Curious pigs in one of the feeding pens on Palmetto Creek Farm.
What am I getting myself into?
I wondered to myself, as the main road disappeared into a long, oak-covered stretch of unpaved drive. A white cloud of dirt surrounded my love-bug-covered car. Finally, I saw a farmhouse with a grassy parking area out front. A small pig dashed across the way. I had found my destination.
Palmetto Creek Farms in Avon Park was not what I had imagined, not that I was even sure what to expect. I've read books and have seen documentaries
on the horrors of factory pig farms. Both have made me feel like a terrible person for eating meat -- a difficult feeling to deal with when your life revolves around food. I knew that Palmetto Creek had a reputation for raising humane, free-range Hereford pork, but as a girl raised in the suburbs, I had no idea what that would look like in real life.
I arrived just after 8 a.m. The sun was peeking through the treetops just in front of my parked car. That's where I saw the first set of pig pens. I headed in that direction. As I approached, my nose detected the faint aroma of mud and manure. It was not as overbearing as I had imagined it would be. There were pigs, dozens of them, some happily wading through puddles of chocolate-colored water, some rooting around in the mud, others curiously approaching the fence to check me out. They seemed quite relaxed and content. Not the image I had in mind for a bunch of animals whose sole purpose in life was to end up on a BLT sandwich. I wandered the trail near the pens searching for signs of distress.
A short while later, a golf cart approached. It was the farm's owner, Jim Woods. Also not what I had expected. Again, I wasn't sure what to expect from an individual who makes a living slaughtering animals. Was he a crazy redneck? A rural hippie? A sadist? Apparently, none of the above. With steely blue eyes and a tall, slender stature, Woods came off as Southern gentleman farmer. With a patient and paternal air, he drove me around his 30 acres of tree-lined property. He outlined the entire process of pork production, from insemination to preparation for slaughter: in all honesty, a practice that seems very, well, natural.
We made our way up to the breeding pen for the beginning of the tour. I was imagining some sort complex, perverse artificial-insemination process. Not the case. This process is, again, very natural. I'm sure the boars aren't complaining. Woods does not file or remove their tusks either. Because of this, they need to be pulled out of service when they get too large for the sows. Woods pointed out the white hairs on the shoulder of one of the sows: scars from a feisty bull attempting to have his way with her. Fortunately, he let me know, "she healed up quickly."
The differences between Palmetto Creek and the written and filmed images of factory farms couldn't be more antithetical. After the sows on Palmetto Creek are impregnated, they are moved to wooded pens with their pregnant companions. We watched them lie around and root under the shade of oak trees. This is a stark contrast to the tight, individual cement gestation crates on commercial farms. These crates have been banned in Florida since 2002, but factory farms in other states still use pens that do not even allow the sows enough room to turn around. If animal welfare is a concern to you, this in itself is reason enough to search out a farmer like Jim Woods. Never mind the difference in quality.
The quality and comfort of these pigs comes at a price. According to Woods, his is the highest-priced pork in Florida. A whole hog goes for $575. One that has been butchered fetches $775. Woods has found a niche, catering to conscientious restaurants such as Max's Harvest, Market 17, and Michael's Genuine. Lucky for us and his pigs, he found his calling.