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5 Things You Need to Know About Iowa Pork Farms

Many thanks to the Iowa Pork Producers for taking me on an Iowa Pork Farms Trip in July!  I went on this trip because I think it’s important that we all know where our food comes from and I wanted to see a production pig farm first hand. 43 million hogs annually are raised in Iowa – the nation’s top pork producing state, and my own father-in-law was a pig farmer until the late 1990s. Pig farming is a pretty big deal here and it was time I learned more about it.

5 Things you need to know about Iowa Pork Farms5 Things You Need to Know About Iowa Pork Farms

While I see the outside of pig barns almost every single day, I hadn’t been inside one since when I was 20 years old.  In 1994 I took a quick tour of my future father-in-law’s pig operation. The buildings I saw on my recent #IowaTourDePork trip were not all that different from his, and I was interested to learn similarities and differences between his 1996 farm and the pig farm of 2016.

Today’s pig farms come in all shapes and sizes.

A large portion of Iowa pig farms (94%) are family owned farms and 39% of these farms raise 1,000 or fewer pigs. The Gent Family Farm that we toured supports three families by producing 35,000 pigs and growing 700 acres of soybeans and corn each year. Iowa pork farms use one-third of all the corn and soy beans that are grown in Iowa, which means the Gent Family Farm also buys crops from other Iowa farmers to feed their pigs.

#iowatourdepork finishing pigs

My father-in-law raised about 4,000 pigs a year until 1996 in a farrow-to-finish farm, which was a large pig farm in the 1990s.  I thought 35,000 pigs was an enormous farm, but we also met another pig farming family on our trip, the Brennemans, whose farms are even larger. The Brennemans have 25,000 mama sows at four different farms. You will find mama sows giving birth to 800-900 piglets every single day on three of their farms (so 2400-2700 total piglets born per day), and around 3,000 piglets are born per month at a smaller fourth farm. They finish some of their pigs themselves, and also hire contract farmers to finish their pigs as well. I can’t even fathom the scale of their operation, but I really enjoyed talking to them and learning about their farms!

salad at Pullman Diner in Iowa City

We were also treated to a delicious meal at the Pullman Diner in Iowa City. This restaurant sources  pasture-raised pork from Heartland Fresh Family Farms – a different type of pork production at the opposite end of the spectrum. We didn’t get to visit that farm unfortunately, but it’s on my list of things to do because I prefer to buy pasture-raised pork.

There are several different types of pork farms.

Nursery Barn - Gent Family Farms #IowaTourDePork

Not all pig farmers raise the same age pigs or even use the same raising methods. We toured two different types of pig barns owned by the Gent family on our trip. The first was called a nursery barn and the inside is pictured above. Piglets arrive at nursery barns when they’re between three to four weeks old, after they’ve been weaned. They stay in the nursery barn until they’re about eight weeks old.

The pigs in the nursery barn we visited were moving to a larger finishing barn the very next day after we saw them. So, we saw them at their most crowded. They live in the finishing barn until they’re around six months old and ready to go to the processor to become bacon, sausage, pork chops, ham etc. In addition to the nursery barn, we also saw two finishing barns that house 1,200 pigs each, pictured below. These barns are similar to the ones my father-in-law has. In fact, one of his finishing barns is rented and still has pigs in it.

Gent Family Farms #IowaTourDePork

Other types of pig farming include farrow/breeding farms  – where mama sows birth piglets. Some Iowa pig farmers are contract finishers which means they are hired by breeders to feed out babies but don’t really own them. We were told that being a contract pig farmer is a good way for young farmers to start their businesses because start up costs are a lot less.

This means, some Iowa pig farmers have all age pigs, some have only baby pigs, some have nursery pigs, some don’t get pigs at all until they’re eight weeks old. Most Iowa pig farmers raise their pigs indoors, but there are niche pig farmers as well. Niche farmers might pasture raise pigs or raise indoor pigs that are fed a non-gmo or organic diet.

Pig farmers are making positive changes to reduce antibiotic usage.

