One thing I love about Wyebrook is the open door policy. Anyone can come visit the farm at any time (though I recommend coming when the cafe is open so you can enjoy a pulled pork sandwich!). The agricultural world could use more transparency. People have a right to know how their food is produced and we do our best to accommodate that right.
There are some downsides to this system. Whether you are raising crops or animals, bio-security is a major concern for all farmers. “Biosecurity” literally means life protection or safety. It deals with protecting living organisms – be it cows or cucumbers – from infections and invasive species that would prey on them. In its broadest meaning, chicken-dog is a form of bio-security because her job is to protect the chickens from hawks and foxes and any other animal that might eat them. However, most people who use the phrase are referring to more elusive predators like bacteria and viruses. Diseases that are difficult to detect and impossible to stop. Pathogens that can wipe out a herd in a week or less. These are the things that keep a farmer awake at night.
At the moment, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDV) has been working its way across the country leaving a trail of dead piglets in its wake. PEDV is highly contagious and induces sever vomiting and diarrhea. In young piglets, the mortality rate is high and it severely slows and/or stunts the growth of older pigs. It is a nasty disease that you don’t want anywhere near your farm if you raise pigs.
Conventional swine operations go to great lengths to prevent the spread of viruses such as PEDV. Because pigs are typically kept inside on concrete, their pens can be disinfected routinely. Workers are given disposable shoe covers so they don’t track manure from one area to another (the virus is spread via manure). Any animals showing signs of illness can quickly and easily be pulled from the herd and quarantined.
Most of those aren’t options for us. We can disinfect our pig pastures or breeding runs. Our pigs are out in the woods running about so it’s not possible to check every pig every day for signs of diarrhea and illness. We don’t have the space to quarantine each new litter of piglets to keep them from coming into contact with other pigs until they are fully weaned and strong enough to withstand the worst of the virus. What we have are fresh air and sunshine which do wonders for the health of any species. We also have the summer heat on our side. The virus doesn’t thrive well in hot climates so keeping pigs indoors in temperature controlled environments is actually a disadvantage here. We also have biodiversity on our side. On a pig farm where they raise nothing but pigs PEDV finds a multitude of ready hosts. However, PEDV only infects pigs. It cannot spread to cattle or chickens or turkey buzzards or goats or any other species. Having a variety of species keeps pathogens confused. That is one of the key disadvantages of monocultures. They create an environment where illness can spread without obstacle.
Thus far we have been very lucky and haven’t been hit by PEDV. Obviously we are doing what we can to keep our pigs healthy and minimize their exposure without sacrificing the integrity and openness of the farm. This is just one of the many challenges faced by farms who follow alternative methods and it does help explain why conventional methods developed as they did. Most of the ills of conventional agriculture were born of good intentions. Pigs were moved inside to keep them safe. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it understandable.