Pork Fact Book 2002-2003: History of the Pig and the U.S. Pork Industry

November 23, 2010 Print Friendly and PDF

The pig dates back 40 million years to fossils, which indicate that wild pig-like animals roamed forests and swamps in Europe and Asia. By 4900 B.C. pigs were domesticated in China, and were being raised in Europe by 1500 B.C.

On the insistence of Queen Isabella, Christopher Columbus took eight pigs on his voyage to Cuba in 1493. But it is Hernando de Soto who could be dubbed “the father of the American pork industry.” He landed with America’s first 13 pigs at Tampa Bay, Florida in 1539. Native Americans reportedly became very fond of the taste of pork, resulting in some of the worst attacks on the de Soto expedition. By the time of de Soto’s death three years later,his pig herd had grown to 700 head,not including the ones his troops had consumed, those that ran away and became wild pigs (and the ancestors of today’s feral pigs or razorbacks), and those given to the Native Americans to keep the peace. The pork industry in America had begun. Pig production spread throughout the new colonies. Hernando Cortez introduced hogs to New Mexico in 1600, and Sir Walter Raleigh brought sows to Jamestown Colony in 1607. Semi-wild pigs conducted such rampages in New York colonists’ grain fields that every owned pig 14 inches high had to have a ring in its nose. On Manhattan Island, a long solid wall was constructed on the northern edge of the colony to control roaming herds of pigs. This area is now known as Wall Street.

The pig population of Pennsylvania colony numbered in the thousands by 1660. As the seventeenth century closed, the typical farmer owned four or five pigs, supplying salt pork and bacon for his table with surpluses sold as barreled pork. Finishing pigs on Native American corn became popular after becoming a common practice in Pennsylvania.

After the Revolutionary war, pioneers began heading west, taking their indispensable pigs with them. A wooden crate filled with young pigs was often hung from the axles of prairie schooners. As western herds grew, the need for pork processing facilities became apparent. Packing plants began to spring up in major cities. Pigs were first commercially slaughtered in Cincinnati, which became known as Porkopolis. More pork was packed there than any other place in the mid-1800s.

Moving pigs to market in the 1850s was no small undertaking. “Drovers” herded their pigs along trails which later developed into railroad routes. Between 40,000 and 70,000 pigs were driven from Ohio to eastern markets in any one year. Drivers, the drover’s hired hands, each managed up to 100 hogs. The herds moved five to eight miles a day and covered distances up to 700 miles.

The refrigerated railroad car transformed the meat industry when it was introduced shortly after the Civil War. It enabled slaughtering operations to be centralized nearer points of production instead of near points of consumption. Large “terminal” markets with railroad access developed in major cities such as Chicago, Kansas City, St. Joseph, and Sioux City. Large packing plants were located adjacent to these stockyards. Live pigs were shipped via railroad to the markets and pork was shipped, again mainly by rail, to consumers nationwide.

As a result of these transportation developments, the pork industry relocated to the upper Midwest where ample amounts of feedgrains were produced. The “Corn Belt” became known as the “Hog Belt” as well. In fact, the states of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana and Missouri held the top six spots in state rankings for many years. Iowa is still the largest pork producing state.

The 1980s and 1990s have seen major technological developments in the pork industry, some of which have allowed production to grow dramatically in states not known for pig production. The most notable growth has occurred in North Carolina, which is now the second largest pork producing state. Despite inherently more expensive feed, North Carolina producers became cost competitive by using pigs with the genetic capability for higher reproductive efficiency and enhanced lean muscle growth (and resulting better feed efficiency), capturing economies of size, and developing pig raising methods that controlled diseases and, therefore, improved production efficiency. Many producers in other areas have now adopted these same methods.

Today the United States is one of the world’s leading pork-producing countries. The U.S. is the third largest exporter, trailing only long-time world leader Denmark and Canada. U.S. production accounts for about 10% of the total

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.