Balancing Tradition & Intuition
"Hey Bill, you got a minute?” I asked crossing the street towards the mailbox.
“Sure," he said, tucking his mail under his arm and turning towards our side of the street. Our neighbor is a welder and a farmer, strong in a way that makes him look twenty years younger than he actually is. I can’t honestly imagine him ever getting old. He also knows just about everything you might ever need to know without ever boasting.
Hands stuffed deep into pockets, he smiled, shook his head slowly, and from his body language, I knew immediately he had heard the commotion across the street, been watching while he worked, and had decided it would be better entertainment if he didn’t intervene.
For the past two hours, my husband and brother had been trying to get our two pigs, Yorick and Nelson into the truck to bring them to the butcher. After trying just about everything from tender voices and Twinkles to pushing the pigs like football players and yelling, they were exhausted, defeated, covered in mud (maybe worse) and cuts. Neither liked the idea of bringing the pigs to slaughter after having had them around for months in the backyard. But both liked bacon and pork chops and believed in the value of raising your own meat, believed in making sure the animals were honored with sunlight and tasty food while alive. Their philosophical views were no help in this moment.
"Tell me they’re not trying to put a rope on them,” Bill said squinting his eyes against the sun and trying to make sense of the scene across the road.
“Um yeah, they might be," I said. “Figured you might have a suggestion.”
He nodded, and without saying a word confirmed with a smirk, that yes of course he knew what to do. But he wasn’t going to give it up too easy.
“Well, the one thing NOT to do is put a rope on ‘em. Good way to lose an arm.”
Some time passed, a car went by on the road, the driver waved at Bill, he waved back. There was always plenty to do on his side of the road, between tending to his chickens, pigs, cattle and horses and working a more than full time job that demanded long drives around most of the state. But our neighbor had mastered the skill of never looking overly stressed or busy. Often when we met at the mailbox, we would still be standing there catching up 45 minutes later.
"Tell them they need to put a feed bucket over the pig’s head, it will get a little confused and quiet and let them lead it right up into the truck.”
There it was, the hard earned truth, something he had probably known so long he had forgotten when he learned it.
I cut the conversation short