For the third year in a row, fall has been a time of great mud for me. In the usual course of most people’s lives rainy days and time spent near creeks pretty well determine how mucky things get, but in my case I can almost entirely credit pigs. It would be more honest to say I blame them, even though I know it’s not fair. Cows and sheep will churn up the ground around their feeders, but they’re content to leave it at that. Pigs, on the other hand, when left in one place for any length of time, undertake serious renovations.
First, they turn over all the grass. Presumably they’re eating roots and grubs and whatever other tasty things they can find down there. It would be messy enough if, once they’d gotten this far, they stopped. But once they manage to convert the top layer of vegetation into mud, they become determined to find more mud under the mud, until they’ve churned and rooted everything, especially near their feeders, into a viscous sludge that gives me a fight for my boot with each step. I put down mulch hay to stabilize it, and I make sure the hoops have dry bedding for them to nest in, but this year the ninety odd pigs on the farm at the moment have made it clear that these are inadequate solutions.
One of the hardest parts of farming is the frequency of failure. Here are some issues, off the top of my head, that have come up in the past couple months: marketing our meat is difficult, the feeders I made didn’t work as planned, our lambs vary hugely in size. It’s not enjoyable to realize that something as significant as winter housing, which has been okay the past couple years, isn’t going to work; it’s downright terrifying to realize it in December.
At times like these - when it is abundantly clear how far from ideal aspects of the farm are - I sometimes think about the alternatives. Back when I was almost a vegetarian the reason for giving up meat I found most compelling was the suffering of commercially raised livestock. (I never stopped eating deer meat, because even though I had the incandescent certainty of a fifteen-year-old it was obvious that here were way too many of them around the suburbs where I grew up and that there was no reason fresh roadkill should go to waste.) Compared to the stress and boredom of a factory hog farm a muddy yard isn’t so bad.
Doing chores in cold and muck also isn’t nearly so horrible as (I imagine) working in a massive barn filled with thousands of constantly squealing pigs would be. To take it a step further, the entire process from start to finish is better for even the people ancillary to the farm. This article about turkey and even more the book The Chain describe in excruciating detail the human toll animal slaughtering exacts. For all the difficulties I’ve had with the small processors who do our butchering, from mistakes in the sausage recipes to confusion about cutting instructions, they don’t destroy their workers’ bodies.
All this is fine, but it’s not much. Saying my farm treats both animals and humans better than its industrial counterparts is about the faintest praise I can think of. It’s worthwhile to remember what the alternative looks like, but when that alternative is so dysfunctional, simply exceeding it isn’t much to brag about. So even though it means I fail more often, I’m glad that my ultimate goals are loftier. In the case of the pigs this means I want rooting only where it is working towards a larger land management goal, and I want winter housing that is light and spacious. I want it to be a comfortable place for pigs to live and for humans to work.
Put another way, I want to be proud to show anyone any aspect of my farm on any day. This is not to say I currently engage in subterfuge. When a friend or guest visits, I dutifully march up the hill with them to see the pigs in their hoops. But I'd like to walk with the same spring in my step I have going to visit the livestock on a warm day in July.
Luckily, I think I have a solution that will meet these criteria. But that’s a post for a future day.