In Iowa, pigs are for profits, just pork awaiting a fork


SPRINGVILLE, Iowa -- It has been raining so much here, farmers can't plant their corn. The fields are muddy brown patches in a quilt-work landscape. The only movement in the countryside, while it waits to burst forth with things to eat, is the snuffle and rustle of pigs.


Iowa farmers talk of seeds and fertilizers and the right weather for crops. They live for the growl of their big field tractors, and an Iowa cornfield is an American cliche.

There is not much talk of the state's other crop. There is no glamour in pigs.

But they are here: outnumbering humans 8-to-1, tucked away in modern concrete confinement buildings or wandering in old-fashioned pens. This is the nation's hog capital. Iowa has been the leading producer for more than 100 years and contributes more than 25 percent of the country's pork.

Few animals are viewed in such varied ways as pigs. They are pampered as novel pets and cuddled as stuffed toys. They star in cartoons and are stinging symbols of our excessive culture.

But here in Iowa, they are thought of as pork on a fork. Iowans do not swoon over swine.

"You don't get attached to pigs," shrugged farmer Vernon Horak, who runs a neat and tidy farm here in eastern Iowa. "They are just the way we make our living."

Trendy city folk may train miniature pigs to fetch their newspapers. Here, they do not waste much time getting affectionate. They talk with dispassion about growth rates and slaughter values and look blankly at questions about the personalities of their pigs.

Farther removed from the farm, pigs stand on a somewhat higher pedestal. There are stores in some cities devoted exclusively to pig paraphernalia. They have invaded our slang and cliches.

Pigs have given their name to policemen, motorcyclists and overeaters. They have played politicians in innumerable political cartoons, and trotted famously through children's stories and grown-ups' literature.

But sometimes even in real life, pigs can be attractive. For example, pig experts claim pigs are the smartest of all domesticated animals, contrary to their dullard looks.

Pig defenders also insist they are clean animals, their pigsty lifestyle notwithstanding. That claim draws the skepticism of anyone who has watched pigs wallow in mud and manure.

"Hogs don't perspire," said farmer Dave Heidemann, who raises 1,200 head on a farm near Mr. Horak's. "When the weather is hot, they really heat up. They roll around in manure to keep cool." Besides, pigs are sensitive. They can get sunburned.

On the subject of hygiene, there is the matter of the smell. The overwhelming, permeating, suffocating smell.

"What smell?" asked Mr. Heidemann. Pig farmers say they lose any sensitivity to the odor. It takes about two years.

Pigs build nests in the winter -- in straw stacks, not in trees. They have a social hierarchy in the pens. They even have language: a squeal of fear, a bark or woof to sound alarm, a roar of hunger, a grunt of satisfaction.

But mostly they eat. The pig is an incredible food machine, a dieter's disaster that keeps much of its meals on its hips.

In six months, an animal can grow from a tiny, squirming piglet to a 250-pound hog ready for the slaughterhouse. They can eat 8 pounds of corn and soybean feed a day and gain 2 pounds a day, an extraordinary efficiency that is the result of super-long intestines.

Sows in three years can easily reach 650 pounds.

The heaviest hog measured, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, was "Big Bill" of Jackson, Tenn., who weighed in at 9 feet long and 2,552 pounds.

Hogs will eat day and night, given the chance. Mr. Heidemann says he no longer hears the constant clang of the metal trough lids as his hogs wiggle their heads into the automatic feeders.

"It's so quiet and peaceful here," said the 35-year-old farmer, sipping lemonade on his porch as the trough lids slap-slap-slapped in the pig pen.

But farmers, or "producers" as they call themselves, do not just stuff the hogs with abandon. They carefully breed the animals, exhaustively track their feed and growth, chart a vaccination schedule and shrewdly judge when to market the animals.

In recent years, they have been well-rewarded with high prices on the market.

"That's what's been keeping agricultural Iowa going," said Virgil Schmitt, Linn County extension agent for Iowa State University. "They are making darn good money here in the last couple of years."

Pork has not been an easy sell in this diet-conscious age. To try to overtake beef and poultry, pork producers advertise it as "the other white meat."

Jeff Schnell of the Iowa Pork Producers Association says the campaign has been effective. He says cuts of pork such as tenderloin, carefully trimmed, compare favorably for leanness with chicken.

There has been a dramatic change in pigs. Where pigs were once bred heavy and jowly with a thick coat of fat, they now look much more streamlined. Boars with lean genes are hot property: They get all the time with the sows, with the nodding approval of the farmer.

Swine fat used to have other value. It made candles, lard and even was used in the manufacture of ammunition in World War I. Pigs still have uses, according to Mr. Schnell.

They help make some types of insulin, their skin is used in the treatment of burn victims, pig products are used to make glues, and pig hair is used for some brush bristles.

Because pigs have internal similarities to man, they are useful for medical testing. But footballs are rarely made of pigskin anymore.

If we get carried away in appreciation of pigs, a nose-to-snout look will bring us back to reality. It is not a pretty sight. Lewis Carroll's Alice concluded as much in Wonderland after discovering that the squirming bundle in her arms was not a child but a piglet.

"It would have made a dreadfully ugly child," Alice thought to herself. "But it makes a rather handsome pig, I think."

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