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Pig Project Round 2

In the cow pasture with Justin Pitts
If a fortune teller had at any point in my childhood told me that I would 1. live in the South, and 2. raise pigs, I might have screamed and run. But here I am doing and relishing both.

This time around, my second foray into hog farming, I got big pigs. I loved the guinea hogs and how friendly they were, and the tasty meat and lard they produced. I still think that guinea hogs are the best pig overall for urban farming/homesteading because they are small, mellow, they’re an endangered heritage breed and they thrive on minimal amounts of food. The problem is that I have access to lots of food waste, since I work in a restaurant and cheese shop, and the guinea hogs couldn’t keep up. The guinea hogs tried valiantly to eat everything I brought them, but they couldn’t and they just put on straight fat and not much meat. By the end of March last year, they were definitely obese and it felt wrong, not really fair to the pigs, and I felt like I was practicing slightly irresponsible farming. I think they were happy pigs: they certainly never knew hunger and they got to forage and graze in addition to their rich diet of cheese and bread. They also got daily massages with a metal rake, which I have no doubt contributed to their overall well-being.

While lard is delicious, better for you than butter, and useful for making soap, I want to experiment with pigs who can eat a lot of food waste and turn it into a lot of meat. Which is what led me to Mississippi in the picture at the top.

I bought two feeder pigs from Justin Pitts, a Mississippi farmer of some fame in certain circles because of the heritage breed livestock he raises. The Piney Woods cattle, pictured at top and in the gallery, are a rare breed native to the Gulf region that descends from stock brought over by the Spanish conquistadors. They are particularly hardy, heat tolerant and resistant to parasites. Pitts’ cattle are a prized family heirloom and their lineage can be traced back over 150 years (after 150 years the records are lost). His animals are like a living museum: Piney woods cattle, Gulf Coast Sheep, Spanish goats and Cotton Patch Geese are all breeds that are unique to the United States, and are in danger of extinction. Visit the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website for more information on the endangered breeds Pitts raises.
Gulf Coast Sheep don't have wool on their face or bellies--an adaptation to the hot humid South

Many of the animals are descended from Spanish stock, and the Cotton patch geese have the unique claim to fame of helping families survive the Great Depression by providing meat, eggs, and grease with minimal feed. Most people don’t think of livestock as something that could go extinct, but these are dual purpose breeds that fell out of favor when agriculture became industrialized–instead of using animals that were good at producing multiple products, farmers switched to breeds that produced a lot of just one thing. Justin Pitts himself is a rare breed: a reticent Southern farmer of Scotch and Choctaw descent who continues to raise old breeds and laments the way the world is now.

Last week, on ‘pig day’, as we pulled up to the gate at Pitts farm, we were met by a bunch of beautiful spotted cows out on the road browsing on vines and foraging waist high in the neighbor’s field. We called Justin Pitts and he drove out to meet us and collect his cows.

When he rolled down the window of his truck, he bellowed out a cow-call of some sort and all the cows moo-ed in response–not a typical farmer/cow relationship. In fact, once all the cows were back in the right place, as we stood in the pasture talking about the stock, some of the cows appeared to be listening in on the conversation. I don’t mean from a distance, I mean two of the cows stood a human-distance away, watching us, closing the circle that included the four of us humans. We listened to Pitts’ story of their lineage, while the cows gave their approval of the tale, chewing repetitively.
She is listening

Then we moved on to pig collecting/wrangling. The pigs are a pretty standard breed, a Yorkshire cross. They are currently very skittish–they had never been off the Mississippi farm before and suddenly they were picked up and shoved in the back of a truck and driven for two hours. Pigs have horrible motion sickness (who knew?) and one of them spent most of the ride heaving and throwing up in the back. Now they are settled in, rooting up the backyard, and just generally making my life more interesting: daily bike rides with a five gallon bucket of slop fastened to the back. I feel like my life is back in order.
She's shy

The Value of Dirt

I have a few confessions to make:

1. I have failed at rabbit farming. I’m not willing to think that I’ve given it up completely, but with a sense of resignation, I sold all my rabbits for the time being. I think I got too many too fast and facing the slaughter of twenty rabbits at once (from two litters) was simply too much for me to handle. I also didn’t like keeping them solely in cages and the system I had was too high maintenance. So I sold the rabbits, with the intention of just giving it a break, and seeing if I want to try again on a smaller scale. But I’m discouraged on that front for the time being.

