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Iowa Hog Heaven

Two weeks ago, I headed out to Iowa to photograph and report an upcoming NPR multimedia story about the wind business in the Hawkeye State. As a side trip, I drove over to the Wilson family farm outside Paullina to shoot pictures for Howard Berkes' radio stories about rural retirement and health care. What a treat it turned out to be!

Dan Wilson, his wife, Lorna, their sons and daughters and a daughter-in-law all help raise all sorts of animals and produce on their 640-acre farm. All of it organic. Which, it turns out, is a pretty unique thing in Iowa, where almost all the corn grown is genetically modified and almost all the pigs raised are cooped up in what are essentially giant pig factories. The Wilsons raise pigs, sheep, chickens and cattle and grow corn, oats, triticale and other mixed crops for the animals to graze on. They also enjoy the company of a small herd of cats and at least two dogs.

But Dan's favorites are the pigs. He took me out to his pig pasture, where he currently has about 150 sows — many of which had recently given birth to litters of little piglets in their little lean-to shacks that punctuated the landscape. He says this is his favorite way to raise pigs — letting them forage in the grass for the alfalfa and clover and thistle buds they like to munch on. He supplements their diet with organic cornmeal and vitamins.

My visit to the Wilson farm made me think a lot about what I eat every day. And how it matters who grows what I eat and how they do it. Dan recommended the documentary King Corn to me, which I dutifully watched. I've been avoiding corn-fed beef and non-organic ham ever since. And though I don't know much about U.S. farm policy, I do know that whatever it is, I hope it's helping to keep places like the Wilsons' farm in business.

John is a staff photographer and multimedia producer at NPR.