One big concern about pork is often the amount of antibiotics that it takes to keep the pigs healthy. I was very interested to listen to Erin Brenneman of Brenneman Pork, describe how her farms have been able to reduce antibiotics by providing around-the-clock care to the mama sows and baby piggies. Just as human babies need colostrum and breast milk to get off to the best start, piglets do too.

Erin told us that they have 25 people working three different shifts every single day to make sure all of the piglets get colostrum soon after birth. She said more piglets are born around 8 pm than any other time, and simply by having people assist the pigs born overnight, they’ve been able to drastically improve the health of their piggies and reduce antibiotic usage by 30%.

bio security during the pig farm visit #IowaTourDePork

Other changes that have deceased antibiotic usage include improved indoor air quality in the barns as well as increased bio-security measures. I was surprised to learn that farmers shower IN and OUT of their pig barns and wear only barn clothes and shoes in the barns {which they do NOT wear anywhere else).

We did not have to shower in and out during our tour, but we did have to wear two layers of booties and protective coveralls while we were in the nursery barn. We also were not allowed to have had contact with other pigs for several days before our tour. And finally, we learned that the pork industry faces big changes in 2017 when farmers will be required to work more closely with veterinarians for antibiotic prescriptions to reduce usage even further.

Patrick Gent - #iowatourdepork

Pig Farms don’t smell as bad as you might think.

Okay, pig farms definitely don’t smell like roses, but they don’t smell as bad as you might think, either. One of our gracious hosts was Patrick Gent. We sat outside his parents’ home for about an hour learning about their farms, and were very close to two barns and 2,400 pigs. Honestly, we couldn’t smell a thing. I’m sure they get a nice whiff of pig poo every now and again when the wind blows in the right direction, but not on this day.

This super family lives with 2,400 pigs in their backyard and for the most part, we couldn’t tell. By the way, I really liked this family a lot. We met mom, dad, kids, grandparents, and cousins. They let us in their homes, fed us lunch, and joked with us. The Gents reminded me a lot of my husband’s family and I really enjoyed the time we spent with them.

What happens to Mama Sow?

My pressing questions had to do with the mamas. As a mother of four myself, I feel for pregnant and nursing mamas, and I wanted to know about the mama pig’s life. So I asked. We were supposed to have visited one of the Brenneman’s farrowing barns to see the baby piglets and the mamas, but because of a death in the family, we weren’t able to at the last minute. We still met Erin, though, and she told me what I wanted to know.

Mama Pig gestates for three months, three weeks, and three days. She give birth to her piglets in a gestation crate so she can’t roll over and kill her babies, and she lives in this gestation crate until the pigs are weaned at around three to four weeks of age. Mama pig is ready to breed again via artificial insemination five days after the piglets are removed. Mama Pig has on average two and half litters of about 14 piglets per year. After about five litters, her production decreases and she’s turned into less desirable meat products like sausage and bratwurst. And that’s the life of Mama Pig. {I’m glad I’m not a mama pig.}

Food safety recommendations regarding pork have changed.

The last thing I wanted to tell you about pig farming is that the the safety recommendations regarding cooking have changed. In 2011, the USDA decreased the cooking temperature recommendation by 15 degrees. It’s safe to enjoy medium-rare pork and cook pork to 145 degrees followed by a three minute rest. That’s great news for those of us who want to enjoy juicer and more flavorful pork!

Many thanks to Iowa Pork for this opportunity. I’m glad I learned so much about pork production in my state and I hope this information benefits you as well. 

How to Freeze Carrots & 4 More Ways to Preserve Them

I love to freeze carrots I grow in my garden. Frozen, sliced carrots are wonderful to add to sauces and soups all winter long. Here’s not only how to freeze them, but four more ways to preserve carrots as well!

How to freeze fresh carrots, plus 4 more ways to Preserve them too!

