JUNE 19, 2009, DEWITT, NEB.; My nostrils can now recognize the difference between cow and pig poop. Cow has an overwhelming nastiness to it, the kind of stench that makes you roll up your window when you're driving by. What's worse is the after-smell, after you inhale all the way there is almost a bite to the smell that makes you wrinkle your nose against your will. Pig is a lot more subtle, you feel like you are standing downwind of it, even if you're standing right in it. It's a lot friendlier, but it does follow you around all day.
I didn't mean to learn this, it just happened. As my new friend Larry Bartels says: The world runs on, well, poo.
Larry works on Waldo Farms, one of the largest farms with purebred Duroc pigs in the world. The manager, Max Waldo, has hog farming in his blood. Max's grandfather started the Duroc population on the farm in 1895, and a lot has changed since then. They've branched out and begun to raise other pigs, like York and Landrunner.
The industry has narrowed, too. "At one time everyone had a few pigs," Max said. Farmers began focusing on one thing, whether it be corn, cattle or pigs. The Waldos do grow some of their own corn and soybeans, all of it going to feed the pigs. Larger operations like the Waldos tend to survive because of better management and funding. The smaller ones have slowly died out. "There's been a great decline in the number of hog farms," he said.
Part of the reason for this is how costly it is to run a hog farm these days. Max estimates that for every pig sold today, the hog farmer loses about $20. Ethanol is one of the main reasons. "Feed costs for pigs is about 65 to 70 percent of the total production costs."
Hog farming took an especially big hit, bigger than cattle or poultry. The H1N1 virus was the main cause for this. "People in Mexico almost stopped eating pork," Max said.
Life goes on and people still buy hogs. Henry Maendel from Rosebank Colony, Miami, MB drove from Canada to Waldo Farms to buy hogs. He's been buying from the Waldos for over 20 years now. "Very nice people, very honest," he said.
I watched as Henry saw hogs paraded in front of him and tried to catch on to what he was looking for. Three groups of as many as 16 hogs were shown, and Henry somehow saw through the crowd (and the noise and the smell) and picked out a handful of hogs that, to be honest, didn't look any different than the ones he left behind.
"Henry, this one's got a pinched nerve or something," Chad, a Waldo Farm employee pointed out. Sure enough, there was a pig among them that had a slight limp, something I don't think that even Henry would have noticed right away.
After the pigs were all loaded up, Henry called everyone around to show something off. He pulled a photo from his pocket, a photo of the very first pig he bought here, 25 years ago. Henry roared with laughter, everyone else shook their heads in disbelief and chuckled. Everyone was amazed at how much the pigs at the farm had changed, how much they have improved. "Just a bloody brick of meat!" Henry said. Just looked like a regular pig to me.
But the man who taught me the most about pigs was Larry. Larry has been working at Waldo Farms since he was 11, it was the first and only job he's ever held. He seemed a bit embarrassed to say how much he liked his job, but let me tell you: Larry knows his pigs. I doubt he could be happier.
Unloading recently-weened piglets into the nursery from an old school bus (there is a joke there somewhere, I just can't think of it), Larry worked with a speed that comes with 47 years is in the business.
Picking them up by their hind legs is misleading; it looks a lot worse than it is. It's a lot like picking up a kitten by the scruff of its neck - an easy, quick way to move it without harming it. Now and then Larry would get a squealer. The pig would complain until set down in its pen, where it proceeded to forget what it was complaining about and explored its new environment.
Larry was great, a lot of fun to be around. Despite being constantly worried about me being an undercover PETA agent or writing down every time he said the "s"-word, he later trusted me enough to take me for a ride in his 1930 Model A.
Cruising down the highway at a blazing 45 miles per hour (Larry was really excited about this, before he had thought his top speed was 40) I realized something that's been happening a lot on this trip: I made a new friend.