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Meet the pigs who eat St. Paul's lunch
Around midday every day at Pete Barthold’s farm in St. Francis, Minnesota, a yellow truck carrying several bathtubs' worth of pig slop drives slowly down a dirt road. On one side of the road sit about a dozen big, half-circle structures occupied by around 100 pigs each. Each half-circle building opens to a muddy front yard, but on a sunny day in early June most pigs stay inside, lounging in shaded straw bedding. [Slide show and video below.]
On the other side of the road, lucky breeder pigs and their babies lay in muddy fields under shade-producing aluminum shelters.
The truck pulls up to one of the half-circles, positioning its arm above the pigs’ yard. Pink and brown animals, weighing 180 pounds apiece, creep out expectantly. The arm tilts down and a torrent of melons, peppers, apples and oranges suspended in muddy goop splashes into the pigpen. Lunch has been served.
Today’s meal appears to be a grocer’s expired vegetables, but on other days it’s half-eaten pizza, banana peels, milk and other lunch leftovers from St. Paul’s school cafeterias. St. Paul Public Schools have been feeding food waste to Barthold’s pigs since 2005. More than three-quarters of the district’s cafeterias have bins especially for organic waste destined for the pigsty.
St. Paul schools’ partnership with Barthold Recycling is an example of how districts’ purchasing power can support small businesses and environmentally friendly practices.
Food makes up the largest proportion of St. Paul Public Schools’ waste. That waste stream grew as St. Paul shifted towards more fresh and un-processed foods over the past few years.
The district prevents three million pounds of that waste from ending up in landfills each year by working with Barthold Recycling. The partnership saves them $150,000 annually, since the food recycling company charges less than traditional garbage collectors.
Pete Barthold has been in the business for 20 years now. Scraps collected from more than 300 clients, including grocery stores, hotels, prisons, restaurants and other school districts feed Barthold’s 1,200 to 1,500 pigs as well as pigs on three other farms owned by cousins and his son. In total, the business that Barthold’s grandfather started in 1927 now feeds 4,000 to 5,000 pigs. His wife runs the books, and all four of his sons have plans to start their own pig farms someday soon.
To adhere to state law, Barthold cooks the food scraps at 212 degrees for 35 minutes, with steam distributed through a hose to the same trucks he uses to collect the scraps. The typical pig eats 10 to 12 pounds of the cooked food each day.
With the exception of the formula-fed baby pigs he purchases from other farmers, Barthold’s pigs live entirely on food waste, and are outside year-round.
A dying breed
Twenty years ago, there were a number of pig farmers doing what Barthold does. Most of them got out of the trucking business when pig prices plummeted in the ‘90s. Some got out of pigs altogether, and others switched to feeding their animals cheap and easy corn. A number sold their routes to Barthold.
“We’re a dying breed,” he said. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Are ya nuts?’”
Barthold is the first to admit that running a pig farm and a trucking business at the same time is a tall order. In the winter, cold weather causes trucks to break down and slop to freeze. He has to make sure the wet food doesn’t give pigs pneumonia. His animals are big enough to sell at seven or eight months old, whereas a corn-raised pig would be ready in five or six.
But there are benefits to his style of farming. “My pigs look good, don’t they?” he commented. He said cornfed pigs, confined indoors, often outgrow their organs. Unaccustomed to carrying their own weight, they become winded when they board trucks bound for the slaughterhouse. Their lungs can’t keep up.
The tight living quarters of confined pigs mean more opportunities for diseases to spread. Corn feed is often laced with antibiotics. Barthold credits fresh air and sunshine for preventing his pigs from needing many pharmaceuticals.
Barthold’s pigs do eat pork products, but corn-raised pigs do worse, he said. If a pig dies in an indoor corn-fed pig facility, it can take a while for the corpse to be collected. Enticed by the opportunity to break the monotony of dry corn feed, an understimulated pig is not above feasting on its deceased housemates’ flesh.
Barthold’s pigs wouldn’t have any interest in such a thing. In fact, he doesn’t bother to clip the tails of the pigs he breeds on site. The ones he buys from other farmers come tail-free, to protect them from the nibbles of confined corn-fed pigs.
“There’s no need to eat that pig when there’s fresh, clean food coming in,” he said.
“A pig’s the only animal out there I’ve seen that can balance its own diet,” he added. “I’ve watched a pig walk right by a donut, and the next one comes, and he’s scarfin’ it down.”
Sticking with it
Barthold’s practices aren’t just about profit. He sells his meat to big business buyers like Tyson and Jimmy Dean. As interest in humanely produced pork grows, he expects his business to shift toward a niche market.
“I can see the big picture, and I’m determined. I think it’s good for the environment. I guess I believe in it,” he said.
Besides, Barthold just plain likes pigs. “Why do you think I got into this business?” he said. When Barthold was a young man, his uncle gave him his first pig — a tiny piglet that fit in the palm of his hand. He hasn’t gotten attached to one since, but he still agrees they’re cute.
© 2012 Alleen Brown