How to Preserve a Bumper Crop of Carrots, 5 Ways

1. Freeze Carrots –

slice carrots quickly and easily with a food processor

Freezing carrots is really easy and is my preferred method to preserve this delicious veggie.  To freeze, simply slice the carrots, then blanch them for 1-2 minutes, shock with cold water, pack and freeze. Easy peasy. Especially since I used my 11 cup Cuisinart Food Processor to do the slicing. I froze mine in 2 cup portions and they’ll be great for winter soups or quick side dishes! They’re so sweet and tasty!

slice carrots for freezing

To freeze your own carrots, I recommend using a food processor to slice your clean carrots. I always peel mine too because they look a little straggly coming out of my garden, but if you grow beautiful carrots, feel free to skip the peeling. I absolutely love my Zyliss veggie peeler. I have used many different peelers over the years, but the Zyliss version is my favorite! Such an awesome peeler for less than $10 on Amazon. By the way, if purchase anything from Amazon, you help support this blog at no cost to you and you earn my eternal gratitude!

boil carrots

Bring a pot of water to boil while you prepare your carrots. Once the water has reached a hard boil, add the carrots and bring the water back to boil. Blanch the carrots for two minutes. I really like to use my Cuisinart 8 quart stockpot with strainer. Using a strainer makes draining so easy! I picked up this set at Costco a few years ago and love every pot in the set. You can get the same set on Amazon, too.

cool carrots in ice cold water

Now shock the carrots by draining the hot water and adding ice cold water. It’s super easy to drain them if you cook them in the strainer. Then to drain them again, I simply dump them back in the same strainer they cooked in!

dry carrots as best you can by putting them on a towel

Now dry your carrots as best you can by dumping them on a towel. Make sure all the ice is gone.

measure, bag, and freeze

Measure them out and put them in freezer baggies. I freeze mine in 2 cup portions. Label, freeze (make sure to squeeze as much air as possible out of the baggie), and enjoy your carrots all winter long.

Here are 4 more ways you can preserve carrots too!

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Let the Kids Make their Own Healthy School Lunches!

I’ve already seen the back to school pictures all over facebook, so I know healthy school lunches are on the minds of parents everywhere. Let your kids make their own lunches this year with this list of affordable and healthy organic and/or non-gmo items from Aldi USA! Many thanks to Aldi USA for sponsoring this post. All opinions are mine.Healthy Back to School Lunches your kids can make themselves!

Let the Kids Make their Own Healthy School Lunches 

Back to school Healthy Lunch cart DIY

DIY Lunch Station

I shared a couple weeks ago that my four kids (who have previously been homeschooled) are heading off to school this year. This is a first for me and I would be lying if I said I’m not nervous about the transition already. I’m totally anxious and worried about a lot of things, one being how to prepare healthy lunches for four kids every day!

To make the process easier, we created a DIY lunch station using my lovely IKEA cart and a dedicated lunch bin in the fridge as well! This station will let my kids help pack their own lunches. Some things will still require a little help from me, but it will be pretty easy for the kids to grab and go from the lunch cart and fridge bin. I picked up all the goodies for this lunch cart recently at Aldi. If you guys follow me on this blog, you know I love Aldi and their ever growing selection of organic and non-gmo food items.

Let the Kids Make their Own Healthy School Lunches!

Healthy School Lunches with Items from Aldi

I prefer organic and non-gmo options so they make up most of this list, but Aldi also has an impressive selection of conventional grocery items as well. I also listed the prices I paid, but do keep in mind that they can fluctuate based on location and availability. Also, because we do like occasional sweets (keeping it real!), I also included a few of my favorite sweet items to pack in school lunches too. They aren’t necessarily healthy, but they sure are good and the kids love them!

Fruit / Veggies

  1. Organic strawberries – $2.99 / lb
  2. Organic baby carrots – $1.59 / lb
  3. Organic grapes – $4.89 / 2 lbs
  4. Organic apples – $5.99 / 3 lbs
  5. Mandarins – $2.49 / 3 lbs
  6. Bananas – $0.29 / lb
  7. Organic, unsweetened apple sauce – $1.99 / 24 ounces
  8. Simply Nature Organic frozen berry blend – $2.99 / 12 ounces
  9. Organic spring salad mix – $2.49 / 1 lb clamshell
  10. Simply Nature Organic frozen berry blend – $2.99 / 12 ounces

