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A corkscrew tale of big, little pigs

FARGO, N.D. - I received a phone call the other day from Susie Mullen. Mullen is living in Ayr, N.D., She recently had seen a story I'd written about University of Missouri-Columbia retired Professor John Ikerd, a livestock economist.

FARGO, N.D. - I received a phone call the other day from Susie Mullen. Mullen is living in Ayr, N.D., She recently had seen a story I'd written about University of Missouri-Columbia retired Professor John Ikerd, a livestock economist.

Mullen wanted to talk about Ikerd, who had spoken at the recent Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society annual winter conference in Aberdeen, S.D. Among Ikerd's many points was his opposition to confined animal feeding operations and their effect on the social fabric of rural communities. Ikerd's next stop was North Dakota, where he spoke against CAFOs.

Mullen, 56, says she graduated high school in 1968 and spent much of her career in the West - most recently in Montana. She recently returned to her home state, where she's temporarily living with her mother.

Mullen emphatically agreed with Ikerd and is especially incensed about hog operations, with their gestation crates for sow. "They're trying to get them outlawed all over the world," Mullen says, likely referring to the European Union a couple of U.S. states. "That's what surprises me - why they're letting them come into North Dakota when they should be outlawed. Do you know about sow crates?" she asks.

I assured Mullen that I have seen my share of sow crates. It's not clear to me whether the proposed sow facilities in North Dakota would be equipped with the gestation crates or something else. I'm sure they'll install whatever is current technology.

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Yes. I was aware of the surprising late-January announcement that Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork processor, will phase out gestation crates from all of its suppliers during the next decade. The Virginia-based company was responding to "concerns" from McDonald's, which were driven in part by a panel of experts. I've even interviewed one of the experts - Temple Grandin - a mild autistic and an expert on animal handling in confinement.

Now I'm no expert on hogs, I told Mullen, but I've been around a few of them.

I started my career in agricultural journalism in Worthington, Minn., where hogs were ordinary. I've been in dozens of hog operations over the years, and I've seen sow gestation crates. Smithfield is replacing the gestation crates with group pens, but I really haven't heard any analysis from hog production critics about what they think of those, either. They haven't said how much going to the new system will add to their costs. I've seen farrowing crates, too. They keep sows penned up for 19 straight days and prevent the mammas from unwittingly crushing their babies when they lay down.

I told Mullen that I doubt the hard-core critics of large-scale farms will be satisfied with outlawing gestation crates.

And while Ikerd's thesis is that all the pork we need can be raised by smaller-scale operations, I told Mullen I've noticed a dearth of yeoman farmers sit up nights to watch a few sows give birth. Things seem to have gone to specialization in sow operations, with professional crews. Vacations.

I said the thinking seems to be that the Upper Great Plains Is awash in low-priced feed grains (despite the ethanol craze) and something has to be done with the feed. I asked her whether it's better to have no livestock at all - or large-scale farms, run properly?

Mullen didn't know about that, but she sure doesn't think the answer is big pig operations.

So I asked Mullen what she knows about pigs.

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Turns out, she has her own pig tale. For the past nine years, she'd lived in the Bitter Root Valley area, about a mile out of Florence, Mont., and south of Missoula, Mont. She had a full-time nursing job and had a "Custom Pigs" operation on the side, producing pigs for 4-H and FFA projects. She had five boars and five sows on one and a third, she says - Hampshire, Yorkshire and Durocs.

"My sows were like children, you know," she says. "It was a good business."

But there were problems.

"Sometimes the little pigs would go under the fences," she says. They'd go on other people's property. "The neighbors didn't want the pigs. So the courts took everything away."

Wow, did she see some irony in this call? I asked.

Yes, she did.

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