Just Because It's a Small Farm Doesn't Mean It's Cruelty-Free

In October 2013, the animal protection organization Mercy for Animals released hidden-camera footage taken on a big Minnesota pig farm that supplies cheap pork to Walmart. The video captured piglets being whacked to the ground headfirst, workers castrating pigs and docking their tails without anesthesia, and sows crammed into gestation crates so small they couldn't turn around, among other atrocities. For consumers concerned about how animals are treated in contemporary agriculture, these macabre scenes offer further proof that it's impossible to care about animal welfare and eat conventionally produced meat.

Revolting as these scenes were, the underground footage dished up old news. Exposes of animal abuse on factory farms have been invading the public's comfort zone since the publication of Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation" in 1975. But, for all the rhetorical outrage that ensues, the collective response among conscientious consumers has not been a significant transition to veganism. Instead, consumers have generally chosen to continue eating animals. The only difference is that, having rightly demonized factory farming, they now source their meat from small, non-industrial farms-operations promoted as more welfare oriented and ecologically viable. This imperative has become a motivating tenet of the emerging "foodie" movement, generating considerable enthusiasm among leading food writers while even enjoying an added dose of hipster cred.

The underlying motivation (or at least one underlying motivation) to make this switch is certainly a noble one-namely, an interest in improving living conditions for farm animals. But the decision to support nonindustrial alternatives is, for all its popularity, rooted in an unexamined assumption. That is, there's an untested belief that if an operation is not a factory farm then, by virtue of that nonindustrial status, it offers a meaningful alternative to the industrialized status quo. But what if this basic assumption is wrong? What if small animal farms hide large problems? What if animal agriculture, by its nature, cannot be "humane" in a way that would honor the meaning of the word?

Before exploring these questions, it's necessary to consider the moral implications involved when discussing the human-pig relationship. A sentient animal is a sentient animal. Farm-dwelling critters experience and understand suffering and, as a result, are deserving of moral consideration. But porcine sentience is rooted in an exceptional level of nonhuman intelligence. This intelligence is reflected in pigs' everyday behavior. "They get scared and then have trouble getting over it," said the University of Bristol's Susan Held, who studies the emotional lives of swine. "They can learn something on the first try and then it's difficult for them to unlearn it," she added. Her findings have bubbled into the mainstream media. "They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known," NBC news recently said of pigs. All farm animals are somewhat cognizant of harm being done to them. But there's a case to be made that pigs are especially sensitive to the emotional suffering they endure on the rough road to becoming bacon.

So, for those committed to knowing where their food comes from, for those who want an authentic "farm to fork" experience, it's critical to understand exactly how the reality of life on a small pig farm can quickly run counter to the virtuous qualities we've naively entrusted it to embody.

It's often noted that pigs raised on pasture don't have their tails docked. This cruel practice pricked the conscience of Michael Pollan when he was researching "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Visiting a free-range farm where pigs were comfortably cavorting as pigs, Pollan admitted that he "couldn't look at their tails (which were intact) . . . without thinking about the fate of pigtails in industrial hog production." Nice sentiment. But Pollan failed to note something critical: on the free-range farms he so admired, a more consequential form of mutilation is commonplace. Pigs are affixed with septum rings.

The reason for ringing a pig's nose is simple enough. Left to their own devices, pigs will shred the landscape. In Animal Husbandry Regained (2013), John F. Webster explained that "There is no doubt that sows . . . will reduce any pasture to the status of a badly ploughed field." As a result, farmers who talk a big game about allowing pigs to be pigs interrupt the free-range fantasy with septum rings. The welfare implications of this procedure shouldn't be downplayed. Not only does nose ringing cause temporary pain; it condemns the pig to a lifetime of severe discomfort. Whenever she roots, which is constantly, her nose gets hit with a sharp sting. One farmer, writing on the Free Range Pork Farmer's Association website, explained that, "a farmer will put (pierce) their snout with a copper ring . . . right in the tender end of their nose, so when they are tempted to root, they bump that ring- causing shooting pain." Webster notes how "denial of foraging behavior is profoundly frustrating" for pigs. At least tail docking on factory farms only causes temporary pain.

If the idea of mutilating a pig's snout creates a sense of discomfort, imagine castration without anesthesia. Joni Ernst has. Ernst, a Republican senatorial candidate from Iowa, currently appears on a television advertisement bragging about castrating hogs on the farm where she grew up. This prerequisite for political success, she claims, will enable her to "cut" budgets in DC. Never have the genitals of a farm animal been so politically persuasive.

