Friday, April 27, 2012

The Circle of Life

This week again illustrates the circular journey I have embarked upon as a farmer who raises livestock.  If you eat meat, especially that which is sustainably produced and harvested, this post will give you an inkling of the life a farmer must live in order to get that pork chop from the pig in the pasture to your plate.

Yes, the time came to take Jake to visit Mr. Horst. Eloise got a pass on this one so she can try her hand at a litter of piglets this summer as I've had a most wonderful time in my foray with swine. I hadn't expected to get a gilt when Brook Miller of North Mountain Pastures dropped off a pair of weaners from Mark Fisher over at Otterbein Acres. {note: a gilt is an unbred female pig, kind of like heifers with bovines and a weaner is a piglet no longer suckling on its momma} But there she was and I had the choice to ultimately send her along on the sausage wagon or try my hand at some Painted Hand Porkers.

Pigs elicit a kind of love affair with people who raise them. I've watched as Cedarbrook Farm David Ober's face lights up when he's talking about his pigs or how a normally quiet and laid back Forrest Pritchard of Smith Meadows becomes positively animated when asked about his porcine pals. And who else, but Bev Eggleston--a Joel Salatin protege--can pull off fashionably wearing a swine stole for his photo shoot in Gourmet MagazineThere's no doubt in my mind of the deep love and appreciation these fellow farmers feel for their hogs.

Like all my livestock endeavors, I started with a pair. Given the reality that living animals sometimes die, especially due to "operator error", I decided to make sure I could actually get the pork from my meadow to mouth before investing any more resources into a new venture.

One of my biggest concerns with adding pigs was the possibility of having them get loose. For most of my fellow pig pals, this is not much of an issue as their properties do not directly interface with residential neighbors and the only damage caused would be self-contained. But even out here in the middle of all this agriculturally zoned land, there are pockets of residential real estate often owned by people who are bat shit crazy about their fastidious lawns and flower beds, not to mention those who are insanely petrified of livestock. If an occasional errant chicken who crosses the road is cause for repeated calls to the local township supervisors for fear of an avian attack, surely pigs on the prowl would be cause to call out the National Guard.

But I needed my gardens tilled and the last person who borrowed my rototiller brought it back broken with an unsubstantiated offer to have it repaired. Two pigs were cheaper and easier than a new motor. {Note to self: do not lend equipment to anyone unless you want to clean it, repair it or replace it}

If it is one pet peeve I have about pastured pork that has always raised my hackles are those who keep their pigs on a dirt lot, feed them garbage and call them pastured. Even pigs on pasture eating moldy bread, stale cereal and high-fructose laden processed crap, I consider circumspect. Sure, pigs are nature's garbage disposals, but there's a big difference in quality between bacon that comes from a well-fed pig versus well, a fed pig.

How did my pigs eat?  LOTS of produce from neighboring farms and market leftovers, including delights from Toigo Orchards, Garner's Produce and Musachio Produce Farm. In addition to mounds of fresh, ripe produce, the pigs were also given 'leftovers' from all my custom butchering and whey from a local creamery.  Ok, so they did have some stale tortillas and chips after the Labor Day Goat Roast, but for the most part, these pigs have been paleo.

And it's true what is said about pigs being smart, like dogs. They are definitely happy to see you, especially when they're hungry. The high-pitched squeals of delight truly rival the deep chested barks of any mastiff. They come when they're called and will 'sit' for a treat like an ear of sweet corn. They love to have their bellies scratched. Given enough space, pigs will run full bore (or would that be boar?) in a game of chase, twisting and banking with speed and agility certain to shock anyone having never witnessed pigs in the pasture before. 

Pigs are also clean, the cleanest on the farm, in fact. When they were at first kept in hoop frame, it wasn't long before the presence of pig through the open window became evident. While this tidbit of information might fall under the realm of TMI (too much information), it's a very real issue of sanitation in modern society as well as the central issue surrounding industrial agriculture---shit.  Pig poop and people poop have identical odors when the diets are the exact same foods from the same sources. When pigs are fed garbage or loads of grain and kept in confined areas, that's when things begin to stink and disease runs rampant, hence the constant need for constant medication. The same conditions occur in disaster areas, refugee camps and third world countries where there is little or no sewage disposal for human waste. 'Nuff said.

But back to pig poo...

When the Painted Hand Porker pair were put out on a half acre pasture, they chose to do their business at the furthest opposite corner from their shelter, leaving their bedding unsoiled unlike the goats, the bovines, the poultry and even the horse. And you know what? They didn't stink! One of my non-farming neighbors who had great apprehensions when the pigs first arrived commented at the end of summer that although they saw and heard the pig pair daily, not once did they ever smell them. Score one for sustainable agriculture. 

By spring, the pigs had completely rooted up their half acre pasture leading me to move them elsewhere so their old home in which they so lovingly prepared the soil could be re-seeded with oats, rye, clovers, alfalfa and chicory.  Moving them was as simple as taking them for a walk as they followed me closely hoping for some of the corn kernels rattling in the small white bucket I carried. No drama, no stress--just me and the pigs. 

Ah, but how they had grown and market season was rapidly approaching. Wanting to have Painted Hand Pork for the opening day of farmers markets, I scheduled Jake's date with fate. It seems like every time livestock need to be taken to the butcher, the weather is horrendous. Waking to the sound of pouring rain, I dreaded the deed that lay before me even more. 

In truth, I wasn't really looking forward to harvesting my hog as I had grown quite fond of him. Memories of  Mrs. Smyers reading Charlotte's Web to the class out loud in second grade echoed in my mind, but there was no spider spinning Some Pig in the cobwebs on the barn door.  

