- "Are you organic?"
- "Have you read Joel Salatin's books?"
- "What do you think about GMO's?"
These are the questions we continually get about our farm, and quite frankly, it's beyond annoying. These questions are almost always asked by people who don't farm, have never set foot on a farm and more often than not, completely their concerns. These are the same people who can't understand how you could name an animal you're going to eat or don't want to eat things like trotters or heart because they are gross. These are some of the more wasteful and picky people I've ever met.
What these questions do is prevent the conversations from going in a direction where people could learn about what farming is all about. They focus on the minutia and ignore the bigger picture of farming; learning how things grow, how animal dynamics work, how to tie knots and what hard work really is. The farm is also the place where you learn a lot about death and quality of life.
Recently we made an appointment for one of our pigs, Melvin, who was young boar who we wanted to roast for our family and friends. We planned our party a month in advance, scheduled our kill date and were looking forward to having our first pig roast with our own animal. In the meantime we continued to care for Melvin with the attention we show to all of our animals. Organic grain, tons of vegetables, fruit treats and a full wallow. We spent time with all of the pigs as we watched him play in his straw and chase the other pigs and chickens around. He was quite the character and a great lil pig.
As we approached the kill date, we began trailer training the pigs. Trailer training means feeding them on the trailer to get them used to getting on and off, ultimately reducing stress on both us and the animal. It was at this point that we started to get quite a heat wave with temperatures well above 90 degrees. For those who don't know, pigs don't sweat and keeping them cool with heat like that is incredibly important. This is where the wallow comes in, and it was always filled and Melvin usually laying in it. Tuesday came, the night before our appointment with our processor and Melvin was experiencing labored breathing and started to look a bit pale in the gums. We put down food for him and he wasn't interested. If there is one indicator of an unhappy or sick pig, it's when they aren't food motivated. Melvin especially, was all about the food. We watched him a bit longer and he wasn't getting any better. The next day was going to be a stressful day for him regardless of health, trailering 45 minutes in the heat to the processor and then staying over night until Thursday which was kill day. So we were forced with the decision, do we take him in, do we see if he makes it through the night, do we just do it ourselves. They were all viable options. We made the decision to do our kill and butcher on-site and save him the stress, making it as painless and easy as possible. It was a heavy situation for sure, as taking an animal's live is never easy, nor should it be. This was Melvin, the guy who three days earlier had us laughing hysterically with his adventures in the straw. The guy who jumped over the feeder with a single leap, scaring the shit out of everyone involved (pigs and me). This was our pig, our responsibility, our life to take or not.
I'll spare the gory details, but after a perfect .22 behind the ear and gutting, we put Melvin in the fridge to cool down as it was beyond hot out. This is where the lesson really begins ... The next day we went out to finish processing Melvin and the smell we were greeted with was not what you want to be met with, especially when it's your animal and a life that you took. Melvin had spoiled and I had wasted him. I was so angry with myself. I should have known better, I should have butchered him into quarters and froze him. I know better about the temperature of a fridge. I shouldn't have waited. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. After coming to terms with shooting our pig, gutting him and putting all that feed and time into him, I had nothing. I had a carcass that I needed to go find a place to dump and a fridge full of blood to clean. This flat out sucked ... I don't know that I've ever had a worse feeling in my life. I was fine with every part of the process, except for my wasting him. Wasting a life is the worst thing any person can do, perhaps worst of all for the farmer.
Everything about the situation was against us. We had to shoot the first animal on our farm, we had no walk in or proper cooling equipment and we had temperatures in the mid 90's. We were destined for failure, but earnest in our efforts to manage the discomfort of our animal, we lost sight of the things we know. There is one rule of farming that our farmer friend George always tell us, " Rule 1: Animals die, Rule 2: Can't change rule number 1 ". These are the lessons of a farm. We'll move on and be ok, but it doesn't make it suck any less. In the end though, we did everything we could. We made the best decisions we could given our knowledge, experience and conditions. We gave it 110%. The lesson though is, sometimes it's just not enough. Farming is as much about the fostering of life as it is the loss of life. The cutting of a field, the loss of animal to a coyote and the loss of an animal at your own hands. The overarching lesson is that farming is a roller coaster of emotions, day in, day out. It's a life dictated by budgets, lives and problem solving. It's exhausting ... but the most rewarding thing you can ever do. It's honest and true. The next time you're talking to a farmer about their food, remember a few things:
- Farming is a long hard road. A good farmer never stops learning, and it's a challenge for a lifetime borne partly out of choice but also necessity.
- We do our best to manage the minutia of a farm, but there are market realities that dictate your decisions (soy in grain, gmo vs. non , etc. )
- The farmer you're grilling over an expensive label of organic could have just shot his favorite animal because he had no other choice.
I've been farming on and off for 8 years and Kate for the better part of the last 3 or 4. We have experience and we do the best we can. We do what we can afford, we do what we know how to and we do it with not a single regret in the world. Farming is a life of extreme highs and lows and we'd have it no other way. We ask that you support and thank anyone who takes time to put a seed in the ground or a meal on a plate. At the end of the day, we're just doing the best we can with the tools we have.