CLINTON, NORTH CAROLINA— Cows wander through the rusted remains of a couple of old huts on James Lamb's farm. They're all that's left from the days when he raised hogs outside his home in Clinton, North Carolina.
Those huts used to be where the pigs could get out of the elements. But growing up in the 1980s and 90s, Lamb saw that small-scale farmers had a hard time competing with the big companies.
“They had better consistency, better pork quality, better genetics," Lamb said. "So after college, in ’98, I decided to try and modernize.”
He gave up on his backyard huts and built two industrial-scale hog barns, each of which can hold 1,500 animals at a time.
He got started at an awkward time. His first pigs arrived the day before his wedding.
"My wife, she was kind-of upset that I wasn't prioritizing on what was important. But I told her if she just tell me where to show up and I'll take care of the pig stuff," he said. "So, it worked out."
Large-scale pork production has worked out for American consumers, too.
These highly efficient systems have helped reduce the price of a pork chop by nearly 20 percent since 1998, according to government figures. Lamb says it's a good value.
“Producing the way I do is a better pork quality for the money,” he said.
Intensive livestock production methods are gaining favor around the world, and many experts say that’s a good thing. The demand for meat is growing, but the land, water and feed required to produce it are limited.
“If we are to produce within the constraints that we are facing today, efficiency, I think, is key,” said Carolyn Opio, a livestock expert with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
But efficiency comes with downsides. The waste from thousands of confined animals can pollute waterways and produce greenhouse gases.
Antibiotics and other chemicals in the animals’ diets raise concerns with some health experts. And some feel conditions are inhumane.
Back to basics
So today a growing number of people are returning to small-scale farming.
People like Kevin Summers, who raises a small herd of heritage-breed hogs in Amissville, Virginia. Summers was not raised on a farm.
"I was a city boy," he said. "My cousins all laughed at me for being a city boy and they can't get over the fact that I'm raising pigs and chickens and stuff."
But he's part of a movement that rejects industrial-scale food production.
“In order to feed the world, I think this is a better way," he said. "It’s a cleaner way. It’s a more humane way.”
More Americans today want to know where their food comes from. And they like the personal touch that Summers gives his hogs.
“I can see the entire process unfold before my eyes and know that they had a good life and were healthy and happy,” he said.
The hogs feast on bruised apples and old pumpkins that would otherwise get thrown away, which cuts down on food waste. And, Summers notes, small scale means less pollution.
But it also means higher prices.
Summers says it’s still possible to meet global demand this way. “It would just involve people making the choice to buy this kind of food and say that, ‘I care about something other than just the cost.’”
The choice between low-cost and efficient, and expensive but eco-friendly, is one that more and more people around the world are making with the growing demand for meat, milk and eggs.