"Is it time yet?"
Every year we raised pigs there would come a time when those who were looking after their feeding would return from the pig yard with a good deal of whatever was being served distributed randomly about their persons and I would prepare for the inevitable question: "Isn't it about time to ship those pigs?" The answer, alas, was usually "No." The question, I figured, meant that they had reached about 150 pounds. They needed to put on another 50 pounds before the much-looked-for day would arrive. However cute and funny young pigs might be, personality declines rapidly once they reach about 150 pounds. By the time they have reached 200 pounds everybody is happy to see them go.
Pigs and our methods
Our methods of raising pigs, like much else on this place, tended to be experimental in a way that no agricultural scientist would understand. While we were concerned to look after the welfare of all the residents, and took pains to be informed in the matter of feed and health - after all, we had come down from the city in part to be able to have a direct role in the managing of our own food supply - we were not planning to make money farming. We had, in fact, looked for a place in the country where we could be self-sufficient in a small way, where all the children could have a role to play in this "domestic economy" and where we would not be taking a working farm out of production..
Improvisation and more-or-less inspired creativity were the hall-marks of our farming methodology. Nowhere was this more evident than in the manner we devised for shipping our pigs in the fall. Basically we modified some advice given to us after the rather harrowing experience of loading our first pig. Like most of us really, pigs are rather conservative creatures, and do not take well to sudden changes in circumstances. Pigs are also, like some of us, quite nervous and easily upset. A distressed pig of any size can make a really startling amount of very high-pitched complaint.
In the case of Grover, our first pig, the distress was harder to take than the noise After finally getting him loaded into a neighbour's truck we decided we were not going to put another pig or any of the rest of us through that kind of distress again. A neighbour suggested a six-pack of beer as a method of reducing stress for the loading party, but that didn't do anything for the pig and we noted the advice but shelved it. There had to be a better way.
The next year an elderly neighbour came to help with the loading of the three pigs we had raised that summer. Don never seemed to be in a hurry but the amount of work he could get done was staggering. I knew this well, having offered to give him a hand with some woods work shortly after we came down here. I don't think he even breathed fast, but by noon I was just about played out and all I had done was to help him with a few of the lighter tasks he had on hand. In the matter of loading the pigs, as far as I could tell, (he had sent me off to get a piece of rope, "in case we need it") he simply scattered some grain on the bed of the truck and the pigs had walked up and onto the truck without a single backward glance.
That episode taught us a lesson that has come in handy on many subsequent occasions, with a variety of large animals that were, for some reason, somewhere they shouldn't be: a feed bucket up front was likely to be a far more effective means of guidance than any amount of rope or urging from behind. Armies are not alone in travelling on their stomachs.
While we were impressed by Don's calm handling of the loading we also knew that we couldn't hope to duplicate a lifetime's experience at the snap of any number of fingers. The next year we had two pigs and as shipping time came closer anxieties rose correspondingly. The answer came from a surprising quarter.
For many years I had enjoyed wine-making as a hobby and had had only a few outright failures. That particular year I had started a batch of wine from a kit whose "best before" date was long past. When it came time to bottle it, it turned out to have an off-flavour. I didn't want to dump four gallons of wine and so it sat in a corner, undrinkable but equally undumpable.
When the day came to ship the pigs three things came together in my mind: the suggestion about the six-pack of beer, the question I had asked in all innocence when the suggestion had been made as to whether the beer was for us or for the pig, and the thought that pigs are enthusiastic about most things edible or drinkable. Most animals are strictly teetotallers, but pigs are not. I knew because I had noted their enthusiasm on the not-so-rare occasion when I had fed them some fruit pulp which I had used as the base of a new batch of wine and was discarding. And then I thought of the four gallons of off-flavoured red wine in the basement and a light flashed on in the darkness. Not wasting a moment, I poured off some of the wine into a bucket, filled the bucket with water and advanced on the pig trough.
It worked like a charm. In fact, I was back in the house so soon my wife asked me when I was planning to load the pigs. "They're loaded," I said. And I meant it. 5 August 1997
Pigs and housekeeping
Bacon of course is but one of the splendid rewards for raising pigs and putting up with their enthusiastic disinterest in all things tidy and orderly, except in the matter of housekeeping. Pigs are not dirty, contrary to popular opinion, as long as they are accorded room to arrange their living accommodations with dignity. They will quickly choose a part of their space as bathroom (though the choice is not always what the farmer might recommend), and their much prized mud wallow is prized because they lack the ability to perspire. Their wallow, then, enables them to keep cool on a hot day.
