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Book review. Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork

Original book by Brad Weiss

The struggle between small-scale and large-scale farming in a book review intertwined with Paul Durrenberger's personal experience and views on the matter.

By Paul Durrenberger

Policymakers of North Carolina have engaged in a race to the bottom with other southern states to create an internal Third World in the United States in order to provide cheap labor and lax regulation for corporate rapacity. The result is a stratum of affluent, imported pharmaceutical and technical workers in a state that is near the bottom of rankings for education, healthcare, diet and any other quality-of-life measure. Alienated from family and regional roots, these well-heeled people are afloat in a sea of rural and urban poverty, ignorance and infirmity that is the result of the same pernicious policy regime. This book is about how they seek connection via food. In part, they want to express opposition to the very powerful industrial swine complex in their state.

In the mid-1990ís Kendall Thu and I toured North Carolina to learn about the highly propagandized model of industrial swine production promoted by Wendell Murphy. Weiss cites a paper by Robert Morgan, former attorney general of North Carolina, from the book we edited (Thu and Durrenberger 1998). Morgan was able to remove Murphy from his king-pin position in North Carolina politics but only after Murphy had successfully engineered a policy milieu as well as the technical and biological regimes necessary for Confined Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs. These were springing up in Iowa with attendant respiratory ailments that came to the attention of Iowaís Center for Agricultural Safety and Health where Kendall worked. Our task was to understand the reasons for this threat to rural health. We heard of North Carolina and how Iowa had to follow suit to maintain our lead in pork production so we went to North Carolina, where we heard the stories of many rural residents at their witsí ends after being denied all recourse for their long list of grievances. We brought back to Iowa the message that there was nothing good for Iowans in this system.
We began meeting with farmers across Iowa to hear their disquiet and to examine the politics of the state. We found that the industry was supported by a tripod of the largest industrial swine producer, the governor and the stateís land grant institution. Premium Standard Farms was a large contributor to Governor Terry Branstadís Republican campaign. The governor in turn appointed Iowa Stateís Dean of Agriculture David Topel to head a commission to investigate livestock production and supported research at the Morrill Land Grant University to provide scientific support for these developments. Producers, governor, land grant. Just like North Carolina. Today a similar tripod supports the agricultural pollution of Iowaís waters that makes them the worst in the nation. The difference is that Premium Standard is no longer a the top of the donor list for Governor Branstad but Bruce Rastetter, a major industrial swine producer, is toward the top of the list and is president of the Board of Regents that the Governor appoints. Pretty much the North Carolina scheme.

North Carolina was later swept by hurricanes that coated the whole state in swine muck (known to the trade by the optimistic term, ďnutrientĒ) then swamped by an award-winning newspaper exposť of the industry. That was enough to drive the affluent immigrants to seek alternative meat. One thread that runs through the book is the impact and influence of books and articles about food and food systems. People do read this material, and it can be influential.

Weiss mentions the slow food movement, food reform, the alternative and the local food movement, and just the food movement. From the book, itís difficult ascertain the extent to which this is an undertaking or just a number of unorganized individual responses to something about our food and environment, but to my mind that lack of focus represents the ethnographic reality he is describing. He asks whether and how a sense of place can be an effective foil to industrial agriculture and describes the role of local food in this insurrection against food as usual.

A movement entails both organized structure and spontaneous response. Weiss describes a lot of spontaneous or only slightly organized actions, so maybe there is a basis for a movement. But, as in the rest of the country, it seems to be diffused among many organizations and settings, as he describes. There is a sense of a movement, but it itís difficult to see any collective action. It remains in the peripheral vision still waiting for its focus.

Because each example of food-centered action is fraught with contradictions, ambiguities and paradoxes, Weissís descriptions are appropriately rich and multidimensional to portray those complexities. For instance, in part because of various U.S. and state regulations, processing is a bottleneck that small meat producers must find a way through or around. Restaurants and retailers, like the big processors, need a steady and predictable supply of meat that small producers are unable to produce without scaling up considerably. And if they scale up, they risk becoming that which they are resisting, as the doyen of sustainability John Ikerd reiterates (1998). The rub might just be that small scale farming is incompatible with capitalism.

