RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

More Pork in Washington than in Chicago Board of Trade

Amazing to report, the headline on the August 1 Progressive Populist was “Tea Partiers Chase Pork” … on exactly the same day that NPR’s All Things Considered reported the END of pork belly trading at the Chicago Board of Trade.

Coincidence? You be the judge.

OK, well, the pork covered in TPP had to do with government spending and the Board of Trade pork was the part of the oinker that makes delicious, smokey bacon—but I still think it provides a good lead. To hear NPR tell it, the end of pork belly trading has to do with the great efficiency of the modern pork business, the year-round demands of the modern consumer and the invention of freezers. Delivered in the same wink-nudge tone media always use to talk about rural life, the report said that, way back when, demand for bacon soared when tomatoes were ripe. Ya know — BLT season.

Today, consumers eat bacon year-round and, according to NPR, modern packers store their pork bellies in freezers. Dear Reader, please note that properly smoked pork belly — bacon — doesn’t need to be frozen. In fact, that’s the point of smoking it — to enhance its storability. NPR should have known that the modern system involves injecting the pork with smoke flavoring to create bacon, rather than actually putting the pork in a smoke house. The flavoring doesn’t enhance storability, thus the need for freezing.

Rather than doing research, NPR swallowed the corporate story hook, line and sinker, even though they should have reported that the end of pork belly trading really has nothing to do with consumers and everything to do with industry consolidation and lack of competition in the livestock market.

Again, a little research would have been helpful. To understand the significance of the story, you need to know that the Board of Trade is an auction house. There, buyers for the corporations (the packers) bid against each other for raw product. The end of the auction means, well, the end of competition. For those who believe that the market sets the price through competition, this is a very dark story with nothing wink, wink, nudge, nudge about it. As the food industry consolidates further, who sets the prices? Clearly, if there are no bidders, the corporations set their own prices. Shouldn’t we have some kind of regulation on that? The answer to that question is being debated now as the government tries to set rules known as GIPSA — the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act. Learn about it. In the meantime, as an example, let’s look more closely at pork bellies.

For yesterday’s farmer, taking hogs to an auction with a number of buyers was the way to receive a fair price. In some months, when nature made pork plentiful because nature took care of the breeding and raising of baby pigs, the price of pork would be low. But demand doesn’t necessarily go up and down with nature’s ability to provide. And the packers, with their labor and factory ready to work year-round, wanted a steady supply.

So, if a farmer could persuade sows to breed and brave the elements and if the farmer could provide sufficient feed to raise a crop of hogs off season, s/he could make a little more money. When there were hundreds of farmers raising thousands of hogs, and a dozen or more packers making bacon, pork chops and hams, the Board of Trade served a purpose. Today, hogs are raised in giant confinement buildings year-round by the same Wall Street firm that owns the packing plants. If you’re looking for pork of the government-spending kind, there’s plenty of it in this system, starting with the taxpayer guarantees on loans for the confinement buildings and continuing with such perks as elimination of gasoline taxes for livestock trucks while they load and unload their cargoes. Farmers have even lost control of hog genetics. Mother hogs are owned by the corporation — Cargill or Tyson — and they are impregnated artificially.

Babies are separated from moms soon after birth and raised in separate quarters until they’re a certain size, then moved, fed some more, then moved to a slaughter facility owned by the same corporation. From start to finish, it takes about 6 months and can go on year-round. With a captive supply, there’s no need for an auction.

And, no need for hog farmers. Some of the oldsters have agreed to contracts with the corporations, building confinements and turning themselves into hog house janitors. Farmers make this desperate move to stay on their land and it rarely pays off. Don’t get me started on the environmental implications or the dangerous overuse of antibiotics.

Hogs on pasture — once called the “mortgage lifter” because litters were produced quickly and paid the farmer well — are now a rarity, even though hogs can be raised on pasture without the soups of antibiotics and hormones they get in confinement. Many breeds of hogs have disappeared completely, and other old breeds are rare. Each of these breeds had certain characteristics — like redder meat, more lard or a better disposition.

If you can get ahold of a good historic side of pork, from your local farmer, do it. You’ll pay a fair price, and the profits will go to your farmer, not the corporations that undermine the system.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2011

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