Pennsylvania farmers consider new system for happy hogs
After meeting with Niman Ranch reps, and seeing the differences between hog production in the Midwest and PA, area farmers have decided to try and develop marketing and production systems suited to the East.

By Greg Bowman, New Farm® editor

Related Stories & Resources

ARTICLES

Pig Alliance, Part 1: Describes the origins of the PIG Alliance, with its unique blend of farmers, restaurant owners, environmentalists, and energy and animal welfare groups.

Taking hogs to new heights in Pennsylvania: A preview of the third annual Hog Summit, which will be coming to PA in late spring or early summer, 2003.

ORGANIZATIONS

Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture
PASA is a farmer-based organization with the mission to promote profitable farms which produce healthy food for all people while respecting the natural environment. Call PASA director Brian Snyder if you're a producer in the mid-Atlantic region interested in working to develop a marketing group.
Ph: 814.349.9856
www.pasafarming.org
114 W. Main St., P.O. Box 419, Millheim PA 16854

PennFuture
PennFuture has been an important partner in the PIG Alliance initiative. It's a multi-track environmental organization which started its Responsible Farming Campaign to lead the state’s movement for a diverse, healthy and profitable agricultural economy in Pennsylvania that protects communities, the environment and public health.
610 N. Third St., Harrisburg, PA 17101
(800) 321-7775
www.pennfuture.org
(Click: Events/Campaigns > Campaigns > Responsible Farming Campaign)

Pennsylvania independent hog farmers are sizing up new market options and awaiting a major spotlight on their situation next year as the state’s PIG (Pigs in Grass) Alliance continues its groundbreaking work.

Hog Summit 2003 will be the Pennsylvania-customized version of the format of summits in North Carolina (2001) and Iowa (2002). It will update and localize the combination of academic research, market opportunities for well-raised hogs, environmental analysis and explanations of ways for citizen to challenge the growing industrial farm dominance in the hog sector.

"While Niman would like to develop a source of hogs for the Eastern market, they realized they can’t just repeat their Iowa-based success here. The Midwest systems have cheaper corn and lower real estate taxes. Trucking costs, hog sale price and the prohibition against feeding any animal protein are all concerns to PA farmers."

Bringing the Summit to the Keystone state was a major goal of the group.

The Alliance sponsored autumn visits to Philadelphia and Centre County by leaders of California-based Niman Ranch – Bill Niman, owner, and Paul Willis, head of the Niman pork program in the Midwest. A PASA-sponsored Centre-county meeting brought out about 100 people to learn about the stiff requirements growers must meet to sell to Niman for a premium price.

After hearing some of the differences between hog production in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, the growers attending felt like their best option might be to develop their own production and marketing initiative, according to Brian Snyder. He is executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), which co-sponsored the meeting with the Alliance.

In the Midwest (mostly Iowa and Missouri), Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com) provides a top-dollar – but limited – market for hogs raised to their specifications: humane handling, outdoor pasture, deep-straw bedding, no GMO grain, no fed animal proteins, no fed antibiotics or growth promotants.

While Niman (pronounced NI-man) would like to develop a regional source of hogs for the Eastern market, they realized they can’t just repeat their Iowa-based success here. The Midwest systems have cheaper corn and lower real estate taxes. Trucking costs, hog sale price and some concern for the prohibition against feeding any animal protein were all issues raised in Centre County. Feeding on-farm produced milk would be OK, but feeding even clean offal from healthy slaughtered poultry, for instance, would be prohibited under the Niman standards.

An additional wrinkle of difference here was the relative nearness of hog farmers to centers of demand in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where they already have their champions. Many of Niman Ranch’s Midwestern producers are much more remote from willing markets.

What’s Next? Call PASA

Regional producers who want be at the table when family-scale farmers talk more about how to develop a marketing group should contact Snyder at (814) 349-9856. PASA is a PIG Alliance partner, and coordinated the Centre County meeting with Niman Ranch in early October.

Snyder reports that family-farm hog producers in Pennsylvania have been “badly burnt, taken advantage of and forgotten” by the current production system. “They won’t easily trust people that show up to announce ‘We want to help you.’” PASA’s goal is not to bring a new farmers’ group under its wing, but just to facilitate farmers getting together to start a truly farmer-centered, farmer-driven dialogue on how to proceed, he said.

A possible longer-term focus would be to develop a farmer-owned and -operated processing plant. This would relieve current concerns of some producers who can’t get guarantees that they get back the same the high-quality hogs they take in for slaughter, and other issues of transport, humane treatment and acceptance of smaller lots of hogs.

Basically, they want greater quality control assurances at plants closer to their farm and points of sale. If all the hogs being slaughtered were of a similar premium quality, the need for tracking of individual carcasses would be less critical.

Snyder said the PIG Alliance had met two of its initial three goals: giving the Niman Ranch model exposure to area farmers and bringing the Hog Summit to the state. Tackling the more complicated, capital-intensive, and regulation-dense task of researching, strategizing, organizing then coming to own and operate a slaughtering facility will be a long process, he predicted.