Steve Chapman

Peggy Pate, Johnson's sister, has two animal science degrees from the University of Illinois and takes a hands-on role with the pigs, checking to see that they're healthy and well fed. "I'm in the pens at least twice a day," she says.

A slim woman wearing a T-shirt commemorating the 1994 Cornfest 10K, she's dwarfed by the hogs, which weigh in around 450 pounds. But she says the animals are calmer than they were in gestation stalls. Back then, she says, "I always wore earplugs to block the noise."

It's helpful to Pate when the radio transmitter indicates a pig hasn't eaten, which is sometimes a sign of illness and sometimes a sign that an ear tag has fallen off. She uses a computer to adjust the feed for specific hogs that she sees losing weight or gaining too much.

Does raising pigs more humanely cost more? Johnson reports that expenses are a little higher with the new methods, but his customers, which include Whole Foods and Fork in the Road Foods, are willing to pay a premium for his pork.

The effect is small compared to changes in the cost of feed, which adds up to 70 percent of his expenses and has doubled over the past decade. The returns are enough to make it worthwhile. "We'd do it over again," he says.

Others may want to learn from his example. Nine states have passed measures to outlaw gestation stalls. In conservative, Republican Arizona, 61 percent of voters voted for the ban.

A lot of Americans are not entirely comfortable with how farm animals are treated to maximize output and minimize costs in food production, and they are hopeful there is a better way. As it happens, there is. At the Johnson-Pate farm, there is something new in the air, and it's not the smell of pigs.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate