Friday, September 16, 2011

Hogs on the Highway

I was traveling up the interstate today and saw a semi-trailer load of hogs making its way north. (Okay, I smelled it first and pretty much knew there were hogs on board before I saw their pink little hides.) My reaction when I passed was, “Hello, little piggies. Thank you for feeding me.”

Then I began to wonder about the truck driver. Does he get dirty looks from vegetarians? I wonder how he handles looks of disgust or vulgar gestures. But then I began to wonder about the localvores. Do they also grimace at the sight of food traveling up the highway? Obviously this line of thought intrigued me, and I wanted to think more about why our food, specifically pigs, must travel long distances to get to our dinner plates.

After some research, I calculated the following numbers:

• The average American consumes about 48 pounds of pork each year.

• Market weight of a hog is between 240 and 260 pounds, which yields about 184 pounds of meat.

• Therefore, 1 hog feeds about 4 people per year.

Then I began to think about the town in which I live, population 9,344. In order to feed the people of my town the pork they desire, it would require a local farmer to raise 2,336 hogs per year. That sounds like a lot. So I called one of my favorite Kentucky farmers in the county just south of me and asked about his operation.

The Mackey family feeds 5,000 -6,000 hogs per year. They receive a new batch of weaned pigs every 5 weeks and those pigs are fed for 5 ½ months until they reach 260 pounds. Each batch of pigs received and fed is considered a group, and those groups are sold throughout the year..

The Mackey’s also produce the pigs' feed—corn and soybeans—on 250 acres of adjoining crop ground. All of the manure produced from the hogs is used to fertilizer the feed crops. They have to purchase very little extra nitrogen for the field corn. So all in all, this operation is pretty self-sustaining.

My thought is that it would be fairly easy for a hog farmer to produce enough pork to sustain my town, so long as someone was willing to do it, had the land and resources, and could get a permit for such an operation. The operation would only have to be half as large as the Mackey’s.

But what if we wanted to feed my entire county, population 74,319? That would require 18.5 thousand hogs, so at least 3 to 4 hog operations the size of the Mackey’s would be needed. Since Bullitt County is 300 square miles in size, one hog farm would need to be located every 100 square miles. Most likely, every resident would live within 10 miles of a hog farm. Would they want to do that if they knew they were getting local pork? Of course that is depending upon enough farm acreage available to support the operations, which I am unsure of, and if a local processing facility could be constructed and operated.

But then let’s think about my nearest metropolitan area, just 20 miles north of me (which is likely where the hogs on the highway were heading in the first place). The population is 740,000 people, which would require 185,000 hogs. Land is not available for hog operations, so the pork must come from elsewhere in the state.

The total population of Kentucky is 4,340,000. Today, the commonwealth produces less than 300,000 hogs each year, which is only 1/3 of what we consume. The last year that we produced enough pork to feed the current population was 1980. So to be completely local do we consume two-thirds less pork, or does two-thirds of the population do without? Or, does the price of the pork go so high for increased demand that we can no longer afford to eat it?

I asked the director of my local pork producers association what barriers there were to farmers not producing more hogs. She said profitability was number one. Other factors were that it was harder for new operations to start due to environmental regulations and the fact that the growing suburban population does not want to live near a hog farm.

This scenario is not unique to hog farmers. Whether it is beef, poultry, eggs, or even apples, there are many factors at work that prohibit the required local food production. Demand for food beyond what our land and resources can produce is first and foremost.

Could we do more for ourselves? Those of us who have some land and money are in a better place to be more self-sustaining, but I can’t even get a cabbage to grow or keep my chickens safe from the local carnivores. I could raise that one hog to feed my family of four for a year, but did I mention that hogs are not allowed in my neighborhood? Thank goodness for hogs on the highway!


  1. This is DEFINITELY food for thought! I was raised across the road from a huge hog farm on Blevins Gap Road in Valley Station. I can still remember waking up on certain Saturdays when the McAllister's would be slaughtering their hogs. You woke up to hogs squealing! How excited I would get to run across the street and watch all day long as they killed them, scalded them and then proceeded dismembering them as they hug by their feet. The smell was something you just got use to. Occasionally, when the wind wasn't blowing, we could even sit in the swing out under the big oak tree in the front yard! Ha! Such precious memories! Oh,what I wouldn't give to smell those hogs one more time!!!!

  2. Interesting and thoughtful post! Have been thinking on the whole distance thing lately too. Here in northwest Alabama I've been approached by a restaurant wanting local rabbit...awesome! So I began looking at where to have the rabbits dressed out for restaurant requirements. I have to haul to Kentucky to get them processed then back to near me to have local food. There is no processor closer than the TN/KY border. I've been looking to move to KY between Bowling Green and Nashville to expand (finances is the holdup - not enough investors in direct food)and it sure makes that seem a good decision. It's not always as easy as it seems. :-(

  3. RE Pork numbers: Based on your market weight, 185 lbs would not be an average meat yield. It would be an average carcass weight. Meat yield would be lower.


  4. Thanks, Amy. Can you tell me the correct meat yield for a hog?

  5. Varies substantially. Guestimate on typical cuts would be s'thing like this.

    250 live wt hog = 180 lb carcass = 130'ish lb finished meat for typical BI cuts or 115'ish lb for boneless cuts.


  6. Excellant article Jennifer. Sure gives us "food for thought". Hate to say it but I wouldn't want to live anywhere near a hog farm but I sure do appreciate those farmers.

  7. Look at you, with all your pencil and calculator work....awesome blog that puts great perspective on the challenges of eating locally!

  8. Excellent post, original analysis. I wouldn't mind living near a hog farm. OSU research showed that it's better to breathe the air living right next to a hog farm than living with a smoker.


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