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June 22, 2012

Back to the Land, Page 6: Thompson Farms Smokehouse Achieves Highest GAP Rating

Andrew Thompson tried factory farming. He hated it.

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • Mud holes, fresh water, and wide open spaces make Thompson's farm a piglet playground.  Julie Busch Branaman

by Karen E. Lange

Farm: Thompson Farms Smokehouse
Location: Dixie, Georgia
Certified Step 5+ for pigs: No physical alterations and no slaughterhouse or other transport; animals spend their lives on pasture.
Website: thompsonfarms.com

In the early 1990s, after the price of pork bottomed out, the Thompson family in south Georgia agreed to move pigs off the land in exchange for payment—an EPA initiative intended to protect the watershed from runoff. Just about every other pig farm in the state had quit the business, and this seemed the only way to continue raising pigs, which the Thompsons had done in Dixie since the Depression. So the family shut up their animals in a big barn with a cement slab floor that drained into a manure “lagoon”—a fixture of many factory farms that has since been implicated in land, air, and water pollution.

Andrew Thompson, who runs Thompson Farms Smokehouse with his 84-year-old father, said the problems started immediately. “We had a little bit more sickness in the hogs. … you got a little bit more fighting because they were bored. They were a lot leaner-type hogs—they just didn’t have the taste.” Some animals went lame from standing on the hard cement. And the farm stank.

So it wasn’t long before the Thompsons decided to put their animals “back on the ground.” nowadays, says Thompson, “we have a lot healthier hog.”

The pigs graze year-round on pasture—rye grass in the winter and millet in the summer. When they’re turned into new fields, they rush forward playfully, like kids on their way to open Christmas presents. During the heat, they wallow in “country swimming pools”—water piped into holes. When sows are about to give birth, they build nests in little huts.

“It’s really nice to watch a sow,” says Donna Anderson, Thompson’s sister and a secretary at the family business. “... She’ll go in and out of that house, taking whatever she can—dried grass—[to] build her bed. You’ll know she’s fixing to have her pigs.”

Raising pigs this way means they reach market weight more slowly—around two months later—and the cost rises higher than the typical supermarket is willing to pay. The local school system laughed at the price Thompson wanted. So the family struggled until 2009, when they found a buyer in Whole Foods. The family entered the GAP rating program at Step 4 and quickly achieved Step 5+ when they moved away from all physical alterations, including castration, and eliminated transport for slaughter after building an on-farm plant.

Farm animal welfare certification may be new, even trendy. Thompson Farms is not. The Ten Commandments are written on a chalkboard in the main building. The manager, an ordained Baptist minister, starts each day with devotions. Everyone gathers for lunch at noon.

“That’s what this country used to be—small farms,” says Thompson. “... Nowadays everything’s done quick and not near as good. We’re going back to the old way.”

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