2. I have moved. Again. And this time the animals and the garden (so far) are not coming with me. It’s sort of a strange situation where I’m moving into a house that’s not totally finished and the yard is much smaller, and it’s in the path of a construction site with gates constantly open and people tramping through. It’s not a safe place for a single plant at the moment, let alone ducks and chickens. The ducks and chickens are happy where they are and I’ve worked it out so that I can still garden on and manage my former backyard. ‘Manage’ includes keeping ducks, chickens, bees and pigs or whatever else strikes my fancy as suitable as long as the new tenants know what is going on.

3. I am a dirt thief. Since a summer of neglect and overgrowth on the lot next door has not made the owner any more amenable to me gardening on it, I have simply stolen his dirt. Just enough to fence off a large section of lawn and turn it into raised beds. I say all this with glee, but the reality is that he will probably never notice or care.

View from the porch

That land is most valuable to me for the dirt that is on it, and now I have moved the good dirt into a sunnier spot in the backyard. How do you claim ownership of dirt anyway? I haven’t done anything to deter someone from building there, and I’m simply taking back the inputs that I put in over there. I took back the fence posts, the chickens and the perennials I planted over there, so why not take back the soil that I revived? If I built anything, I removed it, so since I built the soil, I think I can take it too, within reason. I added lots of compost to lower the concentration of lead in the soil over the course of last year, and I raked it clean and hauled out the random trash from Christmas tree garlands to asphalt shingles to the occasional drug needles.

This is my favorite time of year for gardening in Louisiana, and intend to use the good weather and healthy dirt that is going to grow the best plants. Fall here is like a second Spring and all the people and animals feel a renewed sense of vigor and rejuvenation. So, I’m attacking my garden first and have many other projects in the works.

More to come soon!

Duck wants in to destroy my snap peas

I’m tired of writing about blood and guts and disgruntled neighbors. I’m tired of feeling anxious about the fact that some of what I write about is illegal. And I’m tired of stressing about the borderline hate-mail that I get. So, I’m taking a vacation from controversy in this post. The main reason I don’t post here that often is because the above thoughts are what run through my mind most of the time, clouding out thoughts about what I enjoy.

One of the things I do most enjoy about my backyard at the moment are the ducks. On the cuteness meter, I don’t think any animal in the world beats a duckling–not even puppies. In April, near Easter, we had a backyard cute-off between baby rabbits and ducklings. I think the ducks won, but decide for yourself:

Face Off

I got ten day-old ducklings in the mail in April. When I stepped into the Louisiana Ave post office, the entire building was echoing with the din of the cheeping ducklings. As soon as I picked up the tiny cardboard box with quarter-sized holes, the cheeping stopped. They stayed quiet while the car was moving and until I got home. Then I opened the box, to much indignant cheeping, and lifted each one out individually to show it how to drink water. The ducklings lived in a rubber maid tub filled with shredded paper in the office, with occasional trips outside on sunny days to hang out on the grass in the old chicken tractor. Each morning, the back room that they inhabited rang with high-pitched cheeping as the ducklings greeted the day, or chatted with each other about their night. After about two weeks, the ducklings were comfortable spending the day outside, but still coming into the garage at night, until they finished feathering out. Ducklings need to be protected from cold until they get true feathers–in another situation they would have a mother to protect them from chills. Even as they got to an adolescent stage, and I tried to leave them outside for longer periods of time, I would come out after dark only to be greeted by a racket of cheep/quacks. The ducks seemed to be protesting that they wanted to go to bed, jumping up and down at the edge of the enclosure and making as much indignant noise as possible. Now that they’re adults, they own the backyard with the chickens, and are free to make their own schedule.


Watching them grow up so rapidly has been quite entertaining. They are skeptical, yet inquisitive creatures, enthusiastic about everything they do (as long as it’s their idea). As ducklings, one would get the idea to go into their water pan, then the rest would follow, cheeping as if to say, “That’s a great idea!” Then another duck would run out of the water, flapping ecstatically, waddling/running in a wide circle, as the rest decided to do it too. One duck would get the idea to eat and then the rest would see and run/flap/quack over to the feed, again as if to say, “That’s a great idea!” They seem to do everything with gusto: eating, waddling, quacking, sleeping, flapping, swimming, bathing. They talk about it all too: when they walk through the grassy weeds, they arch their necks down to the ground, using their beaks as a tool, digging for insects, roots, leaves, with muted quacks to each other about how each one’s find is more delicious than the others’. Mushrooms seem to be a particular favorite, and I often find them over on the mulch in the old pig pen the day after a rain, chatting and nibbling away on whatever fungi has popped up overnight.