Borrowing a designation from the blood-donor clinics, we used to say that our pigs went from being "universal recipients" in the summer - the kitchen fridge knew no fur-bearing friends while the pigs were around - to "universal donors" in the winter.
Many people advised us against naming any of our animals, on the grounds that naming them would make them into pets. The implication, we noted, was that after your pig became your pet you were stuck with it for the rest of its natural life - an uneconomic prospect, to say the least. But we felt differently, and our children, who helped to name and helped with the chores, felt differently too.
While they were with us, our animals were treated with kindness and attentively cared for, but we also recognized that we were not running a zoo but a small farm intended largely to free us from the dependence upon the commercial food-chain that treats animals - and vegetables too - as so many pluses and minuses in some accountant's ledger.
We all knew that our summer's pigs would wind up in a freezer, and, like Pooh-Bah in Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, we wished them "long life--till then!"
One step forward....
Frankly, I had about given up on pigs until the other day. Some time has passed since there has been a porcine personality on this place worthy of more than a passing glance.
Maybe the apparent lack of personality stems from the fact that we have finally got into habits that more effectively circumscribe a pig's pleasure in creativity and general hell-raising. Our fences are more firmly put together than they were and security generally is tighter than it used to be.
The last few days, though, give signs that all is not yet ho-hum in the world of pork production.
Our weaners are now about half grown and it has been time for quite a while to expand their yard so as to get some free roto-tilling done. Expanding the yard means taking away the stout enclosure they presently call home and substituting an electric fence.
What with one thing and another the task of putting in a strand of electric fence remained to be done - until the other evening. Of course the electric string I was planning to use (a much more supple and easily-handled product than solid fence wire) was nowhere to be found.
"I'm sure that ball of string was in with the fencing stuff."
"Well, did you look on the cellar stairs? That was where it was the last time."
Stomping goes off stage right. Cellar door slams. Silence. Cellar door slams again.. Stomping re-enters stage right.
"It's not there."
"You're sure it isn't there?"
"You're sure you looked everywhere there?"
"I'm sure I saw it there just the other day."
"Well it's not there."
"Well, where could it be?"
(At this point the alert reader will have noticed that the conversation is about to go round for a second time, rather in the style of that Girl Guide song, There's a Hole in my Bucket. Fortunately for the sanity of both parties, I remember the roll of electric fence wire and its location.)
The pigs were interested, as they always are, when we are doing something around their home. They helped by chomping on the steel fence posts I was installing and pulling them up as fast as I could put them in. Their enthusiasm increased when I started attaching the bright yellow insulators. Those were obviously not only edible but delicious. But the most fun of all was the still somewhat springy wire. This they pushed around with their noses, chewed on it in a determined way, and lifted off the insulators so as to roll with it in the mud. Nothing this much fun had come their way since one of the banty hens had brought her whole brood of chicks into the pig yard for a quiet snooze.
Like the banty affair, the Fun with Wire scam ended abruptly. In the case of the banty, she didn't ruffle a feather or disturb the repose of her little ones as the (to her) huge pigs came snuffling around. She just made it clear to the pigs that their mother was ugly, and what's more, had been sold for bacon, and that she'd bacon them if they didn't watch out. So, they watched out.
In the case of the wire, there was a piercing squeal when the fence was plugged in, and, after several more encounters of the same kind, made even more confusing by the fact that the wire was off the insulators and rolling around the yard, they retreated to their house. They did come out to eat the next morning but they were very jumpy. If Higgeldy bumped Piggeldy, she would leap like a gazelle, not sure whether she had been zapped or not. They kept yanking their noses out of the swill and looking around as if something was sneaking up on them to get them.
In the afternoon I had to drag their trough over to their front door. They were not taking chances with the nasty thing that lived out there.
I took the wire away then and we are back, very gingerly, to square one. Last night, after getting my wife to buy a new roll of electric string in town I found the one I had been looking for - sitting out in plain view on a shelf in the barn. Now we'll see how we get on with rural electrification this time. 13 September 1988