This week we took our first pig into the processor. We’ve brought other pigs into the processor for friends of ours, but this week was the first time we brought in one of our own. Another big “first” for us at the farm. When we first got our pigs last fall, we got 11 gilts turned sows that will be our forever mommas. Then we also got some barrows to raise up as feeder pigs. I knew this day would come, pasture raised craft pork is why we got into this racquet. Because responsibly raised heritage pork is delicious and amazing. And our breed, the Iowa Swabian Hall, is extra special and succulent. Raising hogs has been a great journey/comedy/soap opera during sweeps week and also a workout that’s better than any Richard Simmons’ VHS. God bless you, Richard Simmons. But it has also drummed up some emotions that I had never experienced as a farmer or a regular person. When people come out to the farm or even ask us about the farm, we always get asked similar questions when it comes to raising up pigs for meat, and I thought I would answer some of those questions here. Hopefully it will shed a light onto our experiences as hog farmers, animal lovers and also meat eaters and how it’s possible to be all three at the same time.
Question: So what do you do with these pigs?
We have two separate herds right now. One herd consists of eleven adult sows (females) that are our resident breeders. We introduce them to a boar, they get bred and have cute babies. Then we take those babies and either 1) keep a few as feeder pigs, 2) keep a few to grow up as additional breeders or 3) sell them as feeders once they’re weaned. A common practice in pig farming is to establish a “grower/finisher” relationship with other farms. That’s part of what we do with our herd. Basically we mainly deal with mommas and babies, then when the babies are weaned, they go off to our friends’ farm that will raise them up as feeders. Once we finish our rotational grazing pasture system, we’ll be able to have more momma pigs as well as keep more feeders for ourselves.
Our second herd is our feeder herd. Our feeder pigs live in a separate pasture and get fed spent grain from Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, pig food that’s rich in vitamins and minerals, and also leftover produce from a local produce stand as well as our farm. They’re wonderful and we love interacting with them every day. Our wedding pig, Piggy Azalea, also lives with them although she’ll soon take her place into the “big girl” pasture with the other momma pigs once she gets big enough. As for the other pigs, we raise them up to a desirable size for our chefs and customers then take them into be processed for butcher. Our motto is “a very great life and one very bad day.”
Question: How do you not get attached to them? Doesn’t that feel weird?
The short answer of this question is.. we do get do get attached to them. We don’t treat our feeder herd any different from our breeder herd. We spend equal amounts of time with each herd. Now, we’re much more “hands on” with our breeders because we work very closely with them when they’re farrowing. Now that they’ve gotten to know us and know that we’re good people (i.e. the bringers of the food), they trust us and are very comfortable with us. We give them lots of love and belly rubs and I guess that makes it ok for us to be around their babies. This wasn’t the case when they came to the farm last October, it took a lot of work but now it’s great. With the feeders, we hang out with them in the pasture and even hand feed them. Just because their purpose in life is different than our breeders, it doesn’t mean that they should get treated any less. We show no favoritism between our breeder herd and feeder herd. Every animal on our farm serves a purpose, so everyone gets treated the same. There’s no other option for us. What’s the alternative? Treat the feeder herd as “lesser pigs” because their purpose of life is eventually to be on the dinner plate? That would be weird. And it’s also not fair to them at all. So we love all our pigs and get attached to them all the same.
We even name some of them. Not normal names like Hank or Chuck, but names like “skunk face,” “airplane ears,” “Nutsack,” and “little Nutsack.”
Question: Doesn’t it feel weird, naming them, getting attached then taking them to the butcher?
For us, it all boils down to respect and responsibility. It is our job and responsibility to take care of them and give them the very best life possible. Feeding them, giving them a wallow in summer and a warm bed in winter. Taking care of boo-boos and giving them lots of room to exercise and be a pig. Plus, we don’t charge them rent or utilities and they don’t have a curfew. So that’s good. In return, it’s their job to provide sustenance for us and many other people and families in our community. We respect the life that they give us, so we make sure that we make their lives as easy and pleasant as possible.
That being said, when we loaded up our first pig onto our trailer, I got sad. I was sad because I knew what was coming for him. I was sad because I hated to see him go and I would miss seeing him out in the pasture. A few weeks before we got our own pigs, we took a friend’s pig into the processor. Dave and I had never done that before and we wanted to do it together. It was a weird experience to say the least but it didn’t really draw up a lot of emotions. But now that it was time for us to take one of our own pigs in, the emotion train came around the bend full speed ahead. Dave took the pig into the processor the next day and I stayed behind but not before I said my goodbyes to the pig. I thanked him for the life he gave us. As a farmer, I knew that I did the best that I could to ensure he always had a full belly, lots of company, a roof over his head and plenty of room to run. Last week I saw a trailer full of CAFO standard pink pigs going down the highway and I felt heavy-hearted just looking at them. I felt bad for their lives that they probably had. This pig probably lived in a shitty concrete confinement lot and never saw sunshine, rooted in the fresh grass or played in the rain. But with our pig, I was sad for a different reason. Not because I felt bad for the life he led, but because I would miss him. And that feeling is ok. Because that means I care.
The next day I went to the processor to pick up the pig. I loaded it up into our new van, drove it home and hung it in our walk-in. I stepped back to take a look at it and felt an overwhelming sense of pride. You could tell that this pig was well fed and well cared for. His balanced diet and pasture life had created a perfect marbling of red meat with a great balance of creamy fat. It looked great! I took a picture and for the next few days, Dave and I were showing it off to our chef friends like we were showing off a baby picture. We gave this pig a wonderful life and now he’ll make many, many mouths and bellies happy. The people that get to enjoy our pork can eat well, knowing that our pigs are treated with respect, love and care. We care about our pigs lives and we care about providing excellent pork to our community.
So yes, we love our pigs and yes, we will take them to the processor for butcher. But when you know in your heart of hearts that you gave this pig a wonderful life and just one very bad day, you can’t really feel bad about it. I’m sure it will get better over time… or knowing me, it probably won’t because I’m a huge softie. But I also know full well that if we didn’t take pigs to the processor, our farm would quickly be filled with over 200+ pigs and they’ll take over every square inch of the farm. And probably our house.
Question: How could you eat pork after going through all of that?
Lots of people eat pork and have no idea really what it takes to get that pork on their table. They don’t know where their food comes from and how it is treated by humans.. or robots. News flash, the pork that you get in the grocery store came from a pig that was once alive. I read some internet comment, or maybe it was a Leno “headline” that said they only wanted to eat meat where no animals were harmed. Which is ridiculous. Where does person think their meat comes from? At least with us and fellow pig farmers, we’re with them from beginning to end. And yet, we’re the weird ones for raising pigs, giving them a wonderful life on our farm then taking them into the butcher. If anything, I love our pork more because I understand what it takes to get that pork on our dinner table. We have a strong connection with our food and that’s something that most people don’t have these days. When you get pigs from a normal big box grocery store you don’t know how that pig lived its life, how it was treated or what it ate. But with us, we know (and our customers can know) exactly how that pig lived day in and day out. As a meat eater, that makes me happy knowing that each meal is filled with love and respect for what we do.
In conclusion, I still love raising pigs. I love our breeders and our feeders. I love spending time with them in the pasture. I love spoiling them rotten with fresh food and belly rubs. I love watching them roll around in their wallows. I love their little grunts and farts. I don’t particularly like loading them up onto the trailer but I love knowing full well that they were given an excellent life and only one very bad day. And I love supporting our local food scene by providing healthy, pasture raised heritage hogs and craft pork. I love having a connection to the food that I eat. I love our pigs and I love our pork. And it’s absolutely possible to love both things at the same time.