusted Brian, and looked up at him hopefully.
Brian spoke in soft terms about his little charges. He seemed quite fond of them. My heart melted into compassion for the man and his little pigs. The dread in me softened. Maybe all farmers didn’t treat their livestock as a soulless commodity.
Then he announced that we were going to visit the sick pen. Brian explained that a sick pig attracts brutal treatment from his healthy bedfellows, so these invalids need to be quarantined. We wandered over to a separate shed with three pigs in it. They seemed mainly recovered from whatever malady they entered respite with. One little fellow was obviously missing a few brain cells, looking up sideways at us through one squinted eye and one good eye. I was immediately enamored with my curious new friend. His innocent fascination warmed me to my core.
The nexus between animal and human consciousness blurred in a shared experience of being together in that moment. My tough farmer company would have frowned and sniggered to know that time stood still for me, as the pig and I shared awareness. The image of the little mentally challenged pig looking up at me in awe stayed with me for a long time after I left Brian’s place.
Brian told me about the design of the pens, and how the sheds were built with the pigs’ comfort in mind. Pigs are quite sensitive to temperature, he told me, and it’s important to protect them from the extremes. He warned me to never move pigs when it’s hot, because they won’t cope. I made a mental note to follow his advice. Side flaps that rolled up allowing air to flow through the enclosures kept the pigs comfortable in summer.
A steady flow of water collected contented pink bodies that lounged in their own drinking troughs. The scene reminded me of a bunch of kids swarming to a swimming hole on a hot day after school. Brian even had fine misters set up above the pigs, to keep the air fresh and moist. He explained that the pigs had up to 1.2 square meters of room each, enough for them to spread out, run around and stay cool.
“Most of them are happy if they have plenty to eat,” he told me. “They just get a bellyful then lay down for a snooze. That’s what we all like, isn’t it?” I grinned broadly at his down-to-earth manner. As the bedding material decomposed and gave off heat in winter, Brian told me, it kept the pigs warm. On chilly days he closed the flaps on the sides of the sheds to keep the heat in and the cold winds out.
Wanting to keep things in perspective, I asked Brian where the pigs went once they were finished. Somewhat sheepishly he said they went to the abattoir and that there wasn’t much left of their lives once they trotted back up onto the truck bed. My dad, ever the optimist, chimed in to point out that they had a good but short life. While my emotional vegetarian tendencies lurched in to remind my intellect about the difficult reality of the pork industry, my pragmatic side reminded me that I had eaten meat products and that meat eating was a fact of life for many people, whether I liked it or not.
We stopped briefly to look at Brian’s records that included a full quality assurance system. Brian is audited every two years, and he keeps a log of everyone who visits his sheds. He told me that Australian meat standards, designed to prevent the sorts of diseases other countries struggle against, are very high. As part of his husbandry, he walks through the sheds each day to check on every pig. Someone else who can walk through his sheds is the RSPCA inspector. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an organization mandated to intervene and prosecute in cases of animal cruelty, has the authority to arrive at any time, unannounced.
We walked back to the car though a knee-length sea of golden grasses that bent over in the strong southerly. The wind had dried my lips and the dust continued to whip into my eyes and mouth. I felt a gritty, sweaty soup between the soles of my feet and the inside of my sandals.
“It’s lovely here in the morning,” Brian told me chirpily, as if to apologize for the afternoon heat and offer something in exchange. I imagined him arriving at his sheds at dawn, as the sun threw orange light deep into the huge sky, to tend the 4,000 grunting creatures that looked to him for food, shelter and comfort.
Brian talked about the state of the environment, the wanton use of resources that cannot continue into the future, global warming and alternative fuel technology. He spoke of the importance of healthy living conditions for the pigs and the intelligence behind reusing piggery waste. I liked him, this pig farmer. I could have talked with him some more, but he had to go - my dad said he had a date with his new girlfriend. I imagined he treated her well.
We climbed back into the car, and I felt my fears assuaged. My expectations of the pig farmer and his piggery had been dashed, in a good way. As we drove up the dirt track to the asphalt, I looked over my shoulder at the curved roofs reflecting back the hot solstice sun, protecting the little pigs as they bathed under their constant streams of cool water.
While their futures were sadly predetermined, they didn’t know anything about them, and they were simply happy in the “now.” If all farmers treated their animals like that, I thought, I wouldn’t feel so bad about the industry. If farmers looked for sustainable solutions and found useful reincarnations for their waste products; if farm animals knew comfort right up until the end; if slaughter at the abattoir was done quickly and humanely, I’d feel much better about the state of the human meat-eating diet. Brian gave me hope that such an industry is possible.
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Photos: Courtesy of Kristy Arbon.