Raising Pigs for Food

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The skills and know–how which were accepted as an ordinary part of rural life a hundred years ago, therefore, must — for the most part — be relearned today through books or periodicals such as the one you're now reading.
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Hardwood only is the rule for smoking. The pinyon pine we use for fuel around here would soon ruin any ham so we operated our smokehouse on oak. It's the only suitable wood that's common in these parts and it gives meat a delicious flavor and aroma.

Most of us who have returned to the land within the past
few years are products of the cities and suburbs. As such,
we’ve had little or no previous experience with the
everyday realities of homestead living.

The skills and know-how which were accepted as an
ordinary part of rural life a hundred years ago, therefore,
must — for the most part — be relearned today through
books or periodicals such as the one you’re now reading.
Unfortunately, however, if one delves very deeply into just
about any subject he is likely to come across some
contradictions. There are, in other words, many more ways
than one to skin a cat . . . and, if my experience is any
indication, there must be at least a hundred ways to skin a
hog.

Raising Pigs for Food

We bought an eight-week-old pig last April for $25.00 (the
going local price) to raise the pig for food. At the time we were blissfully ignorant
of the many different opinions about proper hog culture . .
. which was probably to our advantage, since we managed to
raise our Shirley Pearl to a happy, healthy 250 pounds
without being confused with the “facts”. It wasn’t until I
began researching this article that I became fully aware of
the many schools of thought — most of which conflict
with each other — on raising pigs. Maybe you’re aware
of these honest differences of opinion, maybe not. Still,
if you think you can stand yet another point of
view, I’d like to tell you of our experiences with
homestead pork production.

In MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 18, on page 70, Sarah Funk tells us, “The
fact is that a lone hog doesn’t grow well at all (he likes
to have company). “
This opinion is echoed, in even
stronger terms, by John Seymour in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 29; ” I
will personally have no part in suggesting to anybody that
they should buy one [pig]. I have made the point that the
husbandman is a benevolent ruler and not a tyrant, and a
benevolent ruler does not keep anybody in solitary
confinement.

Had we been informed of this before we purchased Shirley
Pearl, we probably would have thought twice about the
project . . . since our finances at that time would not
support the expense of feeding two animals. As it was, we
were able to get a limited amount of high quality garbage
from a friend who runs a local restaurant. Even with this
and lots of greens from our garden, however, Shirley’s diet
had to be supplemented with grain from the feedstore. (We
kept a five gallon can of corn and barley on the stove
because cooking increased the mixture’s volume and
palatability many times.) The cost of this
ration — almost $10.00 per hundred pounds — made us
painfully aware that one acre of land is not enough for
self-sufficiency if you expect to raise feed for your
livestock in addition to a regular garden. Two hogs would
have broken our budget in two, and we’d have been hard
pressed to preserve that much meat.

Anyhow, as it turned out, Shirley wasn’t lonely (she lived
next door to the goats, and spent many an hour conversing
with them through the fence) . . . and she put on all the
weight we could have hoped for.

Now, when one is raising an animal for food, he is always
aware at the back of his mind that the day will come when
that creature must be slaughtered. This killing business
has always been a problem with me. At one point in my life,
I even became a vegetarian for that reason . . . but soon
had to admit that I had eaten meat all my life and that I
still liked it. This led me to accept the fact that plants
and animals live upon this earth in a harmonious
relationship, and that death and life are but two halves of
one reality which is the same for all living things.

Shirley was a friendly and intelligent creature, and all of
us became very much attached to her. We didn’t attempt to
think of her as “the pig” or deny ourselves the pleasure of
her personality . . . which was every bit as unique as the
cats’, the dog’s, or the goats’. Many articles about
raising hogs recommend having the killing and butchering
done by a professional slaughterhouse . . . but this, in
our opinion, is a cop-out. If one is going to eat meat, we
feel, he should take the responsibility of killing it
(which, to be sure, would probably lead to there being a
lot more vegetarians in the world). So, guided by this
philosophy, we did our own butchering and Shirley Pearl
died the way she lived: surrounded with respect and
affection.