Then the problem is, how is it possible to imagine an alternative not only to the CAFOs but to capitalist food production? Though Weiss doesnít make much of it, he shows us that the small pork people of North Carolina are evolving their own non-market alternatives based on trust and confidence. In the end, though, they must rely on consumers who are willing to pay premium prices for their pork. And thatís another contradiction: people who want to work in agriculture wind up beholden to an audience of wealthy connoisseur consumers, who are involved in part, Weiss tells us, for the prestige of it.

Thus, the producers with dirt under their fingernails, mud on their boots, and callouses on their hands are entailed in a system that depends on their economic if not their cultural antitheses for success. Weiss artfully shows us how food becomes an arena for the acquisition and display of prestige and how in the process humble comestibles become sophisticated as they move from being fuel for human bodies to the rarified exchanges of prestige competition among the wealthy. Food becomes a commodity for the perusal of prestige--a faux concern for the fate of the planet; faux because it is all talk and no consequence and it avoids work. Like ski vacations and wine tasting from which it draws attitude and vocabulary, food becomes another commodity for prestige consumer lust along with clothing, travel, cars and residences. Check the cars in any Whole Foods parking lot. No jalopies there.

Brad Weiss invites us to hear the voices of the people involved from all directions. Authenticity is to be found in rural poverty, the opposite pole to urbane sophistication of the modern. But those who are mired in authenticity long to escape it, like the grandmother of one of Weissís informants, Chef Kevin Callaghan who wanted nothing more than a clean grocery store and a freezer. Authenticity entails a quest for food, fuel and water, tending fires, houses full of smoke, crowding, disease and often crushing poverty and abuse from inside and out of the household. It involves suffering and death without medical care or the hope of prolonging life or relieving suffering. One theme of the religious songs from this realm is the welcome embrace of death as the opportunity to lay my burden down, that the struggle soon be over lord, soon be over. Thatís authenticity, and thatís what people flee in their march to the cities and the industrial food that supports them.

As a person mainly of the last half of the 20th century, Iíve had only a few brushes with authenticity: my East Texas relatives slaughtering a hog and my grandmotherís relishing the brains, kidney and head cheese, drawing water from the well, the wood fired stove, a luxury in those times and parts. Later, living with a tribal people in the Thai highlands I had some authentic pork when villagers killed a wild pig that had been living on the forest mast and cooked him over an open fire. The meat was rich with the flavor of the forest, gamy with the taste of boar and smoke, and good to eat, but then Iíd not had any industrial food for some time. Their more usual pig ranged free in the day to consume human and animal waste and whatever it could find in the forest, but returned to the pen behind the house at night for a daily ration of corn.

These days we evoke authenticity via the imagination in literature and the quest for real food. That real food was part of a system of rural poverty. Today we seek to detach it from that system and make it an object of veneration for the consumption of people who live in cities and work for corporations. They can extol the authentic in their free time and thereby hope to recapture something human in contradistinction to industrial food.

This is one way to look at the local food movement. But thereís another that entails seeing our food system as it is today, as we do in the middle of Iowa. Here we produce much of the raw material for that industrial food system in our corn and soybeans that each fall are devoured by combine harvesters to begin their long journey to factories where they are converted into corn sweeteners, soy protein, and various forms of fiber, fuel, and food. Then these basic building blocks of industrial food are combined with wheat from farther west to produce the industrial foods that are the staple of the American diet.

Unlike systems of authentic food, this system is not organized by need or prestige hunger but by markets that translate distant desire into universal money, if not always profits. So corn from Iowa goes to feed pigs in North Carolina, Utah and other big CAFO states, as well as in Iowa. Those CAFO pigs are then slaughtered and rendered into parts in factories owned by a giant Chinese corporation and exported around the planet.

