"My only complaint about the Old Spot breed of pigs we raise is that their amazingness and personable personalities make it even harder for me to take them to the processor. I say harder because regardless of the species of animal it will always be hard to transport them to the their end. The Old Spots have always made it too easy to love them with their playfulness and desire for human affection. These were my thoughts as I walked down the hill after having coaxed the group of pigs I am taking in tomorrow onto the trailer and closing the door behind them. The drive is beautiful on the back roads yet quite difficult emotionally." —Donald M. Arrant, Jr., livestock manager at Glynwood Center
One of the best and worst things about having a small farm is your personal relationship with each animal. Many people ask us, how can you name the animals you're going to eat? We have so few animals here on the farm that, even without names, they would have names. Whether we gave each pig a number, assigned each chicken a letter, or referred to each duck by their defining qualities, coloration, size... that would become a name.
"Oh, you wouldn't believe what Seven did today!"
If we didn't want to have these relationships with the animals, we wouldn't have them here. But that doesn't detract from their ultimate purpose: meat providers, nourishment purveyors. In their time here, they work for us in other ways, too. Our pigs get to spend their days doing what they love best... destroying just about everything in their path. We brought them here because of the untamed, poison ivy-riddled, burdock- and garlic mustard-filled, tanglewood old gardens left from 30 years ago when this place was a working farm. Thirty years of untended gardens mean soft, fast-growing trees and weeds take over fertile soils. One year of pigs means overturned earth, slowly girdled trees, and new beginnings.
Historically, pigs were kept by households as meat-producing garbage disposals. Take them your kitchen scraps and garden waste, and they will create for you fertile garden beds and a winter's worth of meat preserves. The onset of industrial agriculture meant more and more pigs, kept in smaller spaces, fed grain instead of scraps because what farmer can produce so many scraps for dozens or hundreds or thousands of animals day after day?
Despite efforts to turn pigs into "The Other White Meat," subsisting only in concrete barns, the instincts of a pig are incredibly strong. A domestic pig, once escaped or turned loose, will revert to its wild roots in mere months. Our boar Orson, who had never seen sunlight or dirt before coming home to our farm at the age of a year and a half, is an efficient rooter and joyful wallower. He didn't need to be taught to root or wallow, he just needed to have the dirt in front of him. At first, our plans were to let Orson do his boar duty [aka make babies] and then process him, but we enjoy watching him out in the world so much that he will probably be here to stay.
Such is the nature of small farms. Our decisions aren't always based in sound financial logic, but as a former boss told me once, "Sometimes you just have to give yourself that special animal." Not every animal gets to stay for life, but every so often an extraordinary animal comes along to challenge your heart strings. Our chicken Mother Goose is one of those. She follows us around while we do chores, and even when I am working in the garden she is close by. She will let you hold her, and eat swatted mosquitoes deftly yet gently from your hand, and maybe even snooze in your lap for a while.
On the other hand, we raised a batch of Freedom Ranger meat chickens this summer who were the most savage beasts we've ever had here at Ham Sweet Farm. They pecked your arms with intent if you reached down for anything in their pasture, tore bits from my Muck boots as I waded through the flock, and refused to be contained in any sense of the word. One actually met an early death after I removed it from Gnocchi's pen and it jumped back in while she was eating. Gnocchi doesn't share, so when this chicken tried to sneak grain from in front of her, she swatted it away with her head, and caught it in the brain with a tooth. Not exactly a USDA-approved means to an end, but we did eat it for dinner the next day.
For the animals who don't stay here forever, it's nothing personal. But it is sad [with the exception of the Freedom Rangers, who we were happy to escort into our freezer]. You get to know the personalities of individuals as well as groups. When a group of ducks reaches the age to be processed, you don't get to see them each morning dash out of their coop and beeline for the little duck pond. No longer will they waddle around with wings folded across their backs like old Italian men in a piazza. Maybe each duck didn't have a name, but "The Ducks" are their own character here. They have a place, and when they leave that spot is open, empty.
There will be another group of ducks, more poultry, and other animals who might even live in the same place the ducks did when they were here. It's the nature of farming, and necessary when you and your family, friends and customers eat meat. It's the reason we save all of our bones, from every meal and every animal, and make stock and remouillage before the bones reach their final resting place, in our compost pile and then, once again, out on pasture.