February 6, 2015
My wife Heather and I recently chalked up a new victory in our evolving life as farmsteaders. We raised two pigs and brought them to market.
We went into pig farming with a little trepidation—we'd heard so much about how sociable and intelligent pigs are, and I was leery about getting too attached to animals we intended to eat. But I needn't have worried. I'm not saying pigs aren't sociable or intelligent, but the commercial cross-bred piglets we bought didn't exactly charm me.
They started out cute as anything. But that did not last. They got big and obnoxious pretty quickly. They were the first livestock we've raised that I really worried about turning my back on. Not that they were ever actually aggressive toward me. But they were so food motivated and so rude about bumping into us when we were feeding them.
And I’d heard stories about farmers getting really hurt when their pigs got them on the ground.
I will say that the pigs were cleaner than I expected. Given a small pasture, they supplemented their diet with grazing and digging up roots, and did their business in a small corner. The worst of what we smell when we drive past an industrial pig farm is due to ultra-dense living conditions and vast amounts of collected, liquefied manure, not to the nature of the beast.
Part of the farmsteading experiment that Heather and I have undertaken has been to rediscover the very different relationships you have with different farm animals. Our dogs remain our work partners and family members—if anything, our bond with them has grown stronger.
The chickens are charming, living up to their reputation as "the farmer's aquarium." Aside from the occasional over-aggressive young rooster, which is a self-resolving problem involving deep frying, they've been very relaxing to live with. The sheep are also pretty calming; they have this way of standing there and looking at you as if they're contemplating the universe.
Of course, all that dodges the issue. While we keep chickens for the eggs, we also raise meat chickens every year; and hens that stop producing wind up in the crock pot. We haven't slaughtered a lamb yet, but have a couple we plan to in the Spring.
As I've said before, ultimately you have to set boundaries with your livestock that you don't with a working dog or a pet. It's a relationship that we intend to exploit—for goodness' sake, we've engineered these animals for that exploitation. But we're committed to giving them as good a life as possible while they're with us. It feels more virtuous to us to eat a chicken that's been allowed to range across our farm, eating bugs and participating in the social byplay of a flock, than to eat some poor creature boxed up its entire life.
In the case of our pigs, the end was fairly gentle. For one thing, Heather got them drunk—our agricultural Facebook pals put us onto how much pigs like alcohol, and how much a little beer mellows them out on the trip to the processor.
This is not to belittle the enormity of taking a life so that you can continue your own. It's not funny; it's deadly serious, and we take it seriously. It's just that ultimately, we all get eaten by someone, even if it’s a worm. None of us gets to choose when. It's what comes before then that matters.
Photos courtesy of Ken Chiacchia and Heather Houlahan.