Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Pig Farming--It's Not as Glamorous as You'd Think!
We folks at The F.A.R.M. raised pigs, this year. Five of them. Two pigs for us, and three for friends who appreciate home-grown pork, from pigs which were raised with kindness, and which we allowed to roam in the field—to root, and run, and be pigs.
My two youngest kids grumbled their way through the summer.
“Why don’t we just BUY our pork? I hate feeding pigs! Why do I have to feed them sometimes, when I didn’t want them, to begin with?”
The same arguments are used when we raise beef, or chickens or turkeys. Reluctant farmers, are my teens. But Josie and Eli are meat eaters. It’s only right--in my opinion--that they appreciate where that meat comes from. Meat is not just some magically appearing commodity which comes from a freezer, or from a cooler at the local grocery store.
Our animals live good lives, while they are here at our homestead. That’s important to me. It is also essential that I know what is going into the bodies of my loved ones, as much as I am able to know.
So, we spent the summer feeding pigs, morning and night. And in between feedings, they ran and played and slept and rooted in the field, turning over the ground underneath alders which we hoped they would kill. They did.
Dual purpose critters.
But as a farmer, there is an end to the twice daily chores associated with raising livestock for food. When autumn arrives, there comes the harvest. Of vegetables, and of meat.
For some fortuitous reason (on his part) it seems that—more often than not--Mr. Grumbles has to put in an appearance at work on the days when the animals must be transported to the butcher shop. That happenstance means that I am the pig herder. The cattle herder. The reluctant--but committed--farmer.
This year, rather than hire a fellow with a cattle trailer to come collect the pigs, I decided to save money for all of us and take them to the butcher’s, myself. That meant driving to North Anson to hook onto a borrowed horse trailer, and driving back to the Township. It meant backing said trailer in between the two gate posts with precision. Before going to work that morning, I’d called the five swine into their stall and shut them in, so that when I got home from the office, I could open the gate to the field without fear that the pigs would escape.
I drove home with the attendant horse trailer, traveling across some awesome washboards. Those well-known ruts in our dirt road are common-place, but I have not often driven over them with a trailer attached to the Reece hitch on the bumper of my truck. The spectacle seen in my rearview mirror caused me to slow down—a little. A trailer jigging at a 45 degree angle from the truck pulling it is ample hint that, perhaps, the driver should use more caution than usual when journeying across those well-known heaves and dips.
I had a crew on stand-by for the “Great Pig Herding Event” which was planned for that afternoon. Three of the six friends for whom we’d been raising pigs were ready and waiting for my call for assistance. But I didn’t want them to arrive too soon. I’ve had little experience backing a trailer, and I didn’t want to have witnesses to my incompetence, should I fail to hit my target between the posts of the open gate.
In hindsight, I wish they’d been there. It’s not often I do something which would qualify as ‘bragging material’, but I reversed and positioned that horse trailer perfectly, the very first time. Eighteen inches from the post on the driver’s side, twenty-four inches from the post on the passenger’s side. Wow. I was psyched… and there was no one there to confirm my amazing competence.
I grabbed my cell phone and called the troops, and within 15 minutes, they’d arrived. While I waited, I went into the hay loft and threw down two bales of hay and spread them in the trailer. The pigs would be spending their last night there, and I wanted them to be comfortable.
One gal arrived with big sheets of cardboard for us to hold and use as a chute, if need be, to funnel the pigs into the trailer. All three friends were dressed in calf-high rubber boots—something I don’t own. I was wearing my sneakers. And blue jeans. A purple button-down shirt, red barn coat and work gloves…
Since I’d been calling the pigs to my side all summer long with rewards of bagels, breads, tarts and rolls from the day-old supply at the local grocery store, I made the call. I positioned the two women at the small openings between trailer and posts, just in case any of the fat creatures tried to squeeze through. I dropped the ramp on the rear of the trailer. It splashed into eight inches of deep slop. Really deep, really stinky slop. Here in Maine, we experienced a dearth of rain over the summer months, but November had proven to be very rainy. Add to that, the fact that my son forgot to turn the hose off one night after filling the trough with water, thereby emptying our well into the paddock, and the ground was very soupy, indeed. I slogged though goop which covered my sneakered feet up to my ankles and climbed aboard.
I had a box of bread under my arm. I called to my third friend, who’d volunteered to unlock the door to the stall.
“Release the pigs!!!”
He did. The five porcine creatures wandered out. I called them.
“Come on! Heeeere, piggy, piggy, piggy. I have foooood! Come and get it!”
I began to drop pieces of sponge cake and garlic bagels onto the floor of the horse trailer. And as I’d hoped, the pigs followed their snouts. One wandered up the ramp for a mid-afternoon snack. The second followed suit. I told Mister Pig Herder to be ready. To lift the ramp and slam it home the very second the fifth pig was inside the trailer.
Three in. Four in. Two back out…. I continued my sing-song calling and tossed bread onto the hay at my feet. Finally, the last of the five swine made it up the ramp and my guy-friend grabbed it from its place in the muck and, giving a mighty heave, slammed it shut. One pig changed his mind at the last second, and his snout was caught. He squealed—as well he should—but we daren’t let the gate drop. Despite one gal’s frenzied admonition to drop the gate, we didn’t dare. We’d never get five newly stressed pigs back into the conveyance. I pushed against the ramp enough for the poor creature to free his nose, and then it banged home. The locks were flipped into place. The pigs, with nary a fuss, were loaded.
