Posts Tagged ‘urban farming’

Ah, Spring…Clover growing underfoot, blissful 82 degree days with only mild humidity, the smell of orange blossoms lingering in the air, and bee stings. Then the mad rush for Benadryl and baking soda or toothpaste in a vain attempt to minimize swelling.

Every time I get stung, there are varying degrees of annoyance. I can usually tell within minutes if I’m going to swell or not. If the sting is intense, then I will puff up like an inflated latex glove, but if the sting is just annoying, the discomfort will wear off in less than an hour. My mentor and friend, JP the Beeman, is an excellent beekeeper, but he is, quite possibly, a bad influence for me. He’s been working with bees for years and rarely wears a suit and veil unless the bees prove to be angry. He doesn’t wear protective gear unless, “I get stung ten times.”

JP has a youtube channel with more than 100 videos, many of the swarms he’s caught in the last few seasons. Here’s my favorite, where he catches a swarm that landed on an SUV in a parking lot. He scoops through the bees with his bare hands searching for the queen, and even gets underneath the vehicle with a flashlight in his mouth, still scooping handfuls of bees and dropping them into the super with his bare hands!


(I’m not sure what is going on with wordpress here, but the video isn’t coming up on my blog, just the link, which isn’t as cool, but please visit it anyway)!

Here’s another video he took, this one in my backyard in October.


Although he doesn’t say anything, I think JP’s laughing at me when I even bother to put on gloves to work the bees in his presence. Actually in the video above, toward the end of our bee session where we combined a weak hive with a strong hive, JP edited out the last part of the video where I’m wearing the suit. I put it on because I got stung twice, but in all fairness it does make me look like I’m about to go clean up an oil spill or something.

So, bolstered by a few successful days without the encumbrance of the hot, visibility-restricting bee suit, I thought I could just be a regular bee wooer. You know, just me and the ladies, chatting about springtime, drones, and work. But of course, that vision fell flat again, as a bee got stuck in my hair and stung me on the head yet again. So, next time, I’ll start out wearing a hat, and then go from there.

But the good news is that this Spring, all the hives look healthy and poised for a good season of honey production. In the afternoon, when the light hits the hives, I can smell the warm wax, the honey and pollen as the bees fan their wings to cool the hive boxes. I’m lucky that the bees decided that they can live with my inexperienced pokings around in their business and I get some honey in return. Spring’s sweet bounty is definitely worth a few stings here and there.


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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

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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!

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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.


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

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I think of this time of year, once Mardi Gras is over and Lent begins, as New Orleans’ New Year – the time to start anew, repent for the sins of revelry from the holidays, work hard, and make resolutions for the coming year. In my case, I make gardening resolutions for the coming season, and I have to get started quickly. By the end of February, I have to have all my garden beds prepared and corn and potatoes in the ground if I hope to get a harvest before the bugs descend in April and May. So, for the next few weeks, I’m planning a giant garden in my mind, sorting out where the corn goes, so that is doesn’t shade the tomatoes, and getting the soil tested and deciding how to save money on organic soil amendments.

At my new house, I’m lucky to have the use of a vacant lot next door. The owner has given me permission to use it as long as we maintain it, so to me that means feeding myself and hopefully many neighbors. The land itself isn’t much, (30′ by 150′) and only the back half gets good, full sunlight, because my very tall house looms over it to the East. So, I won’t be gardening the entire thing, just maintaining it, and maybe someday I can start a pasture for a goat or a sheep. But, I’m getting ahead of myself – first I need to go back to the land.

Since this area was flooded during Katrina, I’m carefully testing the soil for toxicity and heavy metals. But, while digging around in the dirt, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover a rich, dark brown soil that has a fairly crumbly texture and even several earthworms (in addition to bits of plastic and debris from someone’s old life). I’m eagerly awaiting the results of the soil test because I’m hoping that the jungle weeds that thrived on this lot for the last five years actually helped extract the toxins from the soil and contributed significant amounts of organic matter in the form of dead leaves and vines.

