When Americans think of farms, they probably imagine something similar to Bill Ellison’s.

His farm has sheep herded by dogs; cattle and horses; pastures and crop fields; pigs lying in the shade of a sagging red barn with a slow-running river running nearby.

Ellison dresses the part, too. If overalls and a seed-company hat is the farmer’s uniform, Ellison wears the home alternate: short-sleeved button-down shirt, usually open to the third button, tucked into jeans with patched knees and work boots. His belt holds a leather pouch duct-taped together and filled with pliers, screwdrivers and other miscellaneous tools.

Their farm used to be, like the majority of Iowa farms still are, dedicated to corn and soybeans. And while Ellison and Lois Pavelka have brought animals back to their land, they’ve watched the neighbors give up livestock. It’s easier to grow plants than raise animals. The income from renting farmland is more stable than the income from pasturing on it.

His pigs, bred from a mixture of old breeds with thick layers of fat to help weather cold Midwestern winters, roam outdoors. They eat what they can find in the dirt, supplemented by grains and grasses grown in the fields down the hill from their pens. They actually procreate through sexual intercourse.

But unless you buy meat at one of the three eastern Iowa farmers’ markets where Pavelka sells pork and lamb out of the trunk of her tan Camry sedan, you’ve never tasted the farm’s harvest.

Pavelka, now working on the farm fulltime and retired from nursing, can’t hide her need to nurture. There were the four lambs in a makeshift pen against the garage to whom she dutifully bottle-fed expensive lamb formula until they were healthy enough to join the herd. The barn cats aren’t required to hunt vermin to live, instead eating a daily ration of Meow Mix. She’s usually excited when a new litter of soft, fuzzy and warm piglets is born (“It’s the only time they’re cute”) but this time she wasn’t.

So many piglets of the newest litter were stillborn, the farmer had stopped counting the corpses. From the first of the 12 sows to give birth, just four piglets survived. Ellison didn’t know what was killing his pigs. Pavelka would click her tongue and shake her head and Ellison, though he wouldn’t admit it, was discouraged.

Over the next month, half of the piglets were stillborn and two of the sows died. Others refused to eat and were left emaciated. A vet told Ellison by phone he thought it was porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, or PRRS, and that there was little he could do except save what pigs he could.

Farms are as much places of death as they are places of life. And as much as the couple felt sorry for the dead piglets, they still needed to attend to business. Every corpse was damaged merchandise.

Ellison and Pavelka were lucky that pigs weren’t their sole source of income. If a farmer only raises pigs, especially if he raises them in close quarters, PRRS threatens his entire operation. Though they had fewer pigs than they had expected, Ellison and Pavelka had other unaffected livestock that they could sell.

Even with threats like this to farms dedicated to single species, since the 1970s, pork production has steadily moved away from family farms. Think of it as the Wal-Mart effect, but instead of local shops being undercut by big discounters, small farms spend more to raise pigs  (because they can’t take advantage of economies of scale) but can then only sell that pig for the same price as a scaled-up producer.

So, many of these smaller farms have switched from raising livestock to growing corn and soybeans. (In most cases, these crops ultimately feed the animals housed in so-called central animal feeding operations.) And as Iowa’s farmers age, they find it easier to sit in air-conditioned combine cabs than deal with the physical work of moving stubborn pigs around, putting rings into porcine noses to prevent damage to the pastures, and castrating the young males.

Even with myriad reasons to change his ways, Ellison refuses. “If you’re going to be a farmer,” he says, “be a farmer.”