I spent last Thanksgiving on a 320-acre farm in Pocahontas County, Iowa where Jerry Depew grows corn and soybeans, and for more than 10 years, has also raised hogs. Jerry never has more than several hundred hogs at a time, and while this used to be commonplace on Iowa farms, most small and mid-sized hog operations in the state were lost during massive industry consolidation over the last 15 years.

Jerry’s hogs remained because he raises them differently.

The hogs I saw on Jerry’s farm lived in hoop houses. These pole-supported buildings have a partial concrete floor (the rest is dirt), plenty of room for the pigs to move around, and open sides to let lots of fresh air circulate.

Jerry’s sows have never seen anything like gestation crates, which keep pregnant pigs tightly confined and unable to turn around.  On Jerry’s farm, mama pigs roam around on a pasture, munch on oats, and give birth in small farrowing huts, which they can enter and exit at will. They are kept in the pasture by one low electric wire six inches off the ground, and many of the sows had just given birth as we showed up.

I had never seen a newborn piglet, so I went out to the pasture and opened a farrowing hut to take some pictures. While the sow got to her feet when I cracked the door, she remained calm and the piglets grouped around her and away from the cold air I let into their hut. Jerry’s son told me that you can tell a good sow by how it lays down — the slower her movements, the more time her babies have to get out of her way and the less chance they have of her crushing them.

Fast forward nine months to a conversation with a friend who sells hog feeders to giant confinement operations. After I told him about being in the pasture with those sows a day after they had given birth, he reacted with surprise because he thought the sows would have reacted aggressively while I was in the pasture. It occurred to me that he didn’t account for the stress sows in confinement are under that amplifies their behavior.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I haven’t been a vegetarian for a number of years, mostly because some of my family and good friends are farmers who raise livestock. They do their best to treat their animals humanely and with respect, and I want to support their efforts to change the food system. I also was moved several years ago by an excerpt from An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard:

Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., sticking to this diet of meat that reflected my values was easy. The Dupont Circle farmers market was open year round and situated a half-mile from my house, and I knew that my friends at Cedarbrook Farm and Eco-Friendly Foods were raising and slaughtering their animals in ways I would approve. But when I moved to Nebraska, I found that this kind of meat is more difficult to find, and occasionally I would eat the meat that is available.

After a recent tour of a confined animal feeding operation in North Carolina, my resolve to know my meat became much stronger. There are ways to raise meat that sustain our environment instead of polluting it and to help family farmers and communities thrive.

An unconsolidated livestock market made of many small and mid-sized independent family farmers built vibrant rural communities across this country. When the income from raising livestock is distributed to many farmers that money is often spent largely within the community. Income isn’t the only thing that small and mid-sized farms help to spread around — manure in the quantities produced on these farms is solid instead of liquid, and can be composted and spread on fields in quantities crops can readily use.

Sadly, even as the demand for naturally-raised meat is soaring, consolidation of the livestock industry has made the pork market unresponsive to high corn prices, so that even the premium Jerry receives for raising natural meat isn’t enough to be profitable.

Since I was at his farm last Thanksgiving, Jerry has sold his sows and plowed up his pasture. It doesn’t mean he won’t ever have hogs again … his buildings are still standing for now, and if the price goes back up he may buy more sows and start again. He can do this because he his hoop houses, unlike confinement buildings, did not require a lot of money to build. Farmers with large amounts of debt need to pay off their buildings regardless of hog prices, so they keep producing even if they cannot make a profit.

There is an opportunity here, however. We know that small and mid-sized family farmers can be revived, and that they can sustain both our environment and our communities. We must work for policy that breaks up the concentration in livestock markets and restores ownership and control to farmers. Policy changes don’t occur overnight, so while we work we should also support farmers today who raise animals responsibly and in ways that create opportunity within their communities.

Now, that is something I can stick a fork in.