In an effort to realize a profit, Atkinson began making goat cheese from the dairy goats his father had always kept. Throwing out the whey went against his principles, so he bought pigs to feed with it. The animals suited him, he told me when I visited Laughing Stock in its storybook setting of rolling hills. He liked their intelligence and personality. Whey, he discovered, gave pork exceptional flavor—a unique, sweet roundness. (This will not surprise anyone who has tasted Parma hams, which became famous for the pigs' diet—high in whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese making.) Atkinson's pork drew the admiration of a traveling "forager" from Chez Panisse, who tasted it at a Eugene meat market and was soon ordering as much as the farm could produce. Pigs paid, cheese didn't.
Atkinson led me to his barns, where there were goats, a few cows, and two sows who had given birth just the night before to about a dozen piglets each. The farrowing sows had been moved to fenced-off enclosures with extra-deep straw and special light bulbs to keep them warm. They lumbered toward Atkinson, whom they clearly recognized, and nuzzled both of us. The enclosure smelled of warm straw and the wet loam of early spring. I expected to look up and find a web spelling out "Some Pig!"
This idyllic scene is possible because Atkinson keeps his operation on such a small scale. He buys his feed from grain growers as close to his farm as he can find, willingly paying a higher price in the knowledge that it will help his neighbors stay in business. Once he can ensure a steady supply of whey from the nearby Springfield Creamery (a large dairy that supplies Nancy's Yogurt, a brand of tart yogurt I seek out), he will enlist neighboring farmers to raise hogs following his advice, and sell them under the Laughing Stock name.
Raising pigs has always been a way to keep a farm sustainable, because they are woven into the entire farm system. Like chickens, they provide a profitable recycling method, eating many kinds of waste. As with all systems, problems come from imbalance; with hogs the notorious problems are pollution and odor. Atkinson begins composting pig manure with various kinds of straw on his barn floor, and spreads the compost on pastures that grow grain for cattle, not vegetables for his family. Industrial hog farmers spray raw manure directly onto fields; its high phosphorus and nitrogen content can burn land, leaving the soil infertile. And they dump huge "lagoons" of manure into tanks whose contents often leak into groundwater. Emulating careful farmers everywhere, Atkinson rotates pastures so that pigs graze on them one year out of five. This, of course, is not a realistic possibility for the pork industry.
I hoped to get inside Big Pig and see for myself one of the "confinement buildings" that arouse the ire of neighbors, environmentalists, and animal-rights activists. The Iowa farmers who warned me it wouldn't happen were right. Too short notice, several large companies told me. Biosecurity, said another, asking if I had been on a farm in the past two weeks; pigs living so close together have stressed and often weakened immune systems, which require steady prophylactic doses of antibiotics. Industrial pig farming has been "so misreported," Bruce Rastetter, an owner of Heartland Pork, one of the two largest "integrators" (pork producers) in the state, told me when dismissing my request to visit. "We feel we haven't been treated fairly. I grew up on a small farm; I have no problem contrasting, knowing we produce a significantly healthier product than what we grew up on as kids."