I am allowing these animals to be my pets for now, because they are for egg-laying. I sold a few of the ducks, so now I only have four, a much more manageable flock number, comprised of two Welsh Harlequins and two Golden 300s (the Harlequins are the off-white ducks in the pictures). The Golden 300s are a breed developed to lay as many eggs or more as a chicken in a year (at least 300), but they are a hybrid, so the offspring won’t be true to the parents. Hybrids are generally not my thing, but these hopefully efficient ladies are an experiment for me.

They have quite simply made it much more interesting to open my back door. As soon as the ducks hear the door open, they quack (usually a trio of quacks from each duck, going from loud to soft, “QUACK, Quack, quack!). Stretching out their necks to see what I’m up to, the ducks then decide everything is as it should be and go back to the exciting routine of their busy young lives.

Evicted!

My days of gardening on borrowed land are over. The owner came by yesterday and said that I have until the end of June.

Row Crops on next-door lot

As of July 1st, my tomatoes and corn and squash have to start paying rent. And while $350 a month isn’t an unobtainable amount of money, it is a ridiculous amount when you look at this piece of land and its suitability for gardening. First of all, it’s oriented North/South, so that when the sun rises in the East, the land is shaded by my house, and then in the afternoon, the land is shaded to the West by a giant vacant 4-plex. I don’t even bother growing closer to the road, because there the land is sandwiched between my house and the one next door. Morning sun is the most important for growing vegetables and quite simply, half of this lot doesn’t get enough of it. In my bean and corn patch, it almost looks as though there is a line drawn in the crops; the corn that gets six+ hours of sun is over five feet tall and the corn that gets four hours of sunlight is stunted and knee height even though it was all planted at the same time. Then take into consideration the fact that it has cost close to $1,000 so far, to pay for renting a tiller, prepping the soil, adding amendments, getting soil tests, adding topsoil and compost, the cost of the plants and seeds themselves, and the cost of hiring someone to weed-whack the lot twice a month just to keep the poison ivy and Virginia creeper at bay. And, of course, my time and energy is free. Which has all been my folly simply because I liked the opportunity to be able to grow more vegetables, and I didn’t like to look at the litter and vine and weed tree-infested swamp outside my kitchen window.

September 2009

In all fairness, I do understand where the owner is coming from, because I know how much he paid for this 30′ x 150′ piece of jungle in the ghetto, and it was too much. And now he has a piece of land worth less than what he bought it for, that he has to pay taxes on, and it doesn’t generate any income. And the idea that someone is getting something, anything out of it, simply irks him. He’s been relatively cool up until now, but I simply feel like complaining here, since, from my point of view, his lot has gained in value since Albert renovated the once-dilapidated house we live in next door, we’ve taken an overgrown eyesore and removed the asbestos and plastic and garbage, and planted sunflowers that are visible from the street. But I can’t argue with ownership. If he doesn’t find a tenant for the land, it will undoubtedly return to its former state of unkempt-ness, full of invasive weeds and mosquitoes. Which is sad, because even with its too-much sodium and lack of sun issues, the land is in the process of producing some beautiful produce. The soil itself is rich and full of worms and organic matter from being left alone for so long.

And secretly I’m jealous, and nervous that someone might actually pay $350 a month and grow a better garden than me and figure out how to make money doing it. I planted in late February–and then I didn’t harvest anything until the beginning of May. Forty eight pounds of produce has made it’s way into my kitchen. (Yes, I’ve been weighing everything to see if I’m even breaking even by growing my own vegetables). In my part of the world, local tomatoes sell for $3/lb., at the Farmer’s Market, and that’s on the expensive end of the vegetable spectrum. So, maybe I’ve harvested $150 worth of vegetables, some of them imperfect, split, or with bug holes. And down here, this is peak season. May in New Orleans is like August almost everywhere else. So, I’m lucky that I get to keep harvesting through June. By July, most of the plants will stop flowering and fruiting because they have their hands full just trying to survive the heat. Reproduction is a luxury, even in the plant world.

But I may not see my yellow Sweet Siberian watermelons, or the Moon and Stars watermelons reach their full potential. And I was hoping to plant a few low-maintenance crops that don’t mind the heat of summer: sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas and peanuts. I was somehow hoping that my money and time invested was an investment in the future, so that next year, there would be fewer inputs and more productivity.

