On September 15, 2008, Lynn Becker got the phone call every hog farmer fears.
For months on end, pork producers across the Midwest had been struggling against record-low prices per head, but Becker had taken steps to protect his family’s farm against contractions of the market. He had signed a producer agreement with Hormel Foods, maybe the one company with a recession-proof demand for pork, and he had planted enough of his own corn to sustain his herd for the next year, insulating his operation from skyrocketing feed prices. With another Minnesota winter already in the air, Becker was out walking his fields one last time before starting the harvest. “When I got in and checked the answering machine,” he told me later, “there was a message from Matt Prescott with PETA.” Becker was soft-spoken but bristled with nervous energy. His jitters, together with his work-honed physique and fair hair, made him seem much younger than forty.