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An Appeal to Nature

Garth Brown |

Our pigs live in a hoop made of bent chain link fence pipe and billboard tarps, sleeping beneath advertisements for bourbon and health care providers on a bed of wood chips and hay. My brother Ed takes care of the morning feeding, but the afternoon chores are mine, so around three most days I put on my boots and hike up the hill to make sure they’re topped off with whey and balage. One of them usually spots me and raises the alarm when I’m fifty yards out, so by the time I huff up to the enclosure they will be crowded around the troughs, and while I fiddle with insulation and valves they squeal encouragement and nose the black pipe that dispenses their dinner. There’s one who drinks her whey shoulder to shoulder with the other pigs, and when I toss in armfuls of hay she puts her snout into it and sets to work, but in her case all this eating doesn’t take.

By any measure she isn’t keeping pace with her littermates. The old livestock scale has long since resorted to approximating rather than actually weighing, but its one consistency is placing her at the bottom of the tally. She’s the first to catch a cold and the last to kick it. A pig should be vibrant; she is most mornings, but four or five times she’s had inexplicable bouts of listlessness. A pig should gulp down food in indiscriminate mouthfuls, and, through the biochemical alchemy that raising livestock relies on, the fodder should week upon week pad out hams and thicken backfat; she eats well enough, but no transmutation results. A pig should have all the figure of a dirigible; she could be wearing a corset. In other words, she’s a poor doer.

“If you’re gonna have livestock, you’re gonna have deadstock,” our neighbor Don would say. This fatalism is cold, but it’s comfort enough the blessedly rare times a calf or chicken, perfectly normal one afternoon, has turned up dead the next morning. After an inconclusive post-mortem, a perusal of the Merck Veterinary Manual, and some speculation about potential congenital defects, it’s time to get on with things. But an unhealthy animal, even if the causes of its problems are every bit as unknowable as the cause of a sudden death, is not so easily accepted. When a pig - skinny and randomly lethargic and just so obviously less well than she should be - stares up at me, I can’t help taking it as something of a personal failing. Like all pigs her eyes are youthful, glittering orbs surrounded by creases and heavy lids, and in my more fanciful moments I think the look of dumb wisdom they give her suggests she knows things could be better even if she doesn’t know how.

Because she has a fine appetite, my mind runs to the quality of the feed. Instead of corn and soybeans the pigs have pasture in the summer, hay or baleage in the winter, and they gulp down as much whey as they care to drink regardless of the season. Conventional wisdom says this is inadequate for a hog, and as much as I hope it’s more convention than wisdom, when I see her come out for her meal looking no better than the day or week before, I wonder if a few judicious scoops of ration would set her right.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that none of the other pigs look so peaked as her, and this is how I found myself a couple months ago holding her as still as it is possible to hold a wriggling pig while Ed injected her with Ivermectin. The use of chemical wormers is every bit as textbook as feeding corn and beans, meaning most people who raise pigs say it's necessary, and it seemed sensible that an especially heavy parasite load might account for her slower growth. Before the injection she was given daily doses of rosemary and garlic, which in alternative agriculture circles are purported to be antiparasitic. Mixed with a few mouthfuls of fruity yogurt they smelled like a bad idea to me - like dessert tzaziki or a garlic and cherry pie - but she loved it and would soon come nosing around any passing ankles in hopes it was time for her medicine. It was only after a week of this treatment followed by week of observation failed to elicit a response that I went for the hard drugs.

Neither approach did a thing, of course, and I often doubt even separating her off from the others and feeding her donuts and beer would get her to fatten too much. I’ve called her peaky and a poor doer, but I could also describe her as a hard keeper, a runt, unthrifty or run down. While I suspect deadstock is a neologism that many farmers have coined independently, the surfeit of words ensconced in the dictionary that describe an animal seemingly born struggling suggests that pigs like mine have been preoccupying their owners since anyone first thought to keep one around.

Raising pigs with practices outside the mainstream exacerbates this preoccupation. A factory pig in a pig factory who fell so far behind her littermates would be an aberration hardly worth noting unless she was part of a pattern of such failures. But raising pigs outdoors on grass and whey introduces almost unlimited variables. Pasture changes from day to day, as does hay from bale to bale, and whey not just from one tank to the next, but also as it sits and settles and ferments in storage. There’s rain and snow, and most of all the fact that pigs are living things with different needs throughout their lives. Any of these singly or in combination could be causing issues not only for the poor doer but, unseen, for her siblings as well.

I’ve thought quite a bit about why I believe that, despite all these headaches, it’s better to have livestock on the land as much as possible and to feed them grass instead of grain. There are straightforward matters of human and environmental health, and there are practical matters of infrastructure and capital. But the vexed question as the pig snuffles at my feet, eternally hopeful that I’ll resume dispensing savory-sweet yogurt, is what’s best for the animals.

It’s tempting to say that whatever’s natural is better, and this idea has an intuitive appeal. Most people, I think, share a visceral horror at the idea of any living thing, be it a salmon or a chicken or a pig, being raised in an environment entirely unlike that inhabited by its wild counterparts. But domesticated animals are not their wild counterparts, and this obvious point complicates things to no end. I’ve come across the claim in several pro-industrial ag articles that all types of livestock are better off inside housing than left to the ravages of nature. I agree, at least in part. There are obvious health concerns - trying to raise broilers without giving them some sort of a roof would result in a bunch of dead chickens, and this time of year our pigs would have a hard time hacking it without their house and a huge nest of hay to pile up in. On the other hand, the fact that they don’t need routine antibiotics just to survive suggests to me that space, clean air and pasture have their merits too.