The proper method of killing a pig seems to be a subject of
some contention. The Morton Salt booklet A Complete
Guide to Home Meat Curing,
a part of which is
reprinted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 17, states: ” To butcher by
sticking only is the most practical, efficient method of
killing hogs, and also the most humane. It is best not to
stun or shoot a hog before sticking.
We
could not conceive how such a procedure could be considered
“humane” in any way, shape, or form, so we read on.
Farmer’s Bulletin No. 2138, Slaughtering, Cutting and
Processing Pork on the Farm,
printed by the Department
of Agriculture, told us: “Stun the hog by striking it
one sharp blow with a mechanical stunner or by shooting it
in the forehead midway between and slightly above the
eyes
. ” This method sounded more reasonable, but somehow
lacked the detail that I felt I needed before I’d feel
confident to do the job as quickly and painlessly as
possible.

Finally a chapter from John and Sally Seymour’s
Farming for Self-Sufficiency, reprinted
in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 29, gave me the explicit information I was
after: “I kill my pigs with a. 22 rifle which I claim
is the most humane method there could be . . . I always
shoot him in the brain. Draw a line with your imagination
from his left ear-hole to his right eye, and from his other
ear-hole to his other eye, and where the two lines cross,
shoot him. “
I was a bit worried that the power of a
.22-caliber bullet might not be enough to do the job,
because a friend had told me of a pig-killing he’d
witnessed which required three shots from a .38. Seymour’s
advice has the ring of authority to it, however, and since
a .22 caliber weapon was all I Had available, I decided to
use it.

Everyone seems agreed that a pig should be starved for 24
hours prior to slaughter. (Even this isn’t universal. As a
local farmer/hog killer put it: “Makes ’em a little cleaner
to work on, that’s all . . . but land, we do so many it
don’t matter.” — MOTHER
.) While it pained us to hear
Shirley’s squeals of hungry indignation, we followed this
advice and, as the day wore on, became more than a little
alarmed at the possibility of her busting out of her pen.
She didn’t, though, and early the next morning I went out
and fed her two quarts of homebrew. (Seymour recommends a
beer allowance for those butchering the hog, but we felt
that Shirley needed it more than we did.) Within the hour
she was a very mellow pig indeed. All that brew on an empty
stomach made her forget her hunger entirely, and when her
final moment came I can attest that she gave no sign that
she felt anything at all. I gave her an apple to eat and,
while she was placidly munching, shot her in the place
described. She fell over like a stone, whereupon I
immediately stuck her. In less than a minute she’d bled out
completely. It sounds brutal in the telling . . . but it
was a clean kill, and I felt good that I had done right by
my animal friend.

Now, there is one other point upon which most of the hog
experts seem to agree, and that is that the carcass must be
dipped in scalding water and scraped clean of hair and
dirt. The Morton Salt booklet and other authorities
describe the use of a “bell scraper”, which is the best
tool for this purpose. I had searched all over northern New
Mexico for such a device, but was told everything from “I
haven’t seen one of those in 20 years” to “They don’t make
them anymore”. Apparently even the small number of
individuals who still raise pigs have been brainwashed into
letting “George at the slaughterhouse” do the dirty work.
There are a few elderly Spanish-Americans around here,
however, who have held on to their independence . . . and
so I went to them to borrow a bell scraper.

At that point I learned that many of the old-timers in this
neck of the woods don’t scrape their hogs at all . . . they
skin them. “What’cha want to scrape ‘im for?” they asked.
“You gonna eat the skin?” There seemed to be so much common
sense in this approach that I went back to the books to see
if I could find some confirmation.

