Most of the pork found in American grocery stores is produced in overpopulated and inhumane industrial factory farms, in devastatingly cruel conditions. The Pacific Northwest, though, is on the cutting edge of the growing movement toward humane, sustainable meat, so when I set out to find local pig farmers fighting to provide an alternative to hormone- and antibiotic-laced pork, I thought it would be a snap. But trying to find an organic pig farm near Portland wasn't as easy as I thought. When I first started calling around, the farmers I contacted mostly met my questions with comments like, "How would we know what we feed our pigs?"
Unsatisfied with their answers, I took a trip to New Seasons to ask employees about where they get their meat. They suggested contacting Carlton Farms, a meat supplier for many of Portland's high-end grocery stores and restaurants. What I learned from the folks at Carlton: There are no organic pig farms in Oregon. They suggested that I contact Pure Pork, a farm they deemed "as close as you can get to organic," from where they purchase an average of 100 pigs a year. Invited by owners Linda and Dan Burkett to check out the facilities, I headed toward their farm in Sandy, hoping to get a clearer picture of the local vs. organic debate in sustainable farming.
When I arrived at Pure Pork, I was struck by the exemplary care the pigs receive. Unlike horrifying TV images of animals in tiny enclosures, what I saw were piglets romping around in a large pen full of soft straw, supplied with fresh water, food, and even a ball. On the opposite side, pigs that had just given birth rested with their piglets in pens large enough for the near 600-pound animals to move around freely, while other sows and boars called a large muddy outdoor pen with barn access home. For farmers who obviously pride themselves on the care of their animals, it seemed strange that they wouldn't go a step further to meet the standards for organic certification.
For the Burketts and fellow farmer Richard TenEyck, though, the certification process just doesn't add up. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, certified organic meat must be antibiotic- and hormone-free, and organic food must be "produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation." What this means besides specification for the pigs, is that the land they stand on and feed they consume must also be certified organic. While Pure Pork does not use hormones or antibiotics and their feed is vegetarian, the costs of certified organic feed and straw—nearly twice as much per pound—are simply too high for their bottom line.
Besides cost, Linda Burkett prefers the accountability of local suppliers. "If you want to have the government say that the food never had pesticides sprayed on them or additives, that's fine, but all our feed is local, so we know the farmers. We know they aren't doing that—and they know we can just drive over there [to check]," she said. The community built through supporting local farmers is of major importance to the Burketts and TenEyck. Not only do the three support and participate in local farmers' markets, TenEyck is working to ensure that local agriculture will continue to thrive by heading up the area 4-H chapter.
So, what is the average Portlander to do? Support local? Support organic? Until those two options are no longer mutually exclusive, a choice must be made. While it is a matter of personal taste, it sure seems smart, like Linda Burkett says, "to know the people you're doing business with."