To raise, confine, kill and eat a pig
Editor’s note: For the past five years, Crash Barry has pursued the neo-homesteading lifestyle in eastern Oxford County. This is the fifth of a dozen essays about his attempts to live closer to nature.
In a couple weeks, upon their arrival at Dreamstead, the four piglets will be placed in the training pen, a 10-foot-by-12-foot, heavily fortified pig prison, rigged with two strands of electric fence wire. Here the little babies will gain respect for the power of the jolt, but only when they try to escape. The electric shock is a donkey-kick of a lesson, but not torture. Pigs are wicked smart, so they quickly learn to stay far away from the shiny wire.
The importance of good e-fence training cannot be stressed enough, since escapees have the potential to wreck havoc in the ’hood while on the lam. We learned the hard way a couple years ago, when a pair of newbies broke out of a less secure penitentiary and skedaddled into the swamp before their first feeding. (A pig already accustomed to a daily feeding schedule might run away, but will usually return by supper.) A week later, Sweetgrass and a posse of neighbors eventually captured the darting duo, but not before expending considerable time and energy.
(Unfortunately, I was unable to help. I was chair-bound by the early stages of Lyme Disease, which was incredibly frustrating, since I fancy myself a pig whisperer. In addition, the wranglers needed to be rewarded for their efforts, which cost me six organic beefsteaks I had stashed in the freezer.)
After a week of fence acclamation, the herd will be moved to a 30-foot square of deforested old pasture, enclosed solely by two wires, spaced appropriately and positioned to thwart curious snouts from attempting to find freedom. Then the fun begins. As part of our land-clearing efforts, we encourage the pigs’ instinctual demolitionist desire to root, rip and rampage. And once the patch of land is thoroughly worked over, the team (and their swank truck-cap shelter) move to a new, larger enclosure and start again, excited by the challenge and entertained by the terrain. For them, hard labor is play, fueled by slop and water.
For the next five months, these swine live a life of leisure and luxury. Twice daily, I’ll fill their troughs with the finest non-GMO feed (imported from Canada), supplemented with kitchen leftovers, garden waste, marijuana leaves and apples, all of it ultimately transmuted into firm flesh, proportionally ringed with delicious fat tasting vaguely of cider and weed.
Early on, to gain their acceptance and win their friendship, I’ll set up a folding chair among their troughs and sit there during the piglets’ feeding frenzy. Coupled with rubdowns, scratches and spinal massage, my presence in the pigpen helps cement the bond between me and the porcine community. Working together as a team, tearing up this farmland-turned-forest becomes a mutually beneficial situation. We get more pasture and gardens, not to mention all the meat, and the pigs have the time of their lives.
I view my role as pig keeper akin to that of party host, ensuring the pigs stay entertained and happy, amply supplied with food and drink. A bored pig is a sad pig, obsessed with escaping or other unhealthy behaviors.
This year, I’ve vowed to keep better records and behavioral field notes in preparation for expanding the operation. One dream is to keep and breed a pair of sows. I won’t, however, be using a boar to get the girls preggers, especially since high-quality hog semen for artificial insemination is readily available for purchase — a helluva lot easier than bringing in a rental boar for stud service.
Ultimately, I’d like to annually raise a couple dozen pigs — or about a ton and a half of almost-free-range bacon, sausage, chops, ribs, roasts and ham — sold to urbanities looking for a sustainable and respectful way to source the other white meat. And in order to charge an extra-premium price, I’d integrate the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and petting-zoo models. That way, the consumer can visit Dreamstead on Pig Day for a meet-and-greet with the pig they’re destined to eat, observe the deluxe accommodations and excellent working conditions, and witness how our porkers are ethically raised with love and affection.
In exchange for the meat and the experience, I’ll charge top dollar. And all of us involved in the transaction can feel good knowing the pig’s contributions to our permacultural method means lots of meat with very little carbon impact, especially compared to any store-bought animal or conventionally grown vegetable.