Sure enough, in “Feedback on Pigs and Pork” (MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO.
19), R.E. Rapp, M.D. had this to say: “A lot of
equipment, hot water, and hard work can be dispensed with
if the carcass is simply washed
offwith
warm, soapy water and rinsed and skinned. . . instead of
being scalded and scraped as is traditional No one eats the
skin on bacon or ham anyway, and the pieces cure and store
just as well without it… so why all this scalding and
scraping and lifting 250-pound hogs in and out of hot
water? Shoot it, stick it, scrub it, and skin it. It works
well for me. “

The Foxfire Book outlined a slightly different
approach: “Another [informant] told us that they used
to hang the hog up by the nose, cut the hide off in three-inch strips (
‘Hit’ll come
plumb off pertiest you ever seen
), and
gut it. “

Well, skinning was the method we used and, while I have no
experience with scraping for comparison, I can say that
removing the hide is somewhat tedious but not at all
difficult (or at least the job shouldn’t be
difficult under normal circumstances). In my case, it began
snowing about five minutes after I started the task. By the
time I’d finished there were two inches on the ground, and
my hands were numb claws.

It was at this stage of the game, incidentally, that we
began to run into some real contradictions on hogs. In the
February 1975 issue of Organic Gardening and
Farming
magazine, Gene Logsdon advises: “Get your
pig about April 15, or earlier if warm weather comes
earlier in your area. Then it will be ready to butcher by
August 1, before those miserably hot, late-summer days.

Then again, one seriously begins to doubt the advisability
of slaughtering hogs at that season of the year when he
learns from Farmer’s Bulletin No. 2138: “Fresh pork is
highly perishable; even at the customary refrigerator
temperature of 34 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit it deteriorates more
rapidly than other meats. “
(Here in western North
Carolina, Thanksgiving is the traditional date for
do-it-yourself butchering. The local expert quoted above
farms all summer, kills pigs for his neighbors all winter,
and won’t normally slaughter animals before late fall . . .
but this is partly a matter of convenience. — MOTHER
.)

The Foxfire Book, quoting the University of
Georgia Agricultural booklet Curing Georgia Hams
Country Style,
tells us: “Kill hogs only when the
temperature is 32 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Souring bacteria multiply
rapidly at temperatures above 40 degrees
Fahrenheit. ” This sounds
like reasonable advice, but then the paragraph continues,
Cure the meat immediately after slaughtering”,
directly contrary to information from the Morton Salt
guide, reprinted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 18: “Meat should not be
cut up and put in cure until it is thoroughly chilled. Bone
souring is often the result of meat being improperly
chilled or from the application of salt on warm meat.

Well, in our case, a full-fledged mountain snowstorm was in
progress by the time we carried our skinned carcass to the
root cellar to hang, and — even had we previously
decided to “cure the meat immediately” — we’d have
changed our minds, because I was in no mood at all to
continue the job under such conditions. In my misery out
there in the whirling whiteness I had slashed my hand very
badly, and Shirley’s and my blood were intermingled
splashes on the snow. What with one thing and another, we
let the pig hang overnight to chill out.

The next day, following the Morton Salt guide’s directions
(MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 18), I cut the carcass into hams, roasts,
chops, and bacon. It was an instructive experience, for now
I have a real understanding of where all those
wrapped-in-plastic hunks of pork at the supermarket
originate (and also what a rip-off their prices are). Every
carnivore owes it to his education to cut meat at least
once in his life. It isn’t at all difficult: Just go by the
directions in A Complete Guide to Home Meat
Curing.

Even Morton’s literature, though, is not without some
contradictions. I purchased a box of that company’s product
to cure our pork, and the information on the package said,
“Morton Tender-Quick — Cure for Fresh and Frozen
Meats. Use fresh meat or completely thawed frozen meat.”
Since it wasn’t convenient to begin curing the hams
and bacon immediately, we put all the cuts into the
deep-freezer until such time as was more suitable.
Then — after it was too late — we reread the
installment of the Morton booklet in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 18 and were
alarmed to discover the following: “Meat that is
allowed to freeze, either before or after it is put in
cure, will never make as nice a finished product as if it
had not been frozen . . . . Frozen meat should be given
extra care and attention and should be used up as soon as
practicable after coming from the cure.”