Whatever the politics of Beau Ramsburg, owner of Rettland Farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he shares Ernst's enthusiasm for hog emasculation. He explains, "castration is an absolute necessity for all male pigs, regardless of production system or philosophy." The reason is due to "the overpowering muskiness" in boar meat-also known as "boar taint"-that results if boars remain intact. As for the option of using anesthesia, the American Veterinary Medical Association (which opposes un-anesthetized castration) explains, "On-farm use of anesthesia is rare due to a range of economic, logistical and safety issues, both for the pig and the herdsperson." In other words, like nose ringing, castration without anesthesia is another business-as-usual practice that small, pasture-based pig farms almost never reveal to consumers paying a premium for "humanely raised" pork.

When forced to discuss the matter, pig farmers will downplay the traumatic impact of this procedure. Jennifer Small, co-owner of Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York, insists that slicing open the piglet's scrotum and yanking out his testicles doesn't hurt all that much. She told the foodie blog Grub Street, "My husband castrates them and I have to admit I was very surprised that as soon as you put them down they're running around like nothing happened." The AVMA, for its part, doesn't quite see it that way. It writes, "Surgical castration involves cutting and manipulating innervated tissues and if anesthesia is not provided it will be painful as reflected by elevated blood cortisol concentrations,high-pitched squealing,and pain-indicative behaviors, such as trembling and lying alone. Some behavioral indicators of pain may persist for up to five days." Farmers speaking off the record are inclined to agree with the AVMA. In a forum for pig farmers, one owner, discussing castration, advised: "make sure Mama Pig is secured in her stall while you're castrating the piglets and wear ear defendors [sic]."

A final way that nonindustrial pig farming reflects rather than contradicts the hard reality of factory farming involves slaughter. Small-scale pig farmers who want to retail cuts of pork must join their factory farmer counterparts in slaughtering their pigs in one of the nation's 616 USDA inspected hog slaughterhouses. Many of these slaughterhouses are industrial. Some are not. The ones that are not industrialized are much more attentive to pig welfare. Large slaughterhouses, though, can slaughter as many as 1,400 pigs an hour, and are thus less attentive to welfare. The deathblow typically begins with an electrical stun gun (or "stunning wand," which knocks the pig unconscious), followed by throat slitting, bleeding out, and scalding. Humane slaughter violations are routine, as the speed of slaughter makes consistently effective stunning-wand application and throat slitting especially difficult to achieve. Pigs are often bled out while regaining consciousness or even while fully conscious.

An extremely small percentage of pig farmers can avoid the horrors of the big slaughterhouse by slaughtering their animals on the premises. In the case of on-site slaughter, they sell the whole carcass-or a large section of it-to locavores with deep freezes. Under these circumstances, the most common way to render the pig unconscious for bleed out is a .22 rifle. Needless to say, precision in this situation can be equally, if not more, inconsistent than with the slaughterhouse's stunning wand. Interestingly, though, it's the aftermath of these off-the-industrial-grid events that say the most about them. On CNN's "Eatocracy" blog, managing editor Kat Kinsman recounted her experience witnessing an "ethical slaughter" of two pigs, Porky and Bess. Observing the two farmers right after the slaughter, Kinsman was moved by the fact that both men were crying. When one of them calmed down enough to speak about the kill, he was "still wiping them [the tears] away and was slightly choked in tone." This was no anomaly. Farmers cry a lot over killing their pigs when, as one farmer put it, "you've kind of made pets of them."

Considerable evidence thus suggests that pigs-and humans-experience undeniable suffering on nonindustrial farms, so much so that, should concerned consumers take this suffering seriously, it would surely influence their dietary choices. From the perspective of transparency, such suffering can be hard for even the most vigilant consumer to identify and appreciate. The visual trope of bucolic agrarian bliss has become a convincing mainstay of small-scale pork promotion. Strip it away, though, treat small farms with the same sober skepticism we apply to factory farms, and you might find yourself in agreement with the forthright nonindustrial pig farmer, Bob Comis, who runs Stony Brook farm in Schoharie, New York. "What I do is wrong," he writes. "I know it in my bones, even if I can't act on it."

"Someday," he concludes, "it must stop."

[Editor's Note: Bob Comis writes about his plans to stop his pig farm in The Dodo right here.]