It looks like there will never be a return on my investment. But, my time and energy invested haven’t been wasted–I’ve learned how to be a better gardener. There is undeniable optimism in watching plants grow, even if you will never get anything in return. So, what I can say is that in my time in this neighborhood, I have made the world around me (all 30′ x 150′ of it) somewhat better. Even if my garden amounts to not much more than sunflowers that are visible from the street.

First sunflowers

I’ve spent the past month wondering how to write about slaughtering my pigs. I’ve not only been wondering, but I’ve actually been afraid to write. Rabbit meat/slaughter has been getting a lot of press lately and the reaction to it has been, to me, mostly horrifying. (The New York Times article is titled “Don’t Tell The Kids”). Much of the response to the rabbit-slaughter seminar has been one of outrage: “what’s next, eating dogs?” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because most of the people that find my blog via search engine are entering ‘woman slaughter rabbit,’ and the only negative comments I’ve received have been about my rabbits. But, this post today is actually about the slaughter of my pigs, and while pigs aren’t as sentimental an animal for most people, they are smarter and much bigger than rabbits.

There’s a reason why animals raised for meat are kept in inhumane conditions. A pig in a cramped pen with a concrete floor isn’t going to get a chance to develop a personality, or at least express it. And it’s much easier to kill a pig with no personality than the one that chews on the cuff of your jeans and rolls over to be scratched with a rake. It’s also much easier to send an animal to the butcher than to organize a humane slaughter in your backyard, with guns, gambrel hooks, stainless steel tables and a small army of people early in the morning willing to help with some very dirty work.

For the whole week leading up to Easter Sunday, I had nightmares. I woke up several times in the middle of the night, sweating, my ears ringing with the imagined sound of screaming pigs and blood. Had I given my pigs enough of a life? Were they ever afraid, or uncomfortable? As far as I can tell, they enjoyed food more than anything else in the world and I gave them way more than they actually needed. They also had a good time rooting and flopping in the mud, and I made those activities available to them almost every evening. I gave them the ability to just be pigs, which is, I think what every animal wants: the freedom to express the traits of their species and their personalities. And, in the end, these pigs never even would have existed if there wasn’t a demand for their meat. So, you have to eat them to save them. Again.

Everyone I talked to told me that I wouldn’t be able to slaughter a pig without it screaming, or that a .22 wouldn’t be able to do the job, and there would definitely be a lot of blood. But, after weeks of planning and worry and interrupted sleep, I couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer–everything was in order.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

It’s 7:30 in the morning, and everyone’s nerves are on edge. Our next door neighbor, Mr. George, appears at the chain link fence on the street in front of our house and yells, “They still alive?!” So much for discretion.

Luckily, the neighborhood is still ‘up-and-coming’ (still partially vacant since Katrina) so no one is really suspicious about what we’re doing, just why we’re here in the first place. Once the stainless steel tables were cleaned, the knives laid out, and the chainsaw running (to cover up the noise of the gunshot), there were no more distractions to keep us from the task at hand. Albert revved the chainsaw, Andy loaded the gun, and I grabbed some grain.

Butcher knives

As soon as we approached, the first pig raised his head at the sound of the grain shaking in the can and that was the last thing he saw. The bullet from the .22 hit him point blank between the eyes. The pig convulsed for about fifteen seconds, then was still. The chickens (dirty birds) ran straight to the blood that dripped on the ground and started drinking it. Then we dragged the carcass to a cleaner spot and Andy stuck a knife between the collarbone and the neck and cut the aorta, sending a final gush of blood out onto the grass.

Pig about to bleed out

The cloud of worry that had been weighing me down all week had been lifted, but now it was time to get to work, before the day got hot enough to spoil the meat. We laid the carcass on a stainless steel table, and cut through the tendons on the hocks to hang the hog carcass on the gambrel hook. Once the carcass was hooked, three strong men grabbed the other end of the rope and pulled the carcass upward through the pulley system rigged up. They dipped the pig into a large vat of nearly boiling water, let it sit for several minutes, then hoisted it out onto the table. The rest of us got to work scraping the bristly hair. It was hot, smelly work, and the skin never quite got as clean as I hoped, but we had to move on and get this pig gutted, then packed on ice so we could move on to the next pig.

