Pig to Table Project: Off to a happy start

July 17, 2012

Editor’s note:

This is the first of a three-part series that over the next five months will chronicle the author’s effort to understand our relationship to the animals we eat. It will be at times unflinching, yet enlightening.

Four years ago, when my husband and I began trying to hunt, gather and grow as much of our own food as possible, we instituted a barnyard rule of one new species per year. Year one, naturally, was chickens — everyone’s introductory livestock. The next year was turkeys. Year three, buoyed by our success with chickens and turkeys, we made an exception and got both ducks and bees.

This year, humbled by trouble with ducks and bees, we’re back to one. Our fondness for bacon, coupled with our aversion to daily milking, made pigs the obvious choice. We’re not alone. Although backyard pigs fly under the USDA radar, and there are no statistics, anecdotal evidence indicates that home sties are on the rise. Walter Jeffries, proprietor of Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont, sells pasture-raised piglets and reports an uptick in business. “With the recent recession we have seen an increase in the number of people interested in raising a summer pig,” he says.

One summer pig wasn’t enough for us, though. We wanted three — one for us and two for friends — because pigs shouldn’t be alone, and we wanted ours to have both a playmate and a spare, in case disease or mishap cost us one. The decision to add what was going to become 750 pounds of pig flesh to our homestead was tough. Not because of the pigs themselves: We like pigs, we like pork, we have enough land. It’s the fencing that gave us pause. Because pigs are large, they thrive on having plenty of space. And, also because pigs are large, the fences that enclose that space must be sturdy.

Enclosing a large space with a sturdy fence is an expensive undertaking. Which would be fine if we thought we’d have pigs every year from now until we decide to give it all up for a gated community in Florida, but we’re not at all sure this isn’t a one-off. For all we know, we’ll hate having pigs. Or they’ll hate being here. Or an escapee will terrorize the neighbors and we’ll be run out of town on a rail.

Setting up a home

The less committed you are to having pigs, the more important it is that you keep your fencing costs under control. The more committed you are to keeping your fencing costs under control, the more difficult it is to build a sturdy fence.

Because my father was a varsity fencer at MIT back in the ’50s, I was hoping that a keen ability to solve this problem was my genetic endowment. It turns out that my husband, Kevin, is much better at it than I am. He knows all kinds of mysterious things that weren’t part of my education, like what stainless-steel strapping tape is and how you can use it to attach something to a tree. He has an arsenal of power tools that, for him, drill, nail and cut things straight and true. (For me, results vary. Wildly.) He is very strong, has a high pain threshold and doesn’t mind getting dirty.

Basically, Kevin is a varsity fencer.

We built our pen with hog panels, prefab lengths of heavy-gauge wire fence that are 32 inches tall and 16 feet long. Because pigs like shade and rooting, we put the pen in the woods — so called because it is an area with many trees. If you have trees, we reasoned, you don’t need fence posts.

Unfortunately, trees have an inconvenient habit of being 17 feet apart. They also don’t care to be in a straight line, or to be precisely vertical. Although trees excel at carbon sequestration, they make distinctly sub-optimal fence posts.

Kevin was undaunted. It took him only a few days, with a little help from me, to turn 13 hog panels into what we hope to be a pig-proof fence. We used the trees as posts where we could and improvised where we couldn’t. We used cut branches to brace the fence to nearby trees, and lumber to bridge gaps where the panels didn’t quite meet. We shored up any weak spots by laying logs outside the base, and made a gate from some lengths of PVC.

Total price tag: $300. Total area fenced: 2,000 square feet.

But we still needed a shelter.

Everything we read about pig shelters (and how did we ever do anything before the Internet?) said they need be nothing elaborate, particularly if they don’t have to see pigs through the winter. They need to be sturdy, and the right size to capitalize on pigs’ tendency not to poop where they sleep. If the shelter’s too big, one side of it could seem like it’s far enough away to be the bathroom.

The problem is that a just-weaned pig is only about 25 or 30 pounds but a slaughter-size pig is almost 10 times that size. A shelter that’s the right size for three grown pigs is cavernous to three weaner pigs.

So our shelter had to be not just cheap — and sturdy — but adjustable.

We (okay, mostly Kevin) found the solution in local dumpsters. A frame of pallets, walls and floor made of discarded pressboard, salvaged tar paper on top, and we had a shelter. Adjustability came from bales of straw, which we stacked in the shelter. As the pigs grow, we’ll use the straw for bedding and gradually make room for their increasing bulk.

At last, we were ready. We borrowed a large dog crate from a friend with a large dog and set off to Ten of Us Farm, the nearest bona-fide pig farm.