Dairy / Meat Products

  1. Simply Nature Organic classic hummus – $2.29 / 8 ounces
  2. Simply Nature Organic peppercorn ranch dressing – $1.99 / 12 fluid ounces
  3. Simply Nature Organic salsa – $1.89 / 16 ounces
  4. Never Any! Turkey lunch meat – $3.29 / 7 ounces
  5. Simply Nature Organic white mild cheddar cheese slices – $2.99 / 6 ounces
  6. Mini Babybel cheeses – $2.79 / 4.5 ounces
  7. Simply Nature Organic yogurt – $2.99 / 32 ounces

Breads / Grains / Beans

  1. Organic refried beans – $0.99 / 16 ounce can
  2. Simply Nature Organic corn tortilla chips – $1.99 /11 ounces
  3. Simply Nature Non-gmo verified multigrain crackers – $2.49 /10 ounces
  4. Simply Nature Organic seeded bread – $3.99 / 27 ounces
  5. Simply Nature Organic granola – $2.69 / 11.5 ounces

Pantry Items

  1. Simply Nature Organic peanut butter – $3.89 / 16 ounces
  2. Simply Nature Organic mayonnaise – $2.99 / 15 ounces
  3. Simply Nature Organic peppercorn ranch dressing – $1.99 / 12 fluid ounces
  4. Simply Nature Organic salsa – $1.89 / 16 ounces

Snacky Items

  1. Simply Nature Organic animal fruit snacks – $2.69 / 6 pouches
  2. Simply Nature Organic fruit strips – $4.99 / 21 strips
  3. Simply Nature Organic coconut bars – $3.99 / 4 bars
  4. Simply Nature Organic white cheddar puffs – $1.99 / 4 ounces
  5. Simply Nature Organic squeezable fruit & vegetable blends – $2.29 / 4 pouches
  6. Simply Nature Non-gmo verified fruit &  nut bars – $2.99 / 4 bars
  7. Simply Nature Non-gmo verified no sugar added flavored applesauce – $1.49 / 6 cups
  8. Southern Grove Trail Mix bags – $3.99 / 8 bags
  9. Utz Certified Yogurt filled chocolate bars – $1.99 /
  10. Mamba Candies – $0.69

This is not an exhaustive list of all the organic and non-gmo options Aldi sells, but it should give a you really good idea of what all they have. If you like to eat a healthy diet but haven’t been to Aldi in a while, I hope you check them out! You can connect with Aldi on facebook, twitter, and instagram.

back to school healthy lunch ideas

Ideas for Lunches Using the List Above!

Using the items in the list above, here is a list of “main dish entrees” my kids love in their lunches. In fact, when I put together the lunch for this post, two of my kids said that’s exactly the lunch they want. Every day. LOL!

  • Chips & refried beans & cheese
  • Peanut butter & crackers
  • DIY lunchables with cheese, deli meat & crackers
  • Peanut butter & jelly sandwiches
  • Meat & cheese sandwiches
  • Hummus & cracker & carrots
  • Yogurt parfaits using frozen berries & granola
  • Peanut butter & apples & raisins
  • Green salad with trail mix & ranch dressing

Do you pack your kids’ lunches? I’d love to hear your tips and tricks to simplify the process.

Beginner’s Guide to Growing Garlic

If you’ve never grown garlic, this Beginner’s Guide to Growing Garlic will give you all the tools you need from planting to harvest! And if you have grown garlic before, keep reading. You might learn a new trick. beginner's guide to growing garlic

Welcome to Tuesdays in the Garden! Today I’m sharing tips for growing garlic and my other gardening blogging buddies are also sharing their best tips for growing other veggies as well. Make sure you read to the end of the post for links to their information as well.

Beginner’s Guide to Growing Garlic

Garlic is great plant to grow as it enhances so many dishes with its wonderful flavor and it has a lot of medicinal qualities as well. I’ve been growing garlic for a number of years and love it. It’s one of my favorite plants to grow, because after it’s planted in the fall, it seems like it grows effortlessly in the spring. Since I consider myself to be a lazy gardening (ha!) I like that a lot. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you grow the best garlic ever!

When to plant garlic

You can typically start planting garlic in the fall just after your first light frost for a summer harvest. I’ve planted my garlic in the snow out here in Eastern Iowa as the fall always seems to get away from me. Just don’t wait too long. It’s impossible to plant when the ground is frozen and garlic needs an average of 6 to 10 months to mature.
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