On a cold, clear November morning, six students from across Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio gathered to perform a sacred act. They didn’t know each other prior to their arrival at Firefly Valley Farm in southern Indiana. They were from a variety of backgrounds, but all shared a hunger for the knowledge of a ritual carried on for generations. All yearned to understand and practice the skill of humanely harvesting and processing a hog.
COVID-19 significantly affected large-scale meat processors as the virus found an ideal home in the industry’s close, cramped processing quarters. The domino effect across the meat system impacted farmers and processors of all sizes, backlogging the already fragile agriculture system.
One unexpected result of the pandemic was the selling of unsupportable pigs to laymen. This, combined with the small but growing niche of small farmers raising heritage-breed hogs, further stretched a network of small-scale meat butchers already hamstrung by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations geared toward the larger meat industry. The result was an abundance of hogs without knowledgeable people to harvest them. Enter Doug Wharton and Andy Lane of Hand Hewn Farm in Fresno, Ohio, and their whole-hog slaughter, butcher, and curing workshops.
Doug and Andy’s workshops often take place on farms where the farmers are both the hosts and the students. Until 2020, Robby and Kelly LeBourveau of Firefly Valley Farm were novice pig farmers and butchers. They raised four pigs (two for neighbors) that year on organic fermented grains alongside a flock of chickens on southern Indiana hills. While current USDA regulations prohibit third-party selling of the meats to their regular customers at farmers markets, the raising and harvesting of their own hogs gets them one step closer to an independent, animal-conscious, and sustainable lifestyle.
Each hog harvest starts with a shot of bourbon and a poetry reading from Tanya Amyx Berry and Wendell Berry’s book For the Hog Killing, 1979. Recently, I sat down with Wendell on his farm to discuss the pitfalls of modern agriculture, and to talk about his friends who helped with that hog killing in 1979. In person, he reiterated, “The traditional neighborly work of killing a hog and preparing it as food for humans is either a fine art or a shameful mess.”
Half the students in the Firefly Valley Farm workshop were there because they hadn’t experienced the fine art of a hog harvest. Doug started the education with a discussion of the welfare of the pig, and the tremendous effort that goes into raising pigs well. From the start of the shot and bleeding, we were skillfully walked through how to use every part of the animal. “Nose-to-tail” harvesting for pigs is fundamentally different from techniques used in most modern slaughter facilities or by the casual hunter. Unlike most modern meat factories, nose-to-tail harvesting uses all parts of the animal for human consumption. It includes scraping the intestines for casings and the head for stock, and saving the blood for sausages.
After the pig was hung, halved, and left overnight, my turn at the knife truly began. Not a complete novice, I was there to sharpen my charcuterie skills under Andy’s experienced eye. I have a deep passion for cured meats, and the lessons I learned did not disappoint. We cut and cured coppa, guanciale, lardo, prosciutto, pork chops, and, of course, bacon. Later in the evening, we prepared pâté, goetta, lard, and stock. This is not solitary work, and is helped by collective experience and multiple hands. Someone must keep an eye on the stock, stir the goetta, and keep the plates and glasses full. We started as strangers, but by the end of three days, our shared passion for the pig had resulted in a unique camaraderie.
Sitting with Wendell a few weeks later, socially distanced across a wood-fired stove, it was that camaraderie that obviously affected him most as he spoke of the community of friends needed to do the job right. America’s industrialized agriculture system has brought us inexpensive food in grocery stores, but we’ve lost a connection to the land and the source of sustenance. And, with industrialization, we’ve also lost something of the connection to our neighbors. COVID-19 has highlighted the necessity of these connections.
Photo by Andy Lane
Back home, I hung the coppa and prosciutto in a dry, dark space in my attic, with a fan for circulation. I smoked the bacon and guanciale, and then hung them upstairs as well. Once the meats reach approximately 40 percent weight loss, they’re vacuum-sealed for even flavoring. Because of its weight, the prosciutto will eventually move to the basement with the fan. Achieving 40 percent weight loss takes much longer on a 25-pound leg, and the attic won’t remain cool enough in summer. Taking home half a pig sounds substantial, but by summer, all that’s left are the cured meats. There’s something fundamentally satisfying about serving a charcuterie plate on a summer afternoon that you can claim is 100 percent from your hands.
Hog harvest used to be, by necessity, a community affair. Our shared workshop experience leaned on that tenet. Hog killing is hard work, and even more difficult without the help of friends, neighbors, and like-minded assistants. Workshops like Doug and Andy’s are gradually building a community of farmers and hobbyists passionate about taking care of the land, animals, and each other. Especially in these pandemic times, that sense of community is needed in a practical sense, and even more in an emotional one.
Charles Luke is a father, farmer, and full-time U.S. Army soldier. His passions include charcuterie, land conservation, and promoting small farmers making a difference.