Here’s a picture of the lot and my backyard in October 2009:

And my backyard now:

And the bare lot now:

Over the course of the last four months, we have attacked the lot with lawnmower, chainsaw, machete and mulch, and now it is beginning to look more civilized. As you can see, it has come a long way, but now it’s a blank slate that still contains trash, compacted soil that has been driven over, or had a giant dumpster sitting on top of it, and many, many roots crisscrossing underground competing for nutrients.

This season, my garden resolutions are: to produce more food than I ever have before, and to focus mostly on the things I’m good at growing, with a few glamor fruits and vegetables thrown in for experimentation. I’m not going to start any tomatoes from seed because that has been a colossal failure the last two years, and I’m not going to try to coerce the plants that don’t do well. More laissez farming so that I have time to enjoy the garden and its rewards. All the animals around here are steadfastly holding up their end of that bargain – the pigs are turning waste food into valuable meat, the rabbits are doing the same, but they’re also turning my weeds into valuable garden fertilizer, and the chickens are laying eggs daily. So now it’s my turn to get to work and be as productive as possible.

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The pigs have moved in, and they have chickens for housemates. I set up a corral made out of used pallets in the backyard, so that it also functions as a chicken run. The chickens have been taken down a peg; they have to sneak good food (cheese and bread) when the pigs will let them. At first they seemed puzzled by these weird creatures, but now I think the chickens are enjoying their farm company. They’ve actually been laying eggs more regularly, and have stopped their early morning screeching. They sometimes eat food off the pigs’ backs – maybe one day they’ll ride around on the pigs’ backs like the birds that travel on the back of hippos. Well, probably not, but it’s funny to visualize.

Anyway, the pigs are growing and eating at an alarming rate. They’re getting about a five gallon bucket of food waste every day and I think I’m going to have to find a way to increase their rations. Nearly everyone I know in the food service industry here in New Orleans is helping me save food scraps for them, but I’m going to have to ramp up the scraping. The whole goal in raising these pigs for my own consumption is to take a waste product (leftover or unusable food from restaurants) and turn it into a high-end, consumable product (meat for me and friends).

These pigs are moving beyond the cute phase and moving quickly into the smelly and gluttonous phase. They are quite entertaining to watch rooting around, making snorting/squealing noises, or just sleeping after a rigorous morning of eating. But, I have to say that these are the first animals I’ve raised that I (so far) don’t have reservations about eating. At this point, they may be putting on almost a pound of weight a day, and all I can think about are the chops, ham and bacon that is effortlessly being produced. I can’t help but notice, every time I look at the pigs, that they’re getting nice shoulders, rumps and bellies. They are so stout that they remind me of giant sausages with four legs poking out. I look at the pigs and I see meat.

Now I know that may sound callous to the animal-lover (I do count myself among that group, even though it may be hard to see beyond the the fact that I’m going to eat my pigs). I respect their personalities too, and I’m glad that they have some space to root around in the dirt, nap in the sun, and just in general, be pigs.

They like to be scratched a lot and they like to rub up on anything coarse to scratch themselves on, and they come straight at me with their dirty noses every time I enter their pen. But I had no idea that seriously, the way to truly let a pig just be a pig is simply to give it as much as it possibly wants to eat.

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Pigs love cheese!

I have to apologize for my absence from the blog world, but I have several confessions to make. First of all, I moved to a different house in another neighborhood. The idea of starting over seemed exhausting, and I have to admit that in some ways, I thought of retiring. And then I received a death threat as a comment on one of my blog postings about killing rabbits. And then I lost two entire litters of baby rabbits. So, I have to say that I have had enough black moments in my urban farming adventures lately to seriously shake me, but I now feel bold enough to start over, to proclaim that I will not be silenced by anyone who values rabbit-life over human. And now that there’s a new litter of baby rabbits, and I’m cautiously optimistic that maybe this litter is stronger, and maybe the weather will be kinder.

So, instead of retiring, I got pigs. Yes, pigs. They’re not at my house yet, but this week they will be moving into my backyard, with the chickens, rabbits, new citrus trees and vegetables.

And sometime in late March or early April, we will be having a very big barbecue.

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