Know your pork: Comparing 2 very different pig farms

Minnesota farmers marketed 16 million pigs last year.
Minnesota farmers marketed 16 million pigs last year. Here's a look at how 5,200 of them were raised at two farms with contrasting approaches.
Courtesy of Jack McCann

Not all pigs are created equal.

It can be easy to think of bacon on a Perkins breakfast platter and bacon you buy at the store as just that: bacon.

But we don't often consider what needs to happen before pork gets on a plate. Pork is a huge industry in Minnesota — the state Pork Board says pig farms made $2.5 billion in gross income last year and sent 16 million hogs to market.

Those animals come in a variety of breeds and are raised in all kinds of ways. They eat different feeds, live in drastically different environments and wind up as consumer products everywhere from chain grocers to family-owned restaurants.

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To offer a look into contrasting ways of raising pigs for food, MPR News interviewed two Minnesota farmers — one larger, one smaller — to get the lay of the land at their farm.

Let's start with the smaller one...

Jack McCann's farm in Montrose

In the far reaches of the Minneapolis exurbs, Jack McCann's small-scale pig farm sits on a 23 acre plot amid rolling hills and newer homes. There's city land and a park under construction kitty-corner from his hog farm.

Outside on McCann's farm in winter.
Outside on McCann's farm in winter.
Courtesy of Jack McCann

The pigs, mostly Berkshire breed, always have access to both pasture and shelter, McCann said. They run in the snow in winter, and have mud areas to cool off in the summer.

They eat transitional organic grain, which comes from a Minnesota farm that's in the process of becoming organic (it takes a few years of organic operations for a farm to be certified as such, hence the "transitional" label).

While McCann considers this his home farm, two part-time workers run it while he dedicates his time to TC Farm, his company focusing on "sustainably raised" hogs.

After costs, McCann says the farm makes between $150 and $200 per pig. About 200 are sold each year, and there about 100 on the farm at any given time.

Most of the pork TC Farms produces ends up at natural foods stores, co-ops or restaurants. And McCann can track down a customer's piece of meat and know precisely the pig it came from.

"I literally could get a phone call from a customer and they could say, "I had this pork chop, it was lot number 17256-kh-dash-whatever," he said, "and I would know literally what farm and pig that came from that they liked or didn't like."

Trail's End Farm near Easton, Minn.

Dale Stevermer stands outside on his hog farm.
Dale Stevermer stands outside on his hog farm.
Courtest of Lori Stevermer

Dale and Lori Stevermer's 450-acre pig farm is home to about 2,000 hogs at any given time, and some 5,000 cycle through it each year. It's on a mostly flat prairie parcel about a 40-minute drive west from Albert Lea.

They raise pigs for Nicollet, Minn.-based Compart Family Farms, which markets Duroc hogs — animals bred to grow quickly, and for their fat marbling and meat quality.

Dale Stevermer takes care of the pigs day-to-day. He hires some extra hands to help while marketing the pigs. Compart owns the animals and provides the feed: mostly corn and soybean meal, plus a little distillers grain, according to Lori Stevermer.

The pigs arrive at the Stevermers' farm at about 30 pounds each, she said. They spend their lives indoors in barns over a deep pit that catches manure to be reused in the fields as fertilizer. One style of barn at Trail's End uses fans to circulate the air; the other uses a curtain to either open up or close off the building, depending on the season.

When they leave, the pigs weigh around 280 pounds. Compart pays the farm about $14.40 per pig for its labor. (If that seems low, remember that the farm doesn't pay for the pigs or their food.)

One of the barns on the Stevermer's farm.
One of the barns on the Stevermer's farm.
Courtesy of Lori Stevermer

Compart sells its meat to companies like Coborn's, as well as restaurants and BBQ teams. The company has an online store, too.

Not every single pig has an ID on it, Stevermer said, but Compart uses tracking and lot numbers to monitor where the pork goes.