One indispensable component of the mix Weiss discusses is the connoisseurs who make up a large part of the consumers for North Carolinaís local pork, and the less accomplished eaters who serve as their audience. Even in their vocabulary, ratified by the practice of meat science at land grant institutions, these aficionados remind us of wine tasters. And taking off from that, Weiss discusses the possibilities of importing the concept of terroir from wine country to pig country. This is the complex idea of place and how it affects the epicurean productóthe sun, rain, terrain, the people and the physical instantiation of the particular comestible itself. That brings it down to ground and roots a product in the locale.

But, Weiss reminds us, the central topic of the book is a pig Spanish marauders marooned on a coastal island. It evolved on its own for a few centuries until it caught the eye of medical researchers as a beast that mimicked human characteristics of interest. Then an aggie from one of the two land grants (this being the South there is one for the white folks and one for the black) who began reviving the breed. Then a pastured swine enthusiast who spent a long time in California before she went home to North Carolina started breeding that line with an American line descended from English and Chinese breeds. Other producers are from other places, and precious few from Carolina and the eaters are from all over the place. So whereís the place? Spain? Could be. If thatís what you want. Or maybe China. That too. People make this stuff up as they go along, and thereís plenty to work with here. Weiss finally concludes that itís all good, and the concept of terroir doesnít really fit hogs.

But from time to time, Weiss slips into the terroir of the super-intellectualized abstractions of his mentors at the University of Chicago. These bits are fun if youíre a fan of that sort of thing, and he pretty quickly puts our feet on the ground with the words of his various informants that helped him blend this tasty kielbasa of porquana.

To my mind the best reviews Iíve ever gotten for my work have been when a shrimper, autoworker, longshoreman or farmer read my work and complimented me. Thatís no doubt because of my own background (Durrenberger 2014). Itís a question of audience; I prefer an audience of the working people of the planet, not the elites. My one wish for this book and for future work would be to make it accessible to the person who is killing, butchering or selling the pig. The connoisseurs? If they donít understand it, theyíll be able to fake it convincingly.

If I may, hereís another wish for future work. Weiss points out the role of the Land Grant Universities in both the CAFO system (North Carolina Stateóthe white one) and in the revival of the wild Spanish pig (North Carolina Agricultural and Technical-the black one). It is the food scientists at these universities who have developed the industrial foods that are the staple of our diets, the animal scientists and agricultural engineers who have developed the CAFO system and other industrial foods such as rBST-induced milk and GMO corn and beans. Iowa State University is complicit in the pollution of Iowaís waters just as UC Davis is complicit in their development of the tennis-ball tomato for interstate commerce and the cardboard strawberry for international trade. The Land Grants have been the center of the industrial food system. Meant to be peoplesí universities to provide skills for local working people, they have morphed into the R&D branch of agribusiness, which now largely controls them. This is a big enough and significant enough topic to deserve a separate book, if perhaps one not as optimistic in outlook as Real Pigs. If Brad Weiss is looking for a new topic, I commend this one.

At the beginning of this year, while my wife, Suzan and I were visiting our daughter in Japanís northernmost island of Hokkaido, where she lives in the fishing, farming and retirement town of Date, she wanted us to sample the Nepali food there, but the local restaurant was closed so we drove to the neighboring industrial giant of Muroran, home to the Japanese Steel Works that put Beth Steel and other American steelmakers out of work. There she spoke in Japanese with the Nepali chef about various matters and we enjoyed our Nepali food. I would suppose that would pretty much be the antithesis of local food except for Weissís introduction of Vimala Rajendran from the backwaters of India where she lived with Catholics from Goa and Mangalore who were highly influenced by Europeans. When she lived in Bombay, she was surrounded by the same people and they raised pigs. The Portuguese introduced red chilies and garlic that people cooked with pork in palm vinegar. She tells the story of coming to North Carolina, of opening and running a community kitchen and finally a restaurant. Now thatís local food.

