A fine place to be a swine

VIRGINIA - The piglets wake up squealing and race after their mother. It's time to eat.
calendar icon 8 May 2006
clock icon 3 minute read
Mom, though, has a refreshing mud bath in mind, and, with the piglets trailing her, she not-so-daintily plops in.

This is life for pigs. The way things are supposed to be. The way things used to be.

At Jack Keane's farm, pigs are raised outdoors, in their natural setting, unlike the massive indoor commercial operations he used to work for. Keane, a former general manager for the Murphy-Brown pig farm in Waverly in Sussex County, raises the free-range pigs just outside Windsor in Isle of Wight County.

"When they're out here, they can do the things pigs like to do," he said. "They wallow in the mud when it's hot. When they're kept indoors, there's nowhere they can run or play or have fun."

Keane's not raising hogs for Smithfield Foods, the "World's Largest Ham Company in the World," just a few miles away. Instead, his pigs are sold to a Pennsylvania company, which will market them as natural.

His pigs earn that title because they're raised outdoors, they aren't given hormones or antibiotics and their food contains no animal byproducts, such as ground-up animal bones or animal grease, he said. Natural food is a growing industry valued at $45.8 billion in 2004, according to the Natural Foods Merchandiser magazine.

But demand far outstrips supply. Natural producers are usually small, Keane said.

Pigs have long been raised in Isle of Wight, but about 20 years ago, many farmers who kept a few hogs started getting out of the business. Now, across Virginia and nationwide, hog production is mostly on a large scale, with piglet-producing sows numbering in the thousands, said Allen Harper, a Virginia Tech Extension Office swine specialist.

"I applaud Mr. Keane for being an entrepreneur," Harper said. "There's a customer base out there that's willing to pay a premium for that production style."

Source: Daily Press
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