"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