But so was I.
One of my girlfriends was worried about me. Concerned that I was trapped with five pigs weighing between 200-300 pounds, each. Would they turn on me? Attack the hand that fed them?
That was not a concern of mine. My unease came from the fact that I had to get out of there. Somehow exit the trailer. The ramp, locked into place, was chest high. The ramp, newly recovered from the muck, was nasty and slippery. I’m not afraid of muck and kuck… but I am deathly afraid of making a public spectacle of myself. I looked out, and down. I was going to have to climb the gate and jump into soupy pig crap. Yay…
My quick-thinking ramp-closer made a suggestion. He said he could pull the trailer ahead so that I could jump out onto water-sodden grass instead of water-sodden muck. That sounded good to me! Chagrinned, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that
He pulled my truck away from the gate. Got out. Walked around and looked at me. So did my two girlfriends.
The gentleman asked what he could do to help. Did I need a ladder?
Naw. A ladder would be a little… sissy-ish, wouldn’t it? And I—well, I had backed a horse trailer perfectly between two gate posts on the very first try! No way was I going to be all ‘girly’ and use a step ladder to exit that trailer! I just needed to be alone. I knew I could get out. But I feared making a fool of myself in the process.
“Okay!” I declared. “Everybody… git! I’m climbing out of here, and I don’t want you all to see me if I take a nose dive!”
Respectfully, my three friends wandered away, backs turned to the trailer. How cool are they? (Way cool.) I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been there, camera in hand, waiting to record the sure-to-be ignominious leap from the top of the ramp, if t’were one of them in my predicament. The pigs began milling nervously. Juliet stomped on my foot, and left a cloven-hoof-shaped imprint in the inch-deep muck atop my sneaker. Baldy pushed me aside as he competed for the onion roll at my feet. And Angus actually gave me a bit of a toss as he tried to reassert his dominance over the confined herd.
I peered out. All three backs were turned. I grabbed hold of the rim of the roof over my head with my gloved hands. I swung my right leg up and over, thanking my lucky stars for a 36 inch long legs. My left leg followed, until I was sitting atop the locked ramp. It wasn’t so far… maybe five and a half feet to the ground. But I am a klutz. A hard-core klutz. I’ve never done a graceful thing in my life. But their backs were turned. If I made a fool of myself, no one would know. Unless I broke a bone or something, and had to lie writhing in pain on the partially frozen ground for several minutes while my buddies decided whether or not they dared to turn around…
I launched myself from the rim of the horse trailer gate. I landed, both feet firmly planted on the ground. I stood upright, and resisted the urge to raise my arms victoriously in a classic, gymnastic dismount. Why, oh, why, had I made them all go away? Turn around? For the second time that day, I had deftly avoided a Bonehead Moment... and NO ONE was witness to the miracles!!!
I called to them.
“Okay! I’m out!”
My friends turned around. Looked me up and down. Their expressions caused me to do the same.
I was covered in pig poop. My sneaks, my socks. My butt, my thighs. My belly and chest, from leaning against the ramp to view the ground below. My gloved hands. I even sported a little splattered crap on my face. I resisted the urge to lick my lips—something I always do when I’m nervous.
I chuckled and walked onto the granite steps of my front porch. Kicked off my shoes. Slid my feet into Crocs and dumped my gloves. It was late afternoon, and the days are short, here in December at the 45th North latitude. I needed to deliver the pigs to the butcher shop before dark, as the trailer didn’t have any working tail- or brake-lights.
I thanked my cohorts for their help, climbed into the truck, and headed for North Anson.
I noted that a trailer loaded with more than a half-ton of ‘critters’ didn’t bounced nearly as much on washboards as did an empty trailer, so I picked up my speed. As the heater warmed up, I became aware that I was particularly ripe. Nothing is quite as pleasant as warm pig dung. I grinned. There was no worry that I would ever grace the front of a glamour magazine--that much was a given.
I made it to the butcher’s with a half-hour of daylight to spare. Upon parking the truck and trailer, I walked inside. I greeted the owner, who looked me up and down. I was a mess. An aromatic mess. Feeling the need to explain the reason for my dishabille, I told him the story about getting trapped inside the trailer with the five pigs. About how I’d been stuck there, at the mercy of five gigantic, carnivorous pigs. I had to make it a good story, after all. Else… why would I be standing there in his sanitized shop covered in manure?
He cocked his head. Raised his eyebrows. Took one last look at my poop-covered façade.
“So… your friends wouldn’t let you out the door on the side?”
“There’s a door?? On the SIDE?”
I burst out laughing, and moved to the shop window to take a look. Yep, there it was. A full-length door on the passenger’s-side of the trailer. A door which could have been effortlessly opened, and easily exited through! A door made for humans—for farmers like me—to disembark the close confines of an animal-laden trailer. I giggled. Had I been the only one who didn’t notice the door? Had my friends known about it—seen it—and made the collective decision to ignore it? Decline mention of it?
I almost hoped they’d known. Otherwise… where would the fun have been? Who, really, wants to be a boring, small-scale farmer?