Hog production in the Midwest goes back a long way. In the colonial
era and on the East Coast, hogs had been a minor household enterprise.
They were raised in near-feral conditions, allowed to roam freely
in the woods to forage on nuts and other "mast," reproducing at
will, and being harvested in the fall by snaring them with "hogcatchers,"
forked poles with a rope noose at the end.
But as settlement expanded into Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, hog
production became a major industry. Corn was the crop best adapted
to these regions. It could be planted without clearing out stumps,
required less labor to harvest than small grains in the era before
any sort of mechanized harvesting and stored well in rudimentary
facilities. Most importantly, corn could be transformed into pork,
a much higher-value commodity and one that would transport itself
to market. In the early 1800s, hogs were referred to as "20 bushels
of corn on the hoof" because of the ease with which they could be
driven or flatboated to markets in the days before railroads or
steamboats. Indeed, the young Abe Lincoln's first venture away from
the village of his youth was a trip taking hogs to market.
The spread of steam transportation widened farmers' marketing
options, and the mechanization of small grain harvesting 80 years
before that of corn reduced that crop's comparative advantage relative
to wheat, barley and oats. Nevertheless, corn and hogs have remained
uniquely complementary enterprises to the present day. Hogs can
also be fattened with barley or grain sorghum, but neither is as
nutritionally ideal as corn.
Hogs' reproductive cycles permitted two pig crops a yeartraditionally
"spring pigs" and "fall pigs"seasons when livestock care did
not interfere unduly with crop work. Hogs could even be used to
harvest corn: "Hogging off" a field, harvesting corn by turning
pigs in the fall to eat the standing crop, was a practice that persisted
into the second half of this century. The United States Department
of Agriculture counted over 200,000 acres harvested in this manner
in South Dakota in 1968. And the early hybridization of corn, with
resulting leaps in productivity, restored corn to its preeminence
over small grains in most areas as far west as mid-Nebraska and
South Dakota, as far north as mid-Minnesota or the border between
the two Dakotas and as far south as northern Missouri.
Family farms spearhead technological change
As labor became scarcer and more expensive in agriculture, hog production
became dramatically more capital intensive even within the context
of relatively small family farms. Many farmers are amused when nonfarm
opponents of large operations charge that total confinement of animals
in environmentally controlled buildings, handling of waste as a
liquid, use of antibiotics at subtherapeutic levels in feed, and
genetic selection for narrow production-related characteristics
are all consequences of corporate agriculture. In reality, all were
initiated on or by family farms in the 1950s and 1960s.
New technology allows larger scale
As in dairying, breaking with traditional technology also opened
the door to production at a scale unthought of a few years earlier.
In the 1980s a few individuals and corporations began to build hog
production facilities that were huge compared to the average. Most
of these new actors had experience in large-scale cattle feeding
or in broiler production, two activities where the intensification
process had proceeded most rapidly. Some facilities were designed
to turn out as many as 300,000 hogs per year. Most were established
in states such as Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma, that
did not have legal restrictions on large or corporate-owned farm
facilities as did, for example, Iowa and Minnesota.
In general, the environmental regulations in these expansion states
were less strict, or less onerous depending on one's point of view.
These operations incorporated, on a large scale, production technology
that had been developed on smaller farms. Access to finance gave
them an edge, since they were large enough to raise funds directly
on Wall Street at lower cost than traditional agricultural credit.
They also had a marketing advantage, they were able to guarantee
packers a steady day-to-day flow of very uniform slaughter animals.
Carolina production grows
The 1980s also were a time of growth for hog production in the southeastern
United States, principally in North Carolina. This expansion was
driven by a number of factors. Corn production increased with improved
varieties better adapted to the soils and climate of the region,
at a time when traditional southern crops were becoming less profitable.
There were also spin-offs from intensive poultry production, which
had been strong in North Carolina, and generally followed the poultry
model. The new North Carolina facilities were generally smaller
than the largest facilities on the Great Plains, often from 10,000
to 25,000 head at one time, but were larger than traditional facilities
in the Upper Midwest.