Pig Farming In Iowa Means Dirt Under Your Fingernails And A Strong Sense Of Pride

Feb 6, 2017
Originally published on February 6, 2017 7:50 pm

You want to find pigs? Go to Iowa.

It's the largest pork producer in the country. The ratio of pigs to people in Iowa is about 7 to 1.

I've had a hankering to spend some time on a farm for my series "Our Land." Over the next few months, I'll be out on a road trip, visiting communities large and small, and talking with people about what's important in their lives.

So with farming in mind, off to Iowa we went — to Buchanan County in northeastern Iowa.

There, we meet up before sunrise with Ryan Kress, 35, a pig farmer and father of two young girls, Kading, 5, and Reagan, almost 3.

In the early morning darkness, Ryan kisses Kading, bundles her onto her school bus to preschool, says goodbye to his wife, Dawn, and climbs up into his Ford F-250 pickup to go check on his pigs.

"A lot of the work and things that we have to do aren't real glorious," Kress says, "and you're gonna get dirt under your fingernails, and it's not cut out for everybody. But it's what we do, and we're proud of it."

As we drive through stubbly cornfields, dusted with snow, we spot an impressive bird flying low across the icy road just ahead of us. "Bald eagle!" Kress says. "They're pretty common around here. But it's still a pretty amazing sight, just to see 'em."

Kress studied finance in college, and figured he might be an investment broker. But when a farmer back home offered the chance to join a partnership in a grain and livestock farm, he jumped.

Now, they market 25,000 pigs a year, raising them from three weeks up to market weight: 280 pounds. They also farm about 2,000 acres of row crops: corn and soybeans.

Ryan's first stop of the day is to check on the youngest pigs: about eight weeks old. I climb into a disposable biosecurity suit and plastic booties to keep from spreading any infection.

Inside the barn, we're greeted by 1,300 pigs who trot around the slotted concrete floor in a frenetic mass. They're about 35 pounds each, with pink snouts and ears and white coats.

"This is a nice group of pigs," Kress says, as he surveys the swine. "When I get a group of pigs like this, I say they're cookie cutter pigs. They're pretty much all the same. We take a lot of pride in a nice group of pigs like this. It's what we strive for."

Kress moves through the pigs, checking for any that show signs of weakness or respiratory distress. "[We] try to make eye contact with every animal, every day," he says.

Winter can be hard on a young pig, and pretty soon, he notices one which is lying on the ground, not moving. "There's one that didn't make it," he says.

Kress scoops the piglet up and takes it out to the frozen compost pile. Eventually, it will be returned to the fields as fertilizer. "It's not one of the fun parts of the job, but it's natural, right?" Kress figures this farm has about a 3 to 5 percent mortality rate.

Now, a word here about smell.

For the uninitiated, it is pungent in these barns, to put it mildly. Kress is used to it, of course, and he's even able to distinguish each age of pig by its distinct odor. His wife, Dawn, can, too. "My wife and I laugh," Kress says, "'cause she's gotten to the point where she can predict which group of pigs I've been in, just by the way I smell." Back home, he has his own separate laundry machines to clean his work clothes.

Ryan Kress says he's not a super-political guy, but he's excited to see changes under Donald Trump. He'd like to see fewer regulations on farming, he points out that agriculture needs immigrants for its labor force, and he wishes Trump hadn't been so quick to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

He tells me that pork producers were looking forward to a huge export opportunity in Asian markets. "I read the other night it could have been the biggest deal-maker for the pork industry in history," he says. "Hopefully (Trump) will come up with something better, or as good."

At the second barn we visit, an American flag flutters out front in an icy wind. Inside are hundreds of older, bigger pigs, about 120 pounds, or halfway to market weight.

But somewhere in that porcine mass, we spot one pig who's tiny. "He's just a runt," explains Kress.

"That's Wilbur!" I offer, thinking, naturally, of E.B. White and Charlotte's Web. Kress nods. "That's Wilbur."

Ryan Kress can't imagine living anywhere else but right here in Buchanan County, Iowa.

He loves what he does.

