By Cara Jepsen
It’s slim pickings at the livestock market in Atkinson, Illinois. A major windstorm over the weekend has area farmers out in the field making repairs. On a good day the market can move up to 500 hogs, though business is never as good as it once was. Built in 1965 by a corporation of farmers, the market moved 4,620 hogs on its busiest day ever. That was before the hog industry began switching over to larger, more automated farms. The huge hog producers tend to establish direct ties to packinghouses, making the market’s role as middleman between the farmers and the packers superfluous.
In the old days, Kewanee, down the road and about an hour east of the Quad Cities, was the undisputed Hog Capital of the World. The town has held the title since at least 1948, when the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill approving the official designation. Newspaper accounts of the event report that the peanut gallery erupted into squealing and shouts of “Suey!” while a clerk read the resolution. Kewanee’s annual Hog Days festival, held on Labor Day weekend, is a combination Bulls celebration, Taste of Chicago, county fair, and Christmas.
In its heyday, farmers from Henry County produced more pigs than any other county in the U.S., and Kewanee was the largest town in the middle of miles and miles of hog farms. They were raised in low A-frame sheds called “A-houses,” which still dot the gently rolling fields, fronted by bright pink cartoon piglets. But unless you count lawn ornaments, there aren’t many pigs in Kewanee anymore.
Jim Sorenson bought the Atkinson Market in 1975. He sold it and retired 20 years later, but he can still be found at the counter of the Branding Iron Cafe, a bustling restaurant in the same building as the market. Most mornings it’s hopping with locals who come for coffee and social hour; even the mayor of Atkinson (population 1,000) is in attendance. Most of the customers are over 40, and everyone seems to know everyone else.
The auctioneer arrives at the restaurant at ten, and the action soon shifts to the hog ring. Because of the storm, on this April day the cement bleachers surrounding the show ring are empty and only three packinghouse buyers occupy the line of about a dozen carrels outfitted with desks and phones. Across from them the auctioneer and a clerk wearing an air filter over her mouth hold court in a raised open office.
Six sows with black-and-white Hampshire markings and a crossbreed with floppy ears are herded into the ring with a loud “shhhhhh” from a handler. They zigzag across the sawdust-covered concrete, breathing hard through their strange nostrils as they trot. Two of the larger animals come right up to the bidders and look them in the eye.
A packinghouse rep does a quick eyeball evaluation of a group of animals before making a bid. Price is based on age, size, and quality. Sows, or mother pigs, tend to be older and not as tender as “market” hogs, raised to be slaughtered. After being sold they’re herded out to pens on the other side of the building. Within the next 24 hours they’ll be loaded onto trucks, driven to the packinghouses, and slaughtered.
The hogs sold at the Atkinson market range from “good quality” to “junk,” says Larry Zeien, the lifelong farmer who bought the market from Sorenson a year and a half ago. The junk includes heavy hogs, off hogs, and lightweights, and livestock with bumps and bruises. Most are sows who have had three to six litters–in about two years–and have been “called up for replacement,” as Zeien says. Most end up as breakfast sausage.
“There aren’t any hogs around Kewanee anymore,” says Varnum Dana. For 45 years he and his brother Richard were two of the area’s most successful hog farmers. Until last year, they’d been raising 2,500 to 3,000 hogs annually on 20 acres and selling them at the Atkinson market. They did it the old, labor-intensive way, out in the field where the animals are exposed to the elements. “I just got tired,” says Dana, who has lived in the same house for all of his 61 years (and whose family has raised hogs there for the past 100 years). “It seemed like we went and got them raised, and went to sell and got jacked around with the markets. It seemed like the feed man and the vet were making the money and we were doing the work.”
“The weather extremes make it difficult to raise hogs in the field,” explains Zeien. “In the old days, most farmers would have 160 to 200 acres and use 20 to 30 for hogs and two or three loads of cattle. Everyone had livestock in the fields, and people did good. Then there was the farm crisis, and expansion, and some survived and some didn’t.”
Field hogs raised in A-houses need to have more fat on their bodies to survive in the extreme temperatures. Their pens and A-houses must be moved to a fresh spot every year, and food and bedding have to be carried out to them in the field. The A-houses have a tendency to blow over in winter storms, exposing inhabitants to the weather. “If a sow and pigs are wet in the house, they’ll move in with another sow and pigs,” says Dana. “And if a sow decides to lay down, she doesn’t care how many pigs there are under her.”
In recent years the hog industry–and consumers–have de-manded less fat and more muscle. Hogs produced indoors, with genetics, special diets, constant temperatures, and antibiotics tend to fit that description, and a farmer using confinement buildings can produce five to ten times more hogs with less labor. “Before, you needed one guy for each 100 pigs,” says Zeien. “Now, with confinement buildings, you need one guy for 400.”
But confinement buildings are expensive. So is upkeep. So aging smaller farmers have been priced out of the business by corporate farms with direct ties to the packinghouses.
“The packinghouse has influence from the sow to your table, from conception to kill,” says Zeien. “I’m not sure it’s for the better. Maybe it’ll go like the chicken industry. You can’t pick up a piece of chicken in the grocery store that doesn’t say Tyson on it. The hog business seems headed that way too.”
In recent years more and more packinghouses have been bypassing the market to buy livestock directly from farmers, a much less risky method for the packer, who, Zeien says, slaughters the stock “and then pays the farmer what he wants.”
For the past 15 years or so, Geneseo Pork has sold its market hogs directly to packers. The corporation of seven employee-owners raises 20,000 hogs a year in confinement buildings that sit on 30 acres of an 80-acre farm. “When we started, there were not a lot of farmers selling hogs directly to packers,” says co-owner Dave Culbertson. “In the late 70s or early 80s packers became more aggressive in buying hogs directly off the farm–especially if the farm was large enough to put together a potload (semiload) of 200 head. Ten or twelve hogs in the back of a pickup limits you on how far you want to drive.”
Until last year, Geneseo continued to sell its sows at Atkinson, but these days, Culbertson and his partners sell all their livestock by soliciting bids from three packers and choosing the best deal.
At the market today, the bidding has concluded by 10:30, when the auctioneer turns off the microphone, the clerk removes her mask, and they move their paperwork to an inner office.
“Nobody took the markets from the farmers, the farmers gave it away,” says old-timer Merle Le Sage of Chicago Order Buyers. He sits in an ancient office overlooking the ring. He wears square glasses and a hat advertising feed; he’s been in the hog business 47 years (including a stint as a flack for the Union Stockyards). His paneled walls boast plaques, awards, and quaint drawings of nuzzling pigs and grazing cows. “The farmers won’t take credit, but they did it to themselves. Now there are less farmers, and they have to scrabble to get on top.”
Varnum Dana says he’s glad to have gotten out when he did. “I was talking to a guy last year on a Saturday. It was cold, the wind was blowing, it was raining and the mud was real deep. He asked if I missed raising hogs. I said, ‘Today is the first time I miss them. If I had those hogs today, I’d have to take a hayload of straw out to bed them, and I’d come back with a load of dead pigs.'”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photos of pigs, Larry Zeien and the Atkinson Livestock Market..