A friend gave us a copy of “Farm City” by Novella Carpenter just as we were considering getting pigs for our own little city farm. We read it in bed with the boys and we all laughed along as she shared her adventures (dumpster diving for pig food included) in raising, killing, and eating her porkers. “Alright!” we thought, “If she can do it so can we!” The power of example cannot be underestimated! We are eternal optimists. No, that’s not quite it. We are eternally optimistic about what we can do. And getting excited about new ideas is what we do best. “Bring on the hogs!” we said which caused our eldest son to spontaneously start jumping for joy shouting, “We’re gonna have bacon! We’re gonna have bacon!” Bless our little omnivores.
Through a friend in Central Nevada we found two piglets for sale which she bought for us as a thank you for work we’d done on her strawbale home. She delivered them in late August, just eight weeks old and cute as buttons, all 35 pounds of each. They were Yorkshires (basically the pink variety of pig) and female. We’d chosen female because there was no way I was about to castrate a male so the meat would taste better on my first go with hogs.
Pigs, like rabbits we figured, were another superb urban meat source. I read several old stories about thousands of pigs kept in and surrounding cities to convert the waste into meat. Local animals fed off the waste stream of humanity. It makes so much sense it's almost confusing. We figured we could do the same, humanely-raised and with plenty of space and love.
As I am wont to do with new endeavors, I happily shared our plans with friends and acquaintances and, sure enough, was rewarded with lots of advice and stories. I was amazed at how many people, city folk that is, raised pigs for 4H or FFA as kids or even paid for college/a car/travel off their pig earnings. For me, having grown up on Long Island, NY, it was both strange and endearing to learn of such widespread pigginess. Here’s a sampling of the advice/stories I got:
I was almost eaten by our pigs after I fell into their pen
We found out our pig was eating our chickens when we saw it luring chicks with food
• They stink!
• They’re mean!
• Don’t let your little ones near them.
• They’re noisy.
• They’ll eat anything.
To say I was a little dismayed at these stories of horror and woe would be an understatement. Being a newbie to this, with the pigs scheduled arrival drawing nigh; I began to doubt our plans. After all, we live in the city, were uncertain of the legality of our having them to begin with, and with all the other “odd” things we do, did not want to give any neighbor a reason to lodge any complaints. And this list doesn’t include the advice I got about killing them. One neighbor shared from his experience: “Get a strong friend, grab their legs, flip ‘em over and stick ’em right in the heart. Hold on fer awhile ‘cause they’ll shake and they’re real strong…” Another friend reminisced with me about how he and a buddy killed a 500 pound boar that had taken a liking to a neighbor’s garden in Mendocino county some decades ago. “We must have put twenty rounds in that thing before it gave out!” Okey, dokey. Bring on the hogs, sure, yeah, it’ll be great. We comforted ourselves, kind of, with the knowledge that we had an early “out” if things went very poorly: we could kill them young and have a neighborhood pig roast. Not the best of exit strategies but you take what you can get.
It’s a good thing we’re stubborn because the advice and stories proved to be way off the mark. Sure enough, when we got them, they stunk! But what can one expect when the poor beasts were born and raised in a shit-filled metal room with who knows how many other porkers. For two weeks whenever we pet them (or even accidentally rubbed against them) we were afflicted with an oily, shitty, smell on our hands. It made us better parents, however, because the smell of CAFO almost always reminded us to have our kids wash up before meals. But, after two weeks of sunshine and air and water and being allowed to root and wallow and run and play and just be pigs, they smelled great! The CAFO stench was gone and we quietly reverted to our comfortable, average parenting.
My boys loved them immediately, of course, and christened them, “Flower Ninja” (by three-year old Wylan) and “Little Petunia” (from six year-old Liam) – names I thought perfect. Chasing and being chased brought squeals of delight from both species of mammal that echoed through the land. True, they came to fear for their lives when “Little Petunia” was 200 pounds and searching for another helping of Lemon Meringue Pie in Liam’s shorts, but that’s when they learned it’s best to stay out of the pen and that their old playmates might be better to eat than to play tag with. Natural Consequences are the best teachers.
I however, had nothing but good times with them. Even when they were giant whirling dervishes of destruction whipped into hyperactivity by my chasing and playing, there was never any meanness or malevolence. I think they were happy and contented hogs because they had space, love, and decent food. Being cooped up alone, in a tiny, shit-filled pen would make even a saint surly.
The remaining piece of advice we hadn’t done away with was the ubiquitous “Pigs will eat anything!” belief. Wrong again! We fed them mainly off school lunch leftovers (tapping into another valuable urban waste stream) and boy, what they didn’t eat sure does speak volumes about the quality of food going to our schoolchildren. We quickly learned that they hardly touched bread and bready things (save really sweet muffins, pies, or cakes) including pizza, bagels and rolls, sandwich bread, and even wheat pasta. In fact, I almost killed the little weaners by feeding them wheat grain. Turns out it makes them gassy and bloated and can lead to a quick demise. My friend Tim from “Missoura” set me straight on that. Thanks, Tim. They barely touched potatoes (cooked) but loved raw sweet potatoes and yams. They also avoided the cafeteria sloppy Joes and meatballs. Meatballs! These same pigs devoured real meat (we dumpstered salmon, turkey, beef, and other fish) but meatballs and sloppy Joe’s didn’t make the cut. They loved eggs, rabbit entrails with almost lustful abandon, greens, lettuce, cabbage, tomato vines, melons, and corn. Especially corn! We picked a truckload of field corn from a friends maze and doled it out to them over a couple months. It was like chocolate for them. Milk was a big favorite (we got lots of expired little school milks) as was cream. Although I overdid it on the cream one day and they wound up with diarrhea the next. One pint of heavy cream has something like 8,000 calories, almost all from fat. Whoops.
The food came from a nearby Montessori School so we referred to our pigs’ meat as “Montessori Pork” and joked that if we ever sold the meat we could get a premium price for it. “No, no. Not organic. Montessori.” Early retirement here we come!
Coming next blog entry: wallows, dealing with pig shit, the pig house, butchering, and more.