Any agricultural arrangement is not purely natural, at least if we take the word to mean untouched by human interference save that of hunter-gatherers. My sickly little pig is descended from a long line of domesticated pigs (who knows what greats she might count among her ancestors - the Erymanthian Boar? The Empress of Blandings?), all of which have largely owed their existence to farmers keeping their favorites and eating the rest. All the tools that I rely on to a greater or lesser extent, like fencing, water lines, chainsaws and tractors, serve to either directly alter the landscape or to do so by controlling the movement of stock. And then the clover I’m thrilled to see spreading through my pasture and the earthworms I’m thrilled to find wriggling beneath it are Eurasian interlopers whose effects on this land are as profound as those of the cows and sheep and pigs that have facilitated their spread.

Going into the weeds about what exactly might and might not constitute a natural farming practice gets boring fast. But the idea is useful when thinking about animal happiness, though happiness suggests something altogether too facile. A chicken with its face in a bowl of grain must experience pleasure, and a cow will go back to the trough again and again even as its rumen acidifies with potentially fatal consequence, which suggests it really enjoys eating corn and beans. Humans may drastically prioritize the present over the future, especially compared to the chipmunk who lives under the porch of the old farmhouse and spends every waking moment maniacally tucking away food, but the animals we’ve domesticated have even worse foresight than us. If given a choice, a cow will eat all sorts of horrific things, and she’ll probably enjoy every second of it, at least until she get the scours. Pigs will devour all sorts of even more horrific things and probably won’t be noticeably worse off for doing so. In their case I’d say the less natural something is the more they seem to like it, and they’ll gulp down as much as they can as fast as they can, with no thought of tomorrow.

But as much as they enjoy eating, all types of livestock are more complicated than machines with the sole function of turning feed into meat, even if commercial broiler chickens come disturbingly close. I’ve raised them in the past, and it gets pretty depressing watching them waddle back and forth between the feed and the water, gasping as they go. Our little flock of laying hens and roosters, while hardly junglefowl, are altogether more capable creatures. They range out far from their house when there’s no snow to stop them, scratching and pecking, and they’re smart enough to take cover when a hawk soars over. They can fly up into the rafters of the pole building to roost, and they spend cold winter afternoons clucking to each other. But, being poor cross-species conversationalists, they can’t tell me how much happier these activities make them than if I kept them cooped up with just food and water all day.

I’m not naturally prone to anthropomorphizing animals, so I blush with embarrassment at the impulse to describe the life of a pig that roots and grazes and sleeps in a pile of other pigs as meaningful or, God forbid, self-actualized. Ultimately, however, meaning and purpose are the best words I have to describe the ideals I want the farm to rest on, and to my mind the meaning and purpose of each animal must be derived from its nature, even if that nature is varied and malleable within a species. I hope the pigs we breed going forward will be more suited with each generation to a life of grazing, drinking whey, and living on pasture, just as I hope our cows and our fields will continue to improve in tandem.

I try to hold to a vision of this farm as an agricultural ecosystem. It isn’t an attempt to create a small chunk of wilderness or even a poor approximation of it with cows in place of buffaloes and me, I guess, in place of wolves. Instead I see it as a truly pastoral pursuit in which I can nudge animals and plants toward doing things they instinctively want to, and I hope that over the coming years and decades conscientious management will bring the hills and woods closer to my imagined landscape of pigs snorting up acorns and apples and of pasture so high the cows get lost in it. The bet I’m making is on even the poor approximation of this vision being better - for the land, for the farmers, for the animals - than pursuing a vision in which livestock is bred and managed to do as little as possible other than grow. It’s a bet on chickens that flap and forage instead of chickens that can only eat and grow or eat and lay.

Yet even while I picture rows of willow coppice, their canes in conspiring bunches stretched out across what is now a bald, white field or a pig that runs to fat even on grass alone, my mind returns to the poor doer, and I have no more idea than before what I owe her. If anything I have less. Supposing bringing her from the hoop down to the barn and feeding her ration would make her grow faster, would the difference be worth removing her from the company of her littermates, who she has been with from birth? I want something to improve her lot, but it might well be there’s nothing to be done. I can’t think of anything as catchy as Don’s line about deadstock to express the peculiar discomfort of the situation. Poor doer or any of the other words I’ve used don’t capture it, and “If you’re gonna have livestock, you’re gonna have animals who don’t gain as readily as they should and otherwise weigh on your mind by being generally less healthy than their brethren” doesn’t slip off the tongue.

Like all the pigs she will end up as food, though it should be pretty obvious by this point that I don’t subscribe to the idea that death negates the usefulness and quality of a life. If I did I’d be in a different line of work, or at least running a very different kind of farm. Still, it’s always somber to kill an animal or send it to slaughter, and I expect I will feel a particular twinge with her. I’ll tell myself that the life she lived was, at the very least, worlds more pleasant than those of most other pigs raised in this country, but I’ll still be left wondering if it could have been better.

Garth Brown

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