Needless to say, we were more than a little perturbed at
the possibility of winding up with inferior quality hams,
shoulders, and bacon, but we went ahead with the process
anyway. The dry-cure method described in the Morton booklet
sounded like the easiest, so that’s the one we chose. If
you want to read some conflicting information on the curing
process, however, then the following quotations should
prove interesting:

  • “For the dry cure, use Tender-Quick at the rate of 6 pounds. Tender-Quick per 100 pounds of loins.” (Morton Salt
    guide, MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 19.)
     
  • “We have a big slate salting bench. We dump dry salt on
    this (you will need at least forty pounds of salt to do a
    pig in comfort. If you wish to be more economical with salt
    you will have to be a lot more careful and take a lot more
    trouble. We just use a lot of salt and bury the pig in it).
    (John and Sally Seymour, Farming for
    Self-Sufficiency
    , MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 29.)
     
  • “There were different ways to begin the curing. Mann
    Norton’s father would simply `cover each hunk of meat
    up
    good and white’ with salt. Taylor Crockett
    preferred eight pounds of salt for each hundred pounds of
    meat. . . ‘Valley John’ Carpenter used simply five pounds
    of salt for a two-hundred pound hog. Lon Reid used ten
    pounds of salt per hundred pounds of meat.”
    (The
    Foxfire Book
    , pp. 199-200.)
  • “The liquid formed from the meat juices will aid in
    curing the heavier pieces.”
    (Sarah Funk, MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 18,
    pg. 74.)
     
  • “Make sure meats don’t rest in the brine that will
    result as the moisture from the meat is drawn out by the
    salt.”
    (Stocking Up, Rodale Press, 1974,
    pg. 299.)

And so on. Apparently the process isn’t a particularly
critical one, and individual preferences play a large part
in the method chosen. We found that our pork, cured with
Morton Tender-Quick and Morton Sugar Cure according to the
manufacturer’s instructions, tends to be just a shade more
salty to the taste than we’re used to (though by no means
inedible). I think the clue here is that cured meats which
are purchased from the supermarket are treated for flavor
only, not for keeping qualities. It’s just a
matter of getting used to the difference. We can’t,
however, imagine what John and Sally Seymour’s
hams — buried in 40 pounds of salt — must taste
like.

Incidentally, don’t make the mistake we did with the
shoulders. Since they were smaller than the hams, they came
out of the cure sooner . . . and we wrapped them tightly in
freezer paper to hold them until all the meat could be
smoked at the same time. When we unwrapped the shoulders,
however, they had a definite rancid odor which we attribute
to the fact that they were closely covered while still
fairly moist. We cured this condition reasonably well by
scrubbing the shoulders with warm water and drying them
thoroughly. The smoke took away any remaining unpleasant
smell, and the one we’ve eaten so far had a good flavor.

That brings us to the next step in the curing process . . .
and let me tell you right now that smoking our own meat was
one of the biggest thrills we’ve had around here in a long
time! The process is so absurdly simple and the results so
delicious that I can’t understand why every homestead
doesn’t have a smokehouse.

We constructed our smoker from a description in
Stocking Up, a recent Rodale Press book about the
home preservation of foods ($8.95 from Rodale Press or from MOTHER’S Bookshelf). The
main unit — a junked refrigerator — was scrounged
from the dump, the compressor removed, and holes punched in
the top and bottom to receive a six-inch stovepipe (see the refrigerator smokehouse illustration in the image gallery). Eight lengths of pipe connect the smoker to a
firebox made from half of a 55-gallon drum. I made the
entire apparatus in only a few hours, and it works
beautifully.

