June 22, 2012
Back to the Land, Page 5: Jude Becker Lets His Pigs Be Pigs
The animals' unique personalities inspire Becker's farming philosophy
by Karen E. Lange
Farm: Becker Lane Organic Farm
Location: Dyersville, Iowa
Certified Step 3 for pigs: Pigs have access to the outdoors all day long.
Jude Becker started out in 1999 with six sows and a strange idea. All around Iowa, family pig farms had been giving way to industrial agribusiness. The price of pork kept dropping and markets available to small farmers continued to disappear. It seemed the type of farming Becker’s family had done since they arrived in the eastern part of the state in 1850 was gone forever. After arthritis forced Becker’s father to retire, the family’s land was rented out to large-scale producers. Undeterred, Becker returned from college with a vision: to raise pigs organically.
Professor Mark Honeyman, Becker’s agriculture teacher at Iowa State University, says he knew of no one else attempting this at the time. “It was not … something you could pull out of a textbook.”
Becker’s family wanted to encourage him, but they couldn’t help wondering, says his sister Abby Becker, especially since back then organic was far from mainstream. Jude Becker remembers blunt words. “They said, ‘This is crazy—we’re living in the middle of Iowa!’ ” The neighbors were suspicious.
But slowly, carefully, thoughtfully, Becker, who his sister once imagined might become an architect or perhaps a history professor, proceeded to create a rare kind of farm. He began with organic crops and those half-dozen pigs, selling mainly to co-ops. His big break came in 2004, two years after the federal government created an organic certification program. Whole Foods approached him to buy his pork.
In 2008, he got a call to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show. After that, Becker Lane Organic Farm was selling to customers as far away as Japan and to chefs on both coasts. The farm had grown to several hundred sows and around 6,000 pigs produced a year—a large chunk of the organic pork raised in this country.
Becker’s farm is nothing like the intensive-confinement operations built during his childhood. “I remember ... seeing these big, ugly steel-and-concrete aberrations popping up on the landscape, and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t want to live there if I were a pig, [and] I wouldn’t want to work there.’ ”
Instead, his farm is the kind of place you’d take kids on a field trip. Pregnant sows are kept in stables, rather than confined in gestation crates. When they’re ready to give birth, they are moved outdoors to insulated metal shelters Becker imported from Europe. The youngest piglets wander a 30-acre pasture, free to come and go from their mothers before they are moved to a straw-strewn nursery barn. For most of the rest of their lives they root and forage for food, nest, and, during the hot summer, wallow in the mud.
They’re allowed to be pigs, and Becker says because of this they enjoy good health, even without antibiotics. Since they’re not raised over manure pits, he says the meat tastes clean—chefs have commented on the flavor. Honeyman isn’t sure you can taste the difference between a pig raised on a factory farm and one raised on an organic farm. But the professor acknowledges the importance of the emerging niche markets his former student has connected with.
Now Becker is striving for the highest GAP step ratings he can achieve. “you have to superimpose morality over economics,” he says. “Otherwise, farming just becomes maximizing. There’s no more humanity left in it.”