Like most Osage County families, the Kremers had always kept a few dozen hogs — known as "mortgage lifters" — in the barns. Russ Kremer jumped at the chance in the early 1980s to increase production. He says he got a mortgage for his CAFO with no money down. He bought the recommended breeds known for their easy hair removal — a cost-saving factor at slaughter time — and stocked up on antibiotics to keep the pigs healthy in the crowded environment.

You might say Kremer went whole hog. He taught livestock courses at an area high school and from 1986 till 1988 served as president of the Missouri Pork Producers' Association, the state's primary pork lobby.

But after six or seven years, Kremer says, he began to feel like he was leading "a bummer of a life." He began to question certain industry practices, like killing sows for pork sausage after they've given birth to only two litters. One year a storm knocked out power in the CAFO. When the fans quit whirring, the ammonia buildup in the manure pit beneath the pigs suffocated the animals. Kremer and his dad lost the entire herd.

The co-op specializes in heirloom hog breeds -- seen here are the brandy-colored Tamworth, the ink-black Meishan and the peachy-cream Swedish Landrace.
Michelle Hudgins
The co-op specializes in heirloom hog breeds -- seen here are the brandy-colored Tamworth, the ink-black Meishan and the peachy-cream Swedish Landrace.
Contrary to the old saying, a happy pig is not a pig in shit, according to Kremer. It's a pig in a mud wallow.
Michelle Hudgins
Contrary to the old saying, a happy pig is not a pig in shit, according to Kremer. It's a pig in a mud wallow.

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And then there was the constant sickness. The tight quarters hastened the spread of disease. Kremer remembers spending entire days injecting antibiotics, trying to get his hogs healthy enough for market. "I got to the point where I hated going into the barn, because I had this syringe on my hip," he says.

One afternoon in March 1989, Kremer was attempting to breed a particularly feisty boar with a sow when the boar gored him. "He got jealous of another boar and basically swung around real hard," Kremer recalls. "His tusk caught me in the kneecap."

Kremer cleaned up and carried on, but two weeks later his leg had ballooned to twice its size. His doctor prescribed six different antibiotics; none worked.

"Nothing fazed the thing," Kremer remembers.

In the end the farmer checked in to St. Mary's Hospital in Jefferson City with a mysterious infection. Doctors told his family he might not live.

"Pigs definitely like humans, and they like humans that are nice to them," says Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, one of the world's foremost experts in the field of animal science, whose 2006 book Animals in Translation explored the similarities between the ways in which animals and autistic people see the world. "They know the difference between people who are nice and people who are bad to them."

Pigs also have personalities and emotions. "No question about it," says Grandin, who has written a book on that very subject that's scheduled for publication next year. "Some are shy. Some are bold. Some are better foragers. Some are better mamas." A happy pig is a pig that has fellow pigs and things to play with, Grandin says. "Straw, cornstalks — they like to chew up things and root around. They like to be with their buddies."

A happy pig is also a pig in heat, a pig having sex, a pig nurturing its young. And as Russ Kremer likes to say, a happy pig — contrary to the old saying — is not a pig in shit. "Pigs are very clean animals," Kremer maintains, adding, "I think that saying got popularized only since CAFOs have been around."

At St. Mary's Hospital, Kremer underwent surgery to remove a cluster of infected cells in his leg. When the lab results came back, they showed that a superbug was having a field day in his bloodstream. Having identified the critter, doctors were able to counter with an intravenous antibiotic. Later, when Kremer phoned the Kansas breeder who'd sold him the boar, he learned that the pig had received penicillin continuously since weaning. His physicians theorized that the pig had passed along to Kremer a particularly virulent and drug-resistant form of strep.

"At first I wanted to quit everything," Kremer says. "We'd been taught that antibiotics meant more production, which meant more money. But what I decided finally was to go cold turkey and try to do things more naturally."

Kremer threw out his syringe, destroyed his CAFO barns and began to phase the treated animals out of his herd. He bought drug-free breeding stock and began mixing his own antibiotic-free feed.

Some regarded his strategy as lunacy: "People around here kind of knew I thought outside the box, but there were still some naysayers who said, 'That won't last but a few minutes. A fly will come in from another operation and your pigs will die.' I said, 'Well, I'll see.' I was a little skeptical myself."

Adds Kremer: "In the first year alone, I saved $16,000 in vet bills."

"Pigs like the natural environment," observes Yuzhi Li, a swine scientist at the University of Minnesota. "They like the freedom of movement instead of being confined. But they also need more intensive care."

Says Li's colleague, swine scientist Lee Johnston: "It takes a different type of person to run the alternative production."

At the time, pork from antibiotic-free hogs raised on straw and pasture was an ultra-niche product, marketed mainly by Niman Ranch, a California company Kremer had never heard of. He simply continued to sell his hogs on the commodities market, which became less and less profitable as the pork industry underwent consolidation, driving down prices. In December 1998 the price of commodity pork — which typically had ranged from 40 to 50 cents per pound and sometimes climbed as high as 64 cents — bottomed out at 7 cents a pound.

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