Labour Day was nearly over before we realized what day it was, or remembered to wish our accountant a happy birthday. This was because we were too busy about our labours to think about the privileges workers have gained through time, by way of broken heads and broken strikes.
We are farmers now, and we work all the time. If we are not physically labouring, we are plotting and planning or we are fetching supplies from the Little Smoke, which in our case is Smithers. I have found, at my age, that a day of gentle bending over the garden beds or the canning table, and maybe a trip to the library, is a good sandwich activity between days of heaving and ho’ing. No matter how we organize our day, or the week, we no longer work for the Man, so we are not resentful nor overly burdened. No, choice is a precious commodity – almost as important as clean drinking water – and we know we are greatly blessed.
The labours of choice this past weekend included butchering two Very Large Pigs. Technically, the term “butchering” refers to the cutting up of a carcass and its packaging into meal-sized portions, but for many of us it has come to include the acts of slaughter which are so necessary to the successful getting of meat for the omnivore’s table. Slasher flicks and mass shootings have given the word “slaughter” some mighty ugly connotations, which some folks have confused with wanton murder and mayhem, and it’s possible we need a new word for the careful ending of a pig’s life, and its transformation from living hog with agency and a heartbeat, to meat. You are welcome to submit suggestions in the “reply” area of this blogsite.
We have participated in the killing of six pigs to date, and commissioned death-by-abattoir for seven more. This is not a large number, though much larger than what I might have anticipated before beginning this adventure in growing our own food and supplying some of the neighbours with (I cough modestly here, for we are but beginners) arguably the best pork they have ever eaten. In these parts, the preferred method of dispatchment is a .22 cartridge between the eyes and somewhat above, but we are not yet Good Shots so we have asked various friends and neighbours to do the shooting. This weekend, for several reasons, including the increasing ineffectiveness of a .22 as the pigs get larger and more hard-skulled, has marked the end of that era and the transition to using a captive bolt gun, which we can operate ourselves with one hand while lying to the pig about the day’s planned activities. When loaded, this instrument is every bit as dangerous as any firearm and must be kept on a high, unobtrusive shelf, with its ammunition held separately, preferably in one’s underwear drawer.
The pigs we have chosen to live with can comfortably grow to just under four hundred pounds in a year, and if they have a large space in which to roam and explore, they will not acquire an undue amount of fat. I’m not speaking of the precious lard, which is that two or three-inch layer on their backs that is rendered into the best and healthiest cooking oil on the planet, but rather of the unfortunate gobs that accumulate amongst the organs and throughout the muscles of a sedentary, confined pig that is fed atrocious things like outdated grocery store pastries and mouldy produce, or even “crumbles” from the feed store rather than fruits and vegetables, grains and things they find in the dirt – or soil as it is properly called when rife with microbial activity and the industry of earthworms and beetles.
Because pigs have an satisfying conversion ratio of feed to meat, and further, a body type that carries a gratifying percentage of meat on the skeleton, they have for centuries been seen as easy keepers. The downside, and it’s a grim one, is that it is commonly believed that “pigs will eat anything”, which they will, of course, if they are starved of healthy foods, and they can seem to be thriving in awful conditions and close confinement. As a result, pigs have long been badly kept and badly treated, and these practices have certainly carried over into the factory meat industry. A person would only have to sample a plate of home-raised freedom pork ™ (just kidding) right next to a supermarket cut for their taste to be forever changed. Freedom pork can be prepared any way you like, of course, and there are many fancy butchers and fancier foodie cooks who can do it supreme justice, but the ultimate test is to just COOK it, undisguised by sodium and sauces, if you want to judge its quality.
A further test of these methods is to allow a pig a year of pleasant, rambling life (which would of course include a winter, if you have winters where you live) and plenty of conversational scratches, and see what happens. These two pigs grew to about 375 pounds in a year, and their hanging weight (head off, feet off, guts out) was 300 pounds if you claim back the jowls, heart, liver and kidneys. The head is full of beautiful meat, however, and the trotters are cartilaginous and lovely. The tail makes delicious soup. I think I heard an indignant gasp somewhere: oh! What about the extra expense to gain that last bit of weight? In this case, the sibling pigs were butchered in May or June at about 230 pounds and these two gained a further 140 pounds each in 3 months. Crazy, right? And each consumed about 200 extra pounds of grain from the local grain farmer. We soak the feed for 24 hours and instead of indulging in a gym membership we carry buckets of porridge to the troughs. At 20 cents a pound in 2019, it cost an extra 40 bucks to gain a hundred pounds of meat. Wait, a few bales of hay for bedding and casual snacking. But they also contributed hundreds of pounds of manure and plowed up a good deal of the pasture, which we then re-seeded with peas, oats and timothy grass. It makes me happy just to think about it, and I’m not even really nerding out here.
An important caveat, though, is whether or not you actually like pigs. I thought I would like them, but I didn’t expect to love and enjoy them and find myself hanging about the barnyard or standing and gazing out at them lounging in the pasture, or galloping in for supper. We attend to their mud wallow, and shower them off when it’s hot, if they want that. There are shady woods in all the pastures. That special pig stink? It’s more like an aroma if they’re fed well and get their exercise. An acquired taste, nevertheless, I will grant you. When people first visit, their reaction will range from slightly-flared nostrils (a kindred spirit!) to a certain degree of nose-wrinkling. (I wonder what we actually smell like, day-to-day? I don’t think it matters unless we go to town and those trips are such special excursions that we generally spruce up anyway.)
Well, this has been fun, but the sky has lightened considerably since I first sat down here and it’s time to feed the three red piglets, their mom and uncle, their dad and his first and second wives – who are both pregnant. We do make sure the ladies have proximity with their husband but there’s no forced mating. As I read that over I think, how would you actually force pigs to mate? Not a pretty thought. But what I mean is, if the lady seems distressed, or wants to be let out of the boar’s half-acre, we are happy to oblige and try another time. Because of this soft-headedness we get piglets less often and at odder times than would suit real farmers, I’m sure. Winter piglets can be more of a challenge, but if we make sure the mommas have what they need-plenty of old bedding under them that sends off heat from the composting action, and just enough fresh hay to make a nest without losing newborns in it, grandma as a doula and a nurse pig, and a certain amount of space and privacy – then farrowing should go about as well as it always has. Generally the hard part is fetching Mama and a dog kennel full of babies back from the far corners of the woods, and then she takes it from there.
It’s sad about the lives that just ended, and we’re tired in a way you don’t get from fetching wood or vigorous shovelling. We’ve come to know that when you prepare to take a life in this unavoidably harsh way, and spend hours scalding, scraping, disembowelling, drawing and quartering a carcass and many more hours cutting and wrapping meat for the freezer, you are working under a shadow. It passes, and you let it pass, so that you can get up in the morning and care for those pigs, knowing that some of them will come under the knife in their own time. But not today.