Pleasant introductions

When we decided on pigs, we looked into some of the heritage breeds such as Gloucester Old Spot, Large Black and Duroc. Tamworths caught our attention because they were said to thrive in forests. But getting Tamworth piglets meant paying a lot more and driving a lot farther.

I’m also not sure I see the value of a purebred pig. If a breed that humans created in the first place is dying out, it’s probably because it has outlived its usefulness. Bob Flynn, proprietor of Ten of Us, has been breeding his own strain of pigs for about 30 years, and it’s naturally in his interest to breed a kind that thrives in our local conditions. We had visited the farm a few weeks before we picked up the pigs, and his stock looked beautiful to our non-expert eyes. Bob’s pigs are clean and healthy-looking, they have access to pasture and dry sawdust bedding, and they have plenty of space. We decided we wanted to support our local pig farmer and buy local pigs.

We read about what to look for in a piglet. When it comes to pigs, size definitely matters. You’re trying to get the pig to 240 pounds as quickly as possible, so you’re looking for the ones that will grow, grow, grow. Look for eyes set wide apart. Look for big feet. Look for meaty hams. We were ready to make our choice.

Bob wasn’t there that day, and his grandson led us to the pen where the weaners were corralled. I’d imagined us standing at the stall, watching the pigs for a while, and then choosing the three that called to us. But pig farmers are busy people, and the words “I kinda like that big black one” were barely out of my mouth before that big black one had been caught by her hind legs (that’s how you pick up a piglet) and was halfway to the truck.

I’m not at all sure how we picked the other two. It’s all a blur of snouts and tails and squeals of outrage. In about seven seconds, three little pigs were in the crate in our truck. For better or for worse — and a total of $225 — they were our pigs now.

Although it was the beginning of June when we picked them up, the weather was cold and drizzly. When we put them in the pen, the two smaller ones were shivering. We didn’t know whether it was due to cold or nervousness or a combination: Our research indicated that it took a few days for pigs to get accustomed to new surroundings. But we were worried. We put lots of straw in the shelter so they could burrow in to bed down, and hoped that the big black one would help keep the smaller two warm.

She must have because, by morning, they were out and about, exploring their 2,000 square feet of woods. They seemed just fine.

Seven happy months

Those first couple of days, we checked on them constantly. Were they eating? Yes, they were. Drinking? Check. Were they sleeping in the shelter? Yes, and often. Pooping in the shelter? No, thank goodness.

And, most important, they didn’t seem to be bent on breaching the fence. There was scratching up against the wire panels, and there was rooting at the base, but it seemed to be ordinary piggy behavior and not an attempt at escape. Not that I can necessarily read the signs of a pig planning a breakout, but they definitely weren’t making ropes out of bedsheets. They gave every indication of being happy.

I’d long since decided what I wanted to name the pigs. One of them was going to be Louis Pasture. The smart one would be Swinestein. But animals have a way of naming themselves, and the best-laid pig-naming plans fall by the wayside when you’re nose-to-snout with an unbelievably cute spotted piglet. She’s Spot before you know you’ve named her. Kevin started calling the other two, who look similar except that one is big and one is small, Doctor Evil and Mini-Me. I couldn’t countenance naming two of my three pigs after silly movie characters, so Mini-Me became Tiny. Doctor Evil, alas, remained Doctor Evil, but sometimes we just call her Doc. A name gets momentum, and then there’s nothing you can do about it.

If I had a nickel for every person who advised me to name the pigs Bacon, Sausage and Prosciutto, or to not name them at all, I could . . . well . . . I could feed them for about a day and a half. Don’t get attached. Don’t think of them as pets. Remember that you’re going to kill them.

But that advice is at odds with our desire to give these pigs the best life we can. They’ll be on this Earth for some seven months, and I want those seven months to be time worth having. Because pigs are smart and social and curious, Kevin and I are part of their quality of life. You can’t watch a pig come running when you approach the pen, or feed her a treat out of your hand, or scratch between her ears without believing that those things make her happy.

I had no idea that pigs wag their tails. But they do.

Because their life is inevitably tied up with ours, deliberately withholding an emotional connection doesn’t seem right to me. My great-uncle Frank, who was a subsistence farmer in central Minnesota, used to say that hardening yourself to your livestock was a failure of stewardship, and I’m of his school.

Come November, when these pigs reach market weight, we’re going to have one very hard day. But every day from now until then, we’ll do the best we can for them.

Haspel is a freelance writer, formerly urban, now hunting, fishing and raising her own food in the wilds of Cape Cod. She writes about it at starvingofftheland.com., where she has a 24-hour feed from their Stycam and is blogging regularly about the pigs’ progress. She will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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