Racial Profiling for Pigs?

Farmers and ranchers—including Ted Nugent—are boiling mad about a new law that classifies their domesticated pigs as ‘feral.’

Magalicsa piglets
Under a new Michigan law, the straight tails on these Mangalitsa piglets means they could be shot on sight. (Photo: funkystock/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Last Saturday afternoon, retired Air Force veteran Mark Baker whisked his wife and eight children to a safe location away from their Marion, Michigan, farm, and spent a stressful night awaiting a raid by state officials. Baker had been tipped off by a fellow farmer that agents were planning on eradicating his herd of heritage pigs.

Why? Because as of April 1, a controversial ruling by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) transformed the 13 Russian sows Baker breeds with his heritage Mangalitsa boar into an invasive species. He was suddenly in violation of the law and at risk for having the hogs on his farm wiped out.

“I couldn’t leave the place. I’m a nervous wreck right now,” Baker tells TakePart.

According to the Michigan DNR website, the state is home to 1,000-3,000 feral pigs, which officials have deemed a problem, pointing to concerns over disease and damage they can do to natural habitat and to local crops. At the heart of the controversy is the language used in the DNR ruling that identifies certain traits that would be used to classify feral swine, regardless of which side of the fence the pigs lived. These include dark coloration or striped coat patterns in juveniles, erect ears, and straight tails. Pigs that fit the description are now considered an invasive species and can be shot on sight.

Calls and emails to Michigan’s DNR special projects coordinator, Shannon Hanna, for an interview for this story were not returned.

Unfortunately for Baker, plenty of those descriptions—and only one is needed—apply to his domesticated herd and to pigs found on game ranches, including rocker Ted Nugent’s Sunrize Acres. Nugent is outraged by the order, and is adamant there is no raging feral pig problem in Michigan"The bizarre language obviously created by bizarre bureaucrats attempts to identify pigs intentionally raised and contained by fences under human control as ‘feral’ and ‘invasive’, which is simply wrong and impossible," Nugent tells TakePart in an email.

“Some of Michigan's ag community is clearly behind this, and by all logical reasons, one can only guess why. The ridiculous claims that thousands of pigs are running around MI spreading disease is a boldface lie,” he writes.

Indeed, according to the DNR, only 340 feral pigs were counted in 72 of the state’s 83 counties, and 286 were killed, compared to 140,000 wild deer that were taken by hunters. Nationwide, it’s estimated that there are 4 million feral pigs at large, with a heavy concentration in warmer states like Texas, California, and Florida.

Some, like attorney Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, say another agenda is at play here, and points the finger straight at big ag.

“[The DNR] is an agency that regulates hunters and fishers, and all of a sudden they’re regulating farmers?” says Kennedy. “The Michigan Pork Producers have gotten assurances that they would not be affected by this, or they wouldn’t have lobbied for it like they have. In effect, it’s an attack on small farms. It’s prying away market share through the force of law.”

Sam Hines, executive vice president of the Michigan Pork Producers Association does not deny his organization’s involvement in the DNR ruling. The state’s hog producers ship 10,000-25,000 pigs weekly across state lines to places like Indiana or Ohio for finishing.

Our organization is very involved in this. It’s one of the few issues that has the potential to shut down the Michigan Pork Industry,” he says. 

Hines says they’ve trapped a number of feral pigs and have tested them for diseases, including pseudorabies. 

“It’s not something that humans would get, but it’s devastating to some species of livestock. If that virus gets disseminated to the domestic or commercial swine herd in this state, we would become quarantined. It would be economically devastating to our producers,” he said.

But so far, he admits, the transfer of pseudorabies from feral pigs to domesticated hogs has not occurred.

“This is a serious threat to all of agriculture. There are whole hosts of states waiting to pursue it. In fact, Pennsylvania last week announced an executive order to do just what we did in Michigan,” he says.

What’s happening in Michigan certainly could have ramifications for other states, including Kansas and New York. That worries Rep. Frank Niceley, chairman of the Tennessee House Agricultural Committee, and prompted him to reach out to Kevin Daley, chairman of the Michigan House Agriculture Committee. 

“When one state passes something, other states pick up on it, and it seems to be a push from the commercial swine producers to eradicate these old varieties of hogs,” Niceley says.

For Mark Baker, the swine on his small farm mean he’s currently committing a felony. That’s hogwash, he says.

“What this comes down to is the food cartel. They want control of the food,” says Baker.

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