By Wade Coggeshall
AVON — Farming has changed drastically since David Hardin started in the industry.
For one, raising livestock has become much more capital intensive in recent decades. Hardin said he remembers a time when you’d simply fence off part of your pasture, put the livestock in there, and toss whatever food scraps you had left from the dinner table over the fence.
Nowadays agriculture is about raising animals healthier for a safer food supply, and doing so as efficiently as possible to better protect the environment.
Hardin, who owns and operates a farm near Danville, made a presentation on the evolving farm industry to advanced foods students this week at Avon High School. He focused on pork production, since he raises about 12,000 pigs annually.
Pork has exploded in popularity. In 1959, U.S. farmers raised just more than 12 billion pounds. In 2009, it was almost 23 billion. That’s because while once an unhealthy meat choice, new methods have improved it to the point that pork tenderloin is now as lean as skinless chicken breast and it’s certified heart-healthy by the American Heart Association.
Advanced foods teacher Jamie Gleissner has been surprised by its ascent in health measures.
“I especially thought lean ground beef would be better than pork,” she said.
There are multiple reasons. One is that most livestock is kept in climate-controlled barns now rather than outdoors. That protects them from the elements and predators. Farmers also are using selective breeding for better genetics.
“We find the animals with the best attributes and make sure we’re breeding them for a better food product,” said Hardin, who graduated from Purdue University with a degree in animal science.
He’s also changed the diet for his livestock.
“We no longer feed the animals with what’s left over from the dinner table,” Hardin said. “We’re now working with nutritionists to determine what the animals are going to eat every day.”
All this is being done using less land and water. As a result, the carbon footprint has been reduced by a third per pound of pork produced. Hardin expressed the importance of that through some statistics. More than 9 billion people are expected on earth by 2050. Food production will have to double from what it is now to feed all of them. When you consider only 1/32 of land is usable to grow food and less than 2 percent of available water is consumable by humans, sustainability is of major importance.
“There are a lot of hard choices we’re going to have to make in the coming decades – especially when it comes to producing more food in the right way,” Hardin said.
With cattle at some of its lowest numbers ever in the United States, beef prices will continue to rise. Fortunately, pork is as resourceful a meat as the others.
“We use ground pork in things like tacos and chili,” Gleissner said. “We can’t tell much of a difference at all (from ground turkey). It’s very versatile. I never would’ve thought that.”
Concerns with antibiotics and hormones in livestock are overblown in Hardin’s opinion. He said antibiotics aren’t cheap, so they only use them when necessary, at the advice of veterinarians. Plus, the Food and Drug Administration sets strict rules on how and when they can be used.
As for hormones, they aren’t even allowed in U.S. pork production — same with poultry and turkey. You can use them in beef, but it’s the same chemical makeup as what cows produce naturally.
“We’ve really focused on producing safe and nutritious food,” Hardin said. “We’re protecting the well-being of our animals. Because they’re in our care, it’s the right thing to do. We’re striving to make our communities better by being good stewards of the environment.”