The hours are long. The work is hard, and dirty. But there's nobody telling him what to do, and there's pride in a solid day's labor.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now we're going to hear about pigs. If you want to find them, go to Iowa. It's the largest pork producer in the country. The ratio of pigs to people in Iowa is about 7-to-1. And that is where we find our colleague Melissa Block today. She's on a road trip around the country, talking to people about what's important in their lives for a series that we call Our Land.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: We've made it to our final Independence on this leg of our road trip. We started out in Independence, Kan., went to Independence, Mo., and now we're in Independence, Iowa. And we're about to go spend some time today with a pig farmer named Ryan Kress.

KADING KRESS: One passed away.

RYAN KRESS: Here we are. Give me a kiss. You have a good day, OK?

BLOCK: Ryan's day starts in darkness, well before sunrise, as he gets 5-year-old daughter Kading on the bus to preschool. After he says goodbye to his wife Dawn and younger daughter Reagan, he climbs up into his Ford F-250 pickup and heads off to check on the pigs.

KRESS: A lot of the work and things that we have to do aren't real glorious, and you're going to get dirt under your fingernails, and it's not cut out for everybody. But it's what we do, and we're proud of it.

BLOCK: We're in Northeast Iowa. It snowed overnight.

KRESS: Cornfields on your - both sides of you. That's kind of the case it is on most roads in Iowa.

BLOCK: And as we head down the icy, rutted road...

KRESS: Bald eagle.

BLOCK: Bald eagle flew right across the road there.

KRESS: They're pretty common around here, but it's still a pretty amazing sight just to see them.

BLOCK: Ryan Kress is 35. He studied finance in college, figured he might be an investment broker. But when a farmer back home said, hey, do you want to join a partnership in a grain and livestock farm, he jumped. Now they market 25,000 pigs a year, raising them from three weeks up to market weight, 280 pounds. At the first barn we visit, I climb into a disposable biosecurity suit and plastic booties to keep from spreading any infection. Ryan's going to check on the youngest pigs, about 8 weeks old.

KRESS: All right, here we go.

BLOCK: Oh, my goodness. That is a whole lot of pigs.

There are 1,300 pigs in this barn - about 35 pounds each, pink snouts and ears, white coats.

KRESS: This is a nice group of pigs. When I get a group of pigs like this, I say they're cookie-cutter pigs. You know, they're pretty much all the same. We take a lot of pride in a nice group of pigs like this, and it's what we strive for.

BLOCK: Ryan moves through the pigs, checking for any that show signs of weakness or respiratory distress.

KRESS: I try to make eye contact with every animal every day.

BLOCK: Winter can be hard on a young pig, and pretty soon he notices one lying on the ground. It's not moving.

KRESS: There's one that didn't make it.

BLOCK: Ryan scoops the piglet up and carries it out to the compost pile. Eventually, it'll be returned to the fields as fertilizer.

KRESS: It's not one of the fun parts of the job, but it's natural, right?

BLOCK: Now, a word here about smell. For the uninitiated, it is pungent in these barns. Ryan's used to it, of course, and he can tell each age of pig has its own distinct odor.

KRESS: My wife and I kind of laugh because she's gotten to the point where she can predict which group of pigs I've been in just by the way I smell.

BLOCK: And back home, he has his own separate laundry machines to clean his work clothes. Ryan Kress says he's not a super political guy, but he's excited to see changes under Donald Trump. He'd like to see fewer regulations on farming. He points out that agriculture needs immigrants for its labor force. And he wishes Trump hadn't been so quick to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He tells me pork producers were looking forward to a huge export opportunity in Asian markets.

KRESS: I read the other night it could've been the biggest deal maker for the pork industry in history. And hopefully he'll come up with something better or as good. I don't know.

BLOCK: We've arrived at the second barn. An American flag flies out front. These are older, bigger pigs, about 120 pounds, except one who's tiny.

What's that little guy doing in there?

KRESS: He's just a runt, you know?

BLOCK: That's Wilbur.

KRESS: That's Wilbur. That's Wilbur.

BLOCK: Ryan Kress can't imagine living anywhere else but right here in Buchanan County, Iowa. And he loves what he does. The hours are long. The work is hard and dirty. But there's nobody telling him what to do, and there's pride in a solid day's labor.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIG SNORTING)

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Independence, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES COTTON SONG, "COTTON IN THE KITCHEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.