In NC, Raising Pigs Right Means Keeping Up with the Joneses

A lot of pigs live in Duplin County, North Carolina—nearly 2.3 million according to the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, more than any other county in the US (and more than the entire pig population of most states). The vast majority of Duplin County pigs endure a considerably grim existence. Rain or shine they stay indoors, in cramped pens over concrete slats, packed together by the thousands within huge Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

Not so on Jeremiah and Jessica Jones’ GrassRoots Pork Company farm in southeastern Duplin County, near the town of Beulaville, about 40 miles from the coast as the crow flies. GrassRoots pigs are raised outdoors on 100 acres, where they can feel the earth under their feet and the sun on their backs. They roam, forage, root and wallow on open pastures—rotating over the course of the year from grass fields to corn fields to woodlands. And while mother pigs in factory farms are confined to steel crates so narrow they cannot even turn around, on the Jones’ farm they have access to much cozier farrowing shelters on open fields, with heat lamps and bedding.

The hog industry arrived in force in North Carolina in the 1990s—motivated in large part by generous subsidies and tax exemptions, coupled with a relaxation of zoning and environmental regulations. From 1992 to 1998, the pig population of North Carolina rose from 2 to 10 million. As North Carolina became the second largest pork-producing state (behind Iowa), Duplin County itself rose to #1 among US counties, becoming the de facto hog industry capital of America.

Aside from the poor animal welfare associated with factory farming, studies (Ejimakor, 2006, e.g.) suggest that the influx of industrial operations is hardly an economic bonanza to the communities in which CAFOs have been sited—with much of the real money flowing out of the community and low-wage jobs manned by transient workers moving in. Industrial hog facilities are also notoriously bad neighbors from an environmental, human health, and olfactory perspective.

As the industry expanded, most of the traditional, pasture-raised pig farms in the state went by the wayside. But even as most of the pork production in the region fell in step with the Big Ag adage “Get big or get out,” Jeremiah and Jessica elected to try a more hands-on, natural approach.

Jeremiah, who was born in California but returned to his North Carolina roots as a boy, previously worked on his uncle’s pig farm—an independent confinement operation. Jeremiah went on to earn multiple degrees from North Carolina State’s Agricultural Institute and in 2004, he and Jessica selected several purebred hog breeds and established GrassRoots Pork Company. Today, their 50-sow “farrow-to-finish” operation is thriving. Their current breeding stock is composed primarily of Duroc, Chester Whites, and Berkshire crosses—breeds ideally suited to pasture-based systems.

GrassRoots Pork is also certified under AWI’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program. AWA is a free certification for family farms raising their animals highwelfare, outdoors on pasture or range, and is considered by the World Society for the Protection of Animals to be the “most stringent” farm animal welfare standard in the US Getting AWA certification was part of Jeremiah and Jessica’s direct marketing strategy. “It gives our customers proof of what they’re buying,” says Jeremiah.

Still, going it alone and going small in a county where the average CAFO is said to house over 4,000 pigs is a bit of a David and Goliath prospect. The Joneses and other likeminded farmers in the region felt they were at a distinct disadvantage in terms of might and marketing. In order not to be squeezed out like so many others, Jeremiah got together in 2007 with some of the few remaining pasturebased producers in the state and formed the North Carolina Natural Hog Growers Association (NCNHGA), a farmer-owned marketing cooperative to develop and enhance direct market sales of pasture-raised pork.

Jeremiah serves as NCNHGA president, from which position he helps direct the organization’s efforts to develop new markets and adopt best practice standards. A centerpiece of those standards is that all NCNHGA farms (about 25 strong, and growing) must be Animal Welfare Approved.

According to Jeremiah, making AWA certification a membership requirement is a natural outgrowth of what the group stands for. NCNHGA farmers who have prior experience with industrial pig operations felt the AWA seal would leave no room for doubt about how their pigs were raised. “We find that people want to know how we manage our animals,” Jeremiah says. “Our farmers wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Last year, Jeremiah was nominated for a Glynwood Farmer Harvest Award. Glynwood is a nonprofit organization based in Cold Spring, New York, dedicated to sustainable agriculture and farmland preservation. The Farmer Harvest Award recognizes individuals across the country who are doing innovative work to increase access to fresh, locally produced food and support regional agricultural systems that benefit local communities. In October, it was revealed that Jeremiah had won.

In announcing the award on its website, Glynwood noted Jeremiah’s determination to get all NCNHGA farms Animal Welfare Approved and adds “Thanks to the collaborative model of NCNHGA and the hard work of Jeremiah Jones, North Carolina hog farmers have been able to remain profitable while continuing to practice sustainable and humane agriculture.”

Indeed, Jeremiah and Jessica Jones, together with the rest of the NCNHGA farmers, aim to show that raising pigs on pasture and paying attention to animal welfare is not some quaint tradition of the past—but rather a healthier, more economically and personally sustaining model for the future.