Brenneman Pork inspiration: “Every farmer wakes up everyday and says, ‘I’m gonna feed the world today.’ They don’t have any room for doubt. They’re just doing the best job that they possibly can, every single day. They have to. They’re the first to eat it.” -Rob Brenneman
Along my continual journey to see where my food comes from, the folks at The National Pork Board provided the opportunity for me to meet the fine farming family of Brenneman Pork in Washington, Iowa. All opinions expressed here are 100% my own.
A few weeks ago, The National Pork Board approached me with the chance to travel to Iowa to experience life on a pork farm. As an avid family farm supporter, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to get up close and personal with pigs on a pork farm. I just didn’t realize how up close and personal that I would get!
Our first night of the Pass the Pork Tour kicked off with an amazing dining experience at Pullman Bar & Diner in historic downtown Iowa City, Iowa. We enjoyed a delicious dinner that began with a local heirloom tomato and charcuterie salad (meat salad, y’all!), followed by a massive tomahawk pork chop topped with local apple barbecue sauce and pickled mustard seeds, and ended with bread pudding adorned with brûléed banana, candied bacon, and the most fabulous caramel sauce that I’ve ever tasted–bacon caramel. Holy wow, Friends! I will be attempting bacon caramel at home to share with you.
Over dinner, we were introduced to Rob Brenneman who, along with his lovely wife Char, founded Brenneman Pork in 1980. The Brenneman’s have been raising pork together for a very long time. Rob started raising a few pigs in high school, which became a blossoming business by the time he graduated and married Char. Together they worked their day jobs, and continued to expand their pig farm. Eventually they were able to quit their day jobs in order to commit to their passion of raising pork full time as a family.
I was immediately smitten with how passionate Rob is about the family farm. When asked about why he does what he does, he explained,
“Every farmer wakes up everyday and says, ‘I’m gonna feed the world today.’ They don’t have any room for doubt. They’re just doing the best job that they possibly can, every single day. They have to. They’re the first to eat it.”
He further explained that it’s their duty to provide the safest, most humanely raised food as possible, with the least amount of environmental impact as possible. Practices such as the ones the Brennemans pride themselves on implementing are the reason that the USDA now says that pork may be cooked and served much like a steak. The optimal internal temperature for pork is 145 degrees, which leaves the pork pink and juicy inside. The days of well done, leathery pork chops are over, thanks in large part to modern farming practices.
The following day, we were treated to what I can only describe as an all day experience at Brenneman Pork. Erin Brennaman, a.k.a the Mama of the Mama Pigs, escorted us through the newborn and birthing barns to witness the miracle of life on a pork farm–which happens over 300 times per day at the Brennemans! Their veterinarian Doc Tim stressed that biosecurity is a major concern for the Brennemans. We were required to take a full shower both before and after entering the barns, as well as wear protective coveralls in order to protect the sows and babies from outside germs.
Why keep the sows and babies indoors? For the health and safety of the animals, of course. As Rob put it,
“We brought the pigs inside because it’s better for the pigs. Isn’t saving more pigs better for animal welfare?”
Indeed, Rob. Indeed. Pigs kept indoors have their own stalls, which keeps them safe from continual “turf wars”, as pigs fight for dominance, which occurs when the pigs are raised in open pens. Individual stalls also keeps the babies alive, because their mamas can inadvertently roll over and suffocate them. In fact, many of the pigs have access to open pens from their stalls, and yet they prefer to stay in their own space.
An average sow gives birth to anywhere between 10-14 piglets at a time. As a mama of four, I can’t even imagine! Being that they have so many babies, the sows sometimes need a little help in delivering the piglets when they become too tired to do it on their own.
I was fortunate to be able to take part in a practice called “pulling a pig” in the birthing barn. By pulling a pig, I helped a mama sow give birth, y’all! So that I wouldn’t chicken out, I volunteered to go first in my group. After putting on a ridiculously long, sterile glove, I heeded the expert birthing advice of “reach on in until you feel something, and then pull it out.”
I was a little nervous when I squatted down to get to business. I also was a bit shocked at how warm the (ahem!) inside of the sow was–101 degrees F is a normal temperature for pigs. I thought witnessing the miracle of life having my own babies was amazing, but helping the birth process from the other side was a truly an awe inspiring experience.
Once we were finished getting up close and personal with a group of sows, we were able to snuggle with piglets that were a few weeks old. Pigs grow a pound per day for their entire lives. The use of growth hormones is both illegal and unnecessary when it comes to pig growth.
Doc Tim chatted with us about how since the sows and babies are kept so healthy. For the most part, Brenneman’s has eradicated disease in their barns. He also stressed that if a pig does get sick, they do their best to keep them comfortable and happy. Sometimes this means using antibiotics when a pig gets a bacterial infection, but pigs are treated on a case by case basis.
Pigs must test absolutely free of antibiotics prior to going to market. At no time is a pig ever shipped to market while sick or on medication.
The Brenneman’s operate under sustainable farming practices. They grow the food to feed their pigs. The pigs eat and produce manure. The manure is then used to fertilize the field that grow their food.
Seeing all aspects of the full-circle-cycle that takes place at Brenneman Pork was an eye opening and humbling experience.
Modern farming practices make it possible for the Brenneman’s to grow twice as much product, on half the resources, as compared to twenty years ago. When you consider that global food production will need to increase by 60% in the next 40 years to feed our inhabitants, modern farming technologies are the key to keeping us fed and healthy.
The Brenneman’s overall commitment to quality and improvement is summed up when Rob said, “Just say ‘can’t’ once. We’ll find a way to make it happen.” I feel humbled to know that families like the Brenneman’s make it their life’s mission keep up on the latest farming technologies in order to feed the world.
Many thanks to Rob, Char, Tim, Erin, and the rest of the Brenneman family for your gracious hospitality and willingness to set aside time during a very busy season to educate me!