While I was reading Real Pigs I went to Iowa City to hear a talk by one of the founders of Seed Saversí Exchange of Decorah, Iowa, David Carvagnaro. He promised a tour around the world in eighty minutes and discussed the origins of the heirloom plants the organization is dedicated to propagating and preserving. His answer to the question of what makes an heirloom plant was that it has attached to it a family story about how it came from the old country. In his study of origins he learned that in spite of such stories, all of the ingredients of his familyís Italian cooking were from other places: onions and garlic from Central Asia, tomatoes and peppers from the Americas, olives from the Near East and so on. Everything was from someplace else. So, I think Weiss is correct to tell us about the local, but not to insist on it too much.People have been discussing authenticity since the 19th century drive to collect national literatures and codify languages, so thatís an old issue, and I think people make of it whatever suits their current purposes.

From time to time in the book, Weiss ponders what a solution might be to the maladies of our food system. Thatís a tough one, as the book shows, because always lurking in the background are the indomitable CAFO system and Morrill Land Grants. Against them in Quixotic battle are a handful of local swine producers loosely in league with some connoisseurs, small scale meat processors, chefs, restaurateurs and others who make up the local food system of North Carolinaís Piedmont region. Is there any hope? We know the industrial food system is unsustainable. That means that it will perish. But itís a bit like clearing invasive species from our woodlands; you never know what might replace them.

Weiss reports some surveys but, in spite of innovations in ethnographic methods, he never systemizes his findings to provide insight into the relative saliency of concepts such as, for instance, terroir for different groups. He acknowledges the profound racism of the place as well as class divisions but, having done so, does not incorporate either. This is quite understandable as it seems the black pork producers are working in a separate (if not equal) realm rarely penetrated by the white elites that are the audience for heritage breed hogs. He also mentions class and ponders the mentality of folks who inquire about the wellbeing of the hog but not the people who produce it. On the other hand, a close analysis of the class and race dimensions of these phenomena might cloud the otherwise hopeful picture Weiss is painting. And rightfully. There needs to be some place for optimism in what would otherwise be a sea of gloomy prospects.

Another topic that he acknowledges but does not treat systematically is the political economy of small scale farming. Unless people inherit land (and some do), they have to purchase or rent it. That means a bank loan or a periodic rent payment. And that means that a sizable part of their budget will be devoted to servicing that loan or rent. The bank or landowner always looms as the first obligation. To one informant Weiss says that he had learned that to make money in farming a person needs to own land or get it from an off farm job (49).

Some of the problems we face in Iowa are similar. Our understanding of the political economy of small scale farming has led Suzan and me to the conclusion that there is something that we can do to promote alternatives. That is to organize a non-profit land trust (Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, SILT) that will remove land from the market to transform it into a non-commodity so that developers and industrial farmers cannot continue to bid up the prices. The organization then makes the land available on favorable terms to small scale farmers to sustainably produce healthy food for the people of our cities and towns. This is the best way we could find to guarantee local food gets grown in Iowa decades from now, a way that doesnít price local food farmers out of the market before they even get started, at that moment they start looking for land they can afford. Quixotic? May be. Fraught with contradictions such as Weiss highlights? Definitely. But we think thereís hope, even in the midst of this food desert. And there are a lot of good people working with us to make it a reality. If youíd like to know more, you can have a look at the webpage at SILT.org.

*Originally published at Notes from the field, Culture and agriculture, June 2016.

Durrenberger, E. Paul
2014 At the Foot of the Mountain: A Journey through Existentialism, Anthropology and Life. West Branch, Iowa. Draco Hill Press.
Ikerd, John E.
1998 Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Economic Development, and Large-Scale Swine Production. IN Pigs Profits and Rural Communities. Edited by Kendall M. Thu and E. Paul Durrenberger. Albany. State University of New York Press. Pgs 157-169.
Scott, James C.
2012 Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton. Princeton University Press.
Thu, Kendall KM. and E. Paul Durrenberger
1998 Pigs, Profits, and Rural Communities. Albany. State University of New York Press.





Paul Durrenberger

Paul Durrenbereger has done fieldwork in highland and lowland Thailand, Iceland, Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Chicago. He has written many academic papers and books and is now retired and working with his wife, Suzan Erem, to organize the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) to preserve Iowa's land for the production of healthy food.




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