The Life and Death of a Pig
It’s hard to tell who is more stubborn: Bill Ellison or one of his pigs.
His pigs, like all pigs, are stubborn by nature; they’re squat, 250-pound beasts that refuse to change their trajectory to avoid stepping on each other, whether a 600-pound boar or a two-day-old piglet. Ellison’s stubbornness is part of his nature as well; he refuses to adopt the modern mode of pig raising.
Most pig farmers are now termed pork producers. And Iowa is king of pork production. Nearly 18 million pigs, according to the US Department of Agriculture, live on little more than 1,100 square miles. By contrast, the New York City metro area has about 18 million people spread over 6,720 square miles. The pigs are packed — at times more than 10,000 animals — into buildings where they are born, raised and fed. The pigs are so removed from their base behaviors that even sex is unnecessary: they procreate through artificial insemination.
Ellison and business (and life) partner Lois Pavelka give their pigs outdoor runs and grow everything they feed: oats, alfalfa, soybeans and corn. While agriculture has become increasingly populated by farms dedicated to single species, Ellison sees himself as a rebel. “I don’t think if I gave you 24 hours to put ten guys like me on a bus,” he says, “that you could do that.”
Fortunately, a man who considers himself one of a kind was able to find his soul mate.
“I was left with this farm without a farmer,” Pavelka said of the time six years ago between her husband’s death and her partnership with Ellison. Her farming experience was mostly balancing the books. Her husband’s death had left Pavelka with a small herd of cattle, 100 freshly planted acres and a decision to make.
She was able to delay making a choice about the farm while Ellison, whom Pavelka had known as a neighbor for decades, and another neighbor tended the cattle and the fields, in addition to their own land.
She decided to start auctioning everything but the land. So away went her husband’s new combine, the hay rack and lot after lot of miscellany. The buildings weren’t used and fell into disrepair while Pavelka returned to work as a school nurse in Mount Vernon.
It was then that Ellison told Pavelka that he had fallen in love with her. It was Ellison’s influence that brought animals back to this patch of land along the Cedar River.
When he makes his rounds each day, he calls the lambs, the cows, the pigs and the horses with a different call for each. During the ewes’ spring birthing, he spends 12 straight hours a day watching over the lambs in the barn. He insists that there is a right way and a wrong way to raise animals. Ellison says he simply loves raising livestock (he relaxes by watching online livestock auctions). And he abhors the modern methodology.
“The hogs in those confinement lots are insane. Literally insane. You can just look at them and tell,” he says. “Humans would be too, if they were packed in like those hogs. If you’re going to call yourself a farmer, you should farm. Everybody mass produces meat.”