As for the annual slaughter of my pals, I take a rationalist approach to their death. Pigs that grow too big are less efficient at converting feed into meat. Once a pig reaches about 250 pounds, the bulk of their weight-gain comes in the form of inedible fat, a waste for consumer and farmer, and a burden on the pig’s heart.
Also assuaging my guilt is the knowledge that my pigs had a great time during their stay here. So much better than the nameless animals raised in hellish concentration-camp conditions who never know the pleasure of snouting soil or wallowing in the mire, instead living and dying solely to benefit evil corporatists masquerading as industrial agrarians.
Still, their demise always affects me greatly. Prior to every meal featuring pork, we thank the pig by name, which often triggers a smile as we recall her obsessive straw bed-building or the pitch of her oink and squeal.
I say “her” because, for the most part, I buy female piglets, due to my learned prejudice toward male livestock, who require emasculation, without which they turn into aggressive frat bros with almost-permanent erections. However, once the sow operation gets underway, I’ll have to deal with the inevitable male babies and learn how to cut their sacs with as little trauma as possible. While I’ve castrated over a hundred male calves — including one named Busby, in honor of my esteemed Bollard comrade — thus far my only experience gelding hogs was so horrible that I sometimes tremble at the memory, so won’t go into the gory details here.
Another horrid recollection of a male pig still haunts me. Four years ago, I agreed to raise a little guy for a backyard pig roast that a friend of mine was having in late July. The awful part of the deal: I was responsible for killing the fella. On the fateful morning, I separated the young man from his two sisters before their breakfast and locked him in a small temporary pen. Then I fed him a handful of moist corn mush laced with a liquid ounce of grain-alcohol marijuana tincture. Five minutes later, I left to get my .22 and a small bowl of slop. When I returned, he was ecstatic to see me and the food. Without ceremony, I served his last meal. As he eagerly chowed down, I pulled the trigger. Not sure if he was high, but he certainly wasn’t low.
The actual killing and death throes went quickly, but the wailing continued as I lugged the still-warm boy up to Seth’s truck. My sobbing grew louder as I watched them drive away. He would be bled, roasted and devoured by nightfall. I would be guilted, worried and devoured by karma.
The rest of the day went lousy. To get my mind off the murder, I fired up the chainsaw, intent on clearing a stand of maple saplings and juvenile poplar where, unbeknownst to me, a wasp’s nest was hanging. The inhabitants became very angry when the hive hit the ground. They attacked with brutal ferocity and at least 20 of ’em stung me before I ran away.
As their venom wracked my body, my brain anguished over a nightmarish vision of my pig pal being torn to pieces by a medieval-looking band of ruffians wearing NASCAR ballcaps who didn’t give a damn about his organic upbringing, or his afternoons spent lolling about in the mud, or the loopy footraces he and his siblings would run. They didn’t care, I sobbed. Nobody cared, I cried.
As evening approached, I decided to retrieve the chainsaw. Another mistake. My return to the crime scene triggered a new wave of attack stingers, with at least six of ’em finding their mark. The fresh infusion of pulsating poison put me over the top. Hours of night sweats and terror followed, mixed with sorrow for the dead hog — feelings that lingered into the next day with a toxic hangover of grief, guilt and wasp vitriol.
My current method for killing is dramatically different. My neighbor Willie will haul the pigs in his livestock trailer over to Castonguay Meats in Livermore, where the execution and butchery are done in a fine and professional manner, the end results wrapped in wax paper, stamped with the type of cut, frozen and ready for pickup within a couple days. Three weeks later, I’ll get a call telling me the bacon is smoked and waiting to be retrieved.
I don’t get the hams smoked, though. That sort of curing of huge hunks of flesh was necessary back in the olden days, prior to the advent of home freezers. Instead, I prefer to keep hams as giant roasts that end up being carved to fit in the crock pot, slathered with my special spicy BBQ sauce and transformed into the most amazing, mouthwatering pulled-pork. Then Daisy the Dog gets the uncooked ham bone as a special treat.