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Slop Swap
By Marisa Helms
July 27, 2000
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There are some pretty happy pigs living in east central Minnesota. A hog farmer in Cedar feeds his animals "designer slops" as part of a recycling contract with the Mall of America. Each day, he transports almost eight tons of food waste from some very fancy restaurants. Mainstreet Radio visited the farm to see how the "slop swap" works.

ON THIS HOT, WINDY DAY near the feedlots on Kurt Johnsons' farm, the air is heavy and... sweet. Some of the pigs rest in the back of the feedlot, but most are busy at work feasting on this day's Mall of America smorgasbord.

To human eyes, it doesn't look very appetizing. It's a big, pinkish, soupy stew. But pick your favorite cliche... high on the hog... hog heaven... here they all fit and each day the menu changes.

"It's everything. It's vegetables, meat, everything that people don't eat on their plates, or kitchens or anything like that," Johnson says.

These hogs in Cedar enjoy food from some of the best restaurants in the Mall of America. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)

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Vegetables and meat?

"Potatoes, and onions and lettuce and steaks and lobster, and everything."

Heads of cauliflower and green peppers float to the top of this swampy heap. It looks to be about a foot deep, all right there in the feedlot. The hogs are swimming in the stuff, picking and choosing their favorites - which is just about everything. Squid is especially desired. Johnson says the only thing his pigs won't eat are orange peels. He says it's not unusual for a fight to break out over some especially delectable morsels.

"Somebody probably had something that somebody had that wanted. Somebody had a piece of seafood or something that the other one wanted, and they get to fighting about it."

Johnson says he and his family have been recycling food waste since 1987. It's become the driving force behind the way he runs his farm - dubbed "Second Harvest Farms."

Johnson says the main benefit from recycling food waste is that he doesn't have to use his land to grow corn to feed his pigs. And it's ecologically more sound.

"You save land that way, there's less going to the landfill, or the incinerator, and it was a way for us to get feed for the hogs," Johnson said.

The Mall of America's recycling supervisor Lydell Newby contracted with Johnson about five years ago because of the farmer's committment to the "second harvest" philosophy. Newby says recycling is the best way to deal with some of the 800 tons of solid waste generated by the mall each month.

"We subsidize his gas for coming down here and getting it. And that in turn, leads to less expense for us, versus just putting it into our normal waste stream - either landfilling it or finding a way to get it to a compost center. This is actually the most economical way out of the choices," Newby said.

Newby says while not all malls have such extensive recycling programs as the Mall of America, he's often contacted by those who want to use it as their waste management model. Newby says there are also legal reasons for the country's largest shopping center to be conscious about its waste.

"Mall of America, along with other manufacturers of waste here in the Twin Cities and in the country, you're responsible for the waste you're generating. So if things are getting into landfills and things are getting into places that shouldn't be there and may contaminate places areas like that, when that gets found out years and years to come, that all comes back to the responsibility of the person who generated that waste."

Newby says he's already exceeded his goal to recycle 60 percent of the mall's waste, and will set that goal even higher.

The more food waste recyling, the better says hog farmer Kurt Johnson. He's tripling the size of his operation - to 2,500 hogs by the fall. And like his grandfather before him, Johson says he plans on staying in the hog business until he retires. He says his Mall of America-fed hogs are the happiest tail-wagging pigs in the state.