Being a one-woman show here on the farm is most challenging on days when animals need to be loaded on to the stock trailer. I've configured fencing, gates and paddocks to best aid in the process and keep it as stress free as possible, not just for the animals, but for myself as well. That's one of the main reasons I've opted for smaller livestock as it is much easier for me to push an animals that weighs 300 pounds or less on to the trailer than to fight with a thousand pound steer with no intentions of loading up. Last year a very large calf dragged me throughout the neighborhood before I got him roped, tied off to a post and called for help as I stood there bloody, bruised and gasping for breath. So much for letting them get a little bigger.

After backing the stock trailer up to the gate and getting a small bucket of corn, I entered the pigs' pen. Effortlessly, both followed me right into the trailer hopping up with grace I did not expect from 250 pound critters that are slung low to the ground. The appeared oblivious to their surroundings. Instead of trying to separate the pigs and leave Eloise behind, I left both in the trailer figuring it would be easier to separate them at Horst's with the experience of those who handle pigs on a weekly basis. I'd simply bring Eloise back to the farm and  unload her back into the pig paddock. After all, she'd need to get used to a little traveling here and there as we would need to make a trip soon for her to visit a most handsome Red Wattle Boar a few miles down the road. 

Anyone who has ever known me understands my affinity toward trucks with, how shall I say it? Personality. Big Stinky rattled down the road for the better part of twenty years and 489,058 miles before giving up. Big Ugly, too, belches diesel fumes but at a steady rate of 25 mpg. With fuel pushing $4.25 a gallon, the idea of paying money for a less fuel efficient truck which I only use for hauling livestock to the processor just isn't a sound idea. I keep the old beast well maintained and when it does break down, it's not too terribly expensive to fix--no turbo, no four-wheel drive, no electronics. Having just been at the mechanic's last month for a water pump and inspection, I was feeling pretty good going down the road....until I began to lose power. Oh no, not in downtown Chambersburg going around the circle! Ah, the engine revved again and all was well. 

Just passing the sign telling me I had eleven miles to the state line, I was confident I'd make it and then the engine just stopped. I coasted safely to the side of the road and tried to turn over the engine again. Nothing. I called my mechanic. "Sounds like it's out of fuel," he said. Having just put $119 in both tanks on Saturday evening and only driving back to the farm, I knew that was impossible even though the fuel gauge said empty (it's never worked since I got the truck and would be darn expensive to replace). 

Panicked, I called Horst's explaining my situation. "Call us when you get back on the road to let us know if you're going to make it by noon or not," they asked of me. When I inquired if I did not make it if I could take him the following week, they informed me it would be a few weeks until there would be a slot for him. My heart sank at the thought of not having pork for the opening day of markets. 

Despite having Platinum AAA service, I knew there was no way I could get the trailer down to Horst's before being towed home so I called for roll-back service, sent the truck to the mechanic and stood in the pouring rain while going through my list of other farmers with trucks I knew could tow the trailer. Given the crappy weather, a local produce purveyor was able to ride to my rescue in time to get Jake to the ball and Eloise back to the castle before the stock trailer turned into a pumpkin.

I'm not going to lie about it--taking the animals I've so lovingly raised to be processed is emotionally draining. Some days I'm elated to unload them and shoo them up the ramp at Horst's. Other times, due to their obnoxious behavior they don't even make it that far. When a regular ethnic customer showed up at the farm one day looking needing a goat for a big family party I offered him two smaller goats for the same price. Why? They had no respect for the electric fence and were always popping through because, yes, the grass is always greener on the other side. My running joke about having four-legged employees is if they don't behave or perform, I don't have to fire them...just eat them. But sometimes there are the ones I hate to see go and Jake was one of them.  

Knowing that in two days I had to make yet another trip to Horst's to deliver calves and goat for their date with destiny, I called my mechanic.

"What's the damage? Will I be back on the road by Wednesday?" I held my breath hoping for good news. 

"You were out of fuel. Both tanks were bone dry," he replied. Diesel theft is a regular occurrence around here, especially since the cost surpassed $4/gallon. Instead of a repair bill, I put the money toward once again, filling the tanks. 

Seeing as my mechanic is also my township supervisor, he melted all my frustrations into a puddle of laughter by suggesting that I better protect my property by getting more attack chickens. I'll have to take him some pork chops. 

Wednesday's trip to Horst's was relatively uneventful as the animals loaded right up when presented with the lure of a little sweet feed. All the calves and goats were on the trailer in less than a minute! Again, the bittersweet feelings stuck in my throat as I first ran the goats up the ramp and on to the scale. They had all been born on the farm, as had their mothers and their mothers' mothers. And it seemed like only last week I had picked up the gangly little bull calves in the back of the Subaru from the Certified Organic Amish dairy farmer a few miles down the road. But here they were destined to become scallopini, osso buco, chops, legs, shoulders and an assortment of other cuts, organ meats and sausages.

But I knew they had all lived well for their time here on this earth and given the gratitude of my customers, I also knew they would be dearly enjoyed as they made their journey from the pasture to the plate. 

While it is true that most of my bull calves are purchased from local dairy farms when they are a few days old, occasionally one comes from the offspring of my personal dairy cow, Emma. With only two functioning squirters, I can easily handle a few gallons of fresh milk a day to turn into butter, cheese, creme fraiche and kefir. Any leftovers are greatly appreciated by the calves, dogs, cats, chickens and yes, the pigs.

So after a few very physically and psychologically draining days, Emma surprised me with a set of very healthy and hot red twin calves restoring my faith again in the circle of life in which we all must participate in order to keep food--good, healthy, sustainably-produced food on our plates. 


  1. Great article Sandy. Bless you for taking on all of this and making it work. You are an inspiration!

  2. Thanks for a nice long one. Like to see your business work and grow. The Circle of Life is the daily story, I'm learning.