Scraping the hair off the hog carcass

Half a pig, getting broken down for the freezer

The next pig was the bigger pig and he was harder to slaughter. But, by 11 o’clock, we had two pigs scraped, gutted and cut in half, sitting on ice, and I had a leg of meat in the oven for dinner. There was still a lot of work to do, cutting up the meat in manageable-sized pieces for the freezer. In fact, it took weeks to continue to render the fat, make sausage, and break the larger cuts down. But, for now, it was time to celebrate, because the hardest part, psychologically at least, was over. I broke out the mimosas.

Ham and leg ready for the oven - so much fat!

It’s Almost Time

Baguette for a pillow

Spring is here, and the pigs are beginning to smell. Which means: the pigs are running out of time. I’ve never dispatched a pig before and all week I’ve been feeling a little sick with worry at the thought of it. But my friend, and pig project partner, who is from Alabama, seems to think that hog butchering and eating isn’t anything out of the ordinary. In fact, everyone from the South seems to think that hog butchering is just about as American as the Fourth of July. In the last few months alone, there was a free hog roast on the river by Audubon Park, and next week there’s a benefit for the Hollygrove Market simply called “Roast Beast: A History of Animal Husbandry from Snout to Tail,” a fundraiser for the non-profit where they serve a whole pig.

Hog Roast


Southerners aren’t afraid of a whole hog, laid out on a table in the open, to be eaten by hand. But let me tell you, I had never experienced such a thing in my life. I got to eat the jowl.
Tail!

Tail!

These pigs aren’t going to get cooked whole as I had previously planned. I want to try every different part of them, and I just can’t eat that much all at once. I still hope to share the meat as much as possible, and have lots of bbqs, but I want to be able to know how the chops, hams, ribs, bacon, belly, jowl, feet and tail all taste. And I don’t have the energy for all of that in one day. A pig raised on fine cheese and baguette leftovers isn’t something to be squandered; I want to savor it as much as possible.

So, I’ve got all that sorted out, but now I just have to arrange the killing and butchering. I know these animals, and so the prospect of things not going smoothly or quickly makes me queasy. A good farmer should provide everything an animal needs to live a life free from fear, and I think I have done that. I have given them excellent food, an adequate shelter, and a chance to forage and run around. They have provided me with entertainment value, and soon, sustenance.

Food Trough Pillow

American livestock breeds are going extinct. In the interest of mass-production, just a handful of breeds are used to supply most of the meat in America, at the expense of genetic diversity. Ninety-nine percent of turkeys consumed in America are Broad-Breasted Whites, more than 80% of the dairy cows in this country are Holsteins and 75% of the pigs consumed here come from just three breeds. Certain farmers, foodies and advocates around the country have taken notice of this and have adopted the “eat them to save them” mantra – meaning that if we create a demand for these animals, farmers will raise them again.

I fully believe in the “eat them to save them” idea but, as an urban farmer, I have to be opportunistic, rather than selective, in terms of the breeds of animals I can acquire. With the rabbits, I bought the meat breed available, with the chickens I always seem to buy what I can find locally on craigslist, and a local farmer supplied me with Muscovy ducks. Breed diversity is generally lacking for the city farmer, so I take whatever I can buy.

So, it surprises me to learn that I am raising endangered pigs. In fact, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy claims that there may be only 200 Guinea Hogs left in the United States (a number which seems low since that means that between myself and the local nursery I bought the hogs from, we represent 5% of the total Guinea hog population). The Guinea Hog is considered a heritage breed that was once common on homesteads throughout the South. As farming became more industrial and the number of subsistence farmers and homesteaders declined, the Guinea hog fell out of favor because of its relatively small (100-200lbs) and fatty carcass.

The word ‘heritage’ is to livestock breeds like the word ‘heirloom’ is to vegetables – in both cases you generally get a more flavorful product that is best grown or suited for specific conditions. In the case of the Guinea hog, that niche seems to be lard. They produce a lot of flavorful, fat-marbled meat, and they also produce a lot of lard – an essential ingredient on the homestead for cooking, baking, and soap-making. I admit, as a former vegetarian, the idea of lard makes me uncomfortable, but I want to honor the entire animal, so I aim to use all the lard I can render. According to the Wikipedia page on the subject of lard, “despite its reputation, lard has less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat, and less cholesterol than an equal amount of butter by weight.”

So, bring on the lard. In order to save the Guinea Hog, we must consume more lard. I can’t wait.


For more information on the Guinea Hog at the ALBC website, click here

And a good article about the disappearing bio-diversity on farms, here