As might be expected, there are plenty of contradictions
about the proper way to smoke meat. Here are a few of them:

  • “Hams should be hung with the heavier side up and the
    hock hanging down to retain the flavorful juices.”
    (Sarah
    Funk, MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 18, pg. 75.)
  • “Hams and shoulders should be strung through the
    shanks.”

    (Stocking Up, pg. 304.)
  • “The ideal temperature for smoking is between 110 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit.” (Sarah Funk, pg. 75.)
  • “Do not allow the fire to get too hot. The ideal
    smokehouse temperature is between 80 and 90 degrees
    Fahrenheit. This is called a cool smoke and is used to smoke
    meat that is to be aged or held for many months.”
    (Stocking Up,
    pg. 306.)
  • “Don’t allow the temperature in the smokehouse to
    exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.” (The Foxfire Book
    , pg. 201.)
  • “A temperature from 90 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit
    is
    normally used; the lower temperatures are preferred.” (Farmer’s Bulletin No. 2138, pg. 30.)
  • “In building your smokehouse, don’t be too concerned
    with providing vents through which the smoke can escape.
    The purpose is to hold the smoke in . . . it’ll find its
    own way out.”
    (Sarah Funk, pg. 75.)
  • “A draft is absolutely essential to the smoking
    operation; without it the smoke will stagnate in the
    smokehouse, and the smoked meat will have an objectionable,
    sooty taste.”
    (Stocking Up, pg. 293.)

A word about fuel: In MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 29, John and Sally Seymour
describe how they hang their pork in the chimney of their
fireplace to be smoked. They didn’t mention the subject,
but they must burn hardwoods exclusively for heating.

Hardwood only is the rule for smoking. The pinyon
pine we use for fuel around here would soon ruin any ham so
we operated our smokehouse on oak. It’s the only suitable
wood that’s common in these parts and it gives meat a
delicious flavor and aroma. Hickory, of course, is
traditional, but the literature we’ve read seems agreed
that any hardwood will suffice. Even corncobs are
recommended.

I hung our hams according to Sarah’s advice — heavy
side up — but I suspect that such a position is
necessary “to retain the flavorful juices” only in a hot
smokehouse when the pork is actually being cooked. (We
found from trial and error that this does happen at higher
temperatures. While the meat is utterly delicious in that
form, it won’t keep well and should be eaten as soon as
possible . . . not hard advice to follow when the product
tastes so good!) I kept the hams at 90 degrees Fahrenheit and found no
tendency for the juice to run at that heat.

The temperature of our refrigerator smokehouse was easy to
control by opening or closing the door slightly. A
thermometer was hung inside with the meat, and the
door crack adjusted every few minutes until the reading
remained constant. The hams were done in about two days of
more or less constant smoking. (The process is complete
when the meat takes on a rich chestnut color.) Following
the directions in Stocking Up, we loosely wrapped
each smoked piece separately in a paper bag, then a flour
sack, and stored them in a bin of wheat (any grain or
grain-like material will do).

Every writer seems agreed on the fact that home-grown pork
tastes superior to the supermarket variety. So, while we
expected our chops to be good, we were astounded at how
much better they were! There’s almost no
comparison, and we can only feel sorry for those people who
must rely on agribusiness to fill their plates. If you
don’t raise your own food, you don’t know what real
victuals taste like. (One of our favorite cuts is “hog
jowl”, sliced and fried like bacon and served with our own
eggs and homemade bread for breakfast.)

We regret we didn’t keep closer records of how much money
we spent in raising Shirley Pearl, but with liberal
“guesstimating”, we calculate that our pork cost us
somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 to 70 cents a pound. There
was nothing difficult in the entire experience, and we urge
anyone who is thinking about raising a pig to go “whole
hog”. Ignore the experts who advise you to let the
slaughterhouse do the dirty work. Anyone with an IQ over 60
can handle the job, and the self-confidence you get from
doing it all yourself is worth many, many times the price
you’d pay to “let George do it”.