Article — From the May 2006 issue

Swine of the Times

The making of the modern pig

My interest in pig sex began over drinks at a bar in Burley, Idaho. My friend Becky was telling me that she couldn’t stand her job at a big hog farm outside of town. Each day she faced an unending line of sows filing into the room where she worked. Occasionally one of the 200-pound pigs broke ranks, knocking Becky down.

“Sometimes they get nervous when you stimulate them,” she said.

I set down my beer.

“Stimulate?”

“Yeah, for artificial insemination. Usually if you bring a boar around they’ll get in the mood. But if not you just have to get in there and start rubbing away.”

At my urging, my friend obligingly laid out the intricacies of coaxing sows to conceive, along with equally piquant methods of harvesting boar semen. It all seemed like an awful lot of trouble for something creatures normally do without encouragement.

I love my prosciutto, my bacon in the morning, and although I’m not usually squeamish about the realities of agriculture, I’m not sure I had ever thought of my food as something that depended upon artificial insemination. It began to make perfect sense, of course, when I started to gather the facts. The science of pork production has made major strides in the last twenty years, and one wouldn’t expect to find pigs mating the old-fashioned way at state-of-the-art hog facilities. But, as I was to find, artificial insemination (“AI,” in the industry) is more than a sign of modernization. It has served as the enabling technology for a process that has transformed pigs from affable, potbellied forest dwellers to panicky, torpedo-shaped clones that cannot survive outdoors but nonetheless produce monstrous, lean hams.

Previously, any concerns I might have had about hog farming always vanished right about lunchtime. But when I discovered the ubiquity of this breeding technique I became curious: If it takes human-aided swine masturbation to bring the Christmas ham to the family feast, what else is involved in producing America’s pork? Although artificial insemination is by no means the worst indignity inflicted on the modern pig in the course of this transformation, it is a fair symbol for all the other indignities we have visited on it.

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is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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