BLUE EARTH - These days, food has become an emotional subject to a lot of people, including self-proclaimed "agvocate" Wanda Patsche.
She and her husband Charles began farming outside Welcome in 1978. It was a small mom-and-pop operation, with just 160 acres of rented land and 96 sows.
Their pregnant pigs were kept outside, and the birthing was done in an old barn, Patsche said, painting a pastoral scene during a presentation to a group of Lions Club members this week in Blue Earth.
The couple kept a close eye on the expectant sows, knowing they needed to keep the mothers' newborn piglets safe from the other dominant sows, which are notoriously aggressive. One day they failed to get to a laboring mother in time, and another sow picked up each of the 10 baby pigs as they were born and drowned them in a mud puddle.
"I can still remember that day like it was yesterday," said Patsche, recalling she and her husband agreeing, as they used their hands to dig through the mud for the dead piglets, that there had to be a better way.
From the farmer's perspective, a better way came along in the form of gestation crates, or "individual maternity pens," as Patsche prefers to call them.
Those crates have since come under attack.
Gestation crates typically measure 6.6 feet by 2 feet and are used to house a female breeding sow, until she becomes pregnant, at which point she is moved into a larger farrowing crate in which she has room to nurse her piglets.
Patsche discussed the controversy over sow housing, GMOs, factory farms and more in her presentation. Her main mission with her speaking events, blogging, Tweeting and more is to help educate consumers who are unfamiliar with the hows and whys of modern life on the farm.
And so Patsche shares her story.
Like their colleagues in the industry, the Patsches' farm evolved with the times. Today, the couple have about 1,000 acres of cropland, and they are partial owners of what is now called "CW Pork," a finishing operation through which they sell about 4,400 pigs per year - the equivalent of 3.264 million pork patties.
"CW Pork, it sounds like a big corporation, but we're not," said Patsche, noting that the name change is just for business purposes. "... It's just me and my husband, and we have a hired hand."
Their pigs are 3 week old when they arrive in batches that total 2,200 animals. When they're ready for market five to six months later, the hogs are shipped to Hormel. The barns are then washed out, and the cycle starts all over again, with another 2,200 pigs.
"Believe it or not, we are considered a small farm. We really are," Patsche said.
Conventional farms today, big or small, face similar challenges. One cited by Patsche is animal rights groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States, which is behind the growing movement to ban gestation stalls for pigs. Nine states have voted in support of legislation that bans gestation crates, and more and more companies across the country have agreed to stop buying pork from suppliers that allow gestation crates.
What these legislators and company CEOs don't realize, Patsche says, is the effect such bans will have on the pork industry.
"At least 95 percent of pork producers in Martin County use gestation stalls," she said.
What frustrates her most has been the lack of conversation with the farmers themselves, but she says that's turning around, and some companies are trying to figure out how to reserve their statements on gestation crates as a result of these conversations.
"What we can learn from this is we all need to be using our critical-thinking skills," Patsche said.
An example she gave to emphasize her point is the marketing of "hormone-free" meat. Seeing these labels, consumers pay more to avoid hormone in their meat, but in reality, hormones are not legal in the pork or poultry industry - only sheep and beef.
"They're just using that as a marketing technique, so remember that when you're at the meat counter," she said.
But Patsche also defended the hormones used for beef production. She compared the hormones in 4 ounces of cabbage - 2,700 nanograms - to 3 ounces of hormone-implanted beef - 2 nanograms.
"You can see the misconceptions," she said.
Regarding antibiotics, according to Patsche, all meat is antibiotic free.
"We can't sell an animal if it has any antibiotic in its system," she said. "Each drug has a withdrawal period to exit the system, and we have records galore ... to keep track of it.
"If we ever sell an animal with antibiotics in its system, we're done. We'll never sell again."