ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now we're going to hear about pigs. If you want to find them, go to Iowa. It's the largest pork producer in the country. The ratio of pigs to people in Iowa is about 7-to-1. And that is where we find our colleague Melissa Block today. She's on a road trip around the country, talking to people about what's important in their lives for a series that we call Our Land.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: We've made it to our final Independence on this leg of our road trip. We started out in Independence, Kan., went to Independence, Mo., and now we're in Independence, Iowa. And we're about to go spend some time today with a pig farmer named Ryan Kress.
KADING KRESS: One passed away.
RYAN KRESS: Here we are. Give me a kiss. You have a good day, OK?
BLOCK: Ryan's day starts in darkness, well before sunrise, as he gets 5-year-old daughter Kading on the bus to preschool. After he says goodbye to his wife Dawn and younger daughter Reagan, he climbs up into his Ford F-250 pickup and heads off to check on the pigs.
KRESS: A lot of the work and things that we have to do aren't real glorious, and you're going to get dirt under your fingernails, and it's not cut out for everybody. But it's what we do, and we're proud of it.
BLOCK: We're in Northeast Iowa. It snowed overnight.
KRESS: Cornfields on your - both sides of you. That's kind of the case it is on most roads in Iowa.
BLOCK: And as we head down the icy, rutted road...
KRESS: Bald eagle.
BLOCK: Bald eagle flew right across the road there.
KRESS: They're pretty common around here, but it's still a pretty amazing sight just to see them.
BLOCK: Ryan Kress is 35. He studied finance in college, figured he might be an investment broker. But when a farmer back home said, hey, do you want to join a partnership in a grain and livestock farm, he jumped. Now they market 25,000 pigs a year, raising them from three weeks up to market weight, 280 pounds. At the first barn we visit, I climb into a disposable biosecurity suit and plastic booties to keep from spreading any infection. Ryan's going to check on the youngest pigs, about 8 weeks old.
KRESS: All right, here we go.
BLOCK: Oh, my goodness. That is a whole lot of pigs.
There are 1,300 pigs in this barn - about 35 pounds each, pink snouts and ears, white coats.
KRESS: This is a nice group of pigs. When I get a group of pigs like this, I say they're cookie-cutter pigs. You know, they're pretty much all the same. We take a lot of pride in a nice group of pigs like this, and it's what we strive for.
BLOCK: Ryan moves through the pigs, checking for any that show signs of weakness or respiratory distress.
KRESS: I try to make eye contact with every animal every day.
BLOCK: Winter can be hard on a young pig, and pretty soon he notices one lying on the ground. It's not moving.
KRESS: There's one that didn't make it.
BLOCK: Ryan scoops the piglet up and carries it out to the compost pile. Eventually, it'll be returned to the fields as fertilizer.
KRESS: It's not one of the fun parts of the job, but it's natural, right?
BLOCK: Now, a word here about smell. For the uninitiated, it is pungent in these barns. Ryan's used to it, of course, and he can tell each age of pig has its own distinct odor.
KRESS: My wife and I kind of laugh because she's gotten to the point where she can predict which group of pigs I've been in just by the way I smell.
BLOCK: And back home, he has his own separate laundry machines to clean his work clothes. Ryan Kress says he's not a super political guy, but he's excited to see changes under Donald Trump. He'd like to see fewer regulations on farming. He points out that agriculture needs immigrants for its labor force. And he wishes Trump hadn't been so quick to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He tells me pork producers were looking forward to a huge export opportunity in Asian markets.
KRESS: I read the other night it could've been the biggest deal maker for the pork industry in history. And hopefully he'll come up with something better or as good. I don't know.
BLOCK: We've arrived at the second barn. An American flag flies out front. These are older, bigger pigs, about 120 pounds, except one who's tiny.
What's that little guy doing in there?
KRESS: He's just a runt, you know?
BLOCK: That's Wilbur.
KRESS: That's Wilbur. That's Wilbur.
BLOCK: Ryan Kress can't imagine living anywhere else but right here in Buchanan County, Iowa. And he loves what he does. The hours are long. The work is hard and dirty. But there's nobody telling him what to do, and there's pride in a solid day's labor.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIG SNORTING)
BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Independence, Iowa.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES COTTON SONG, "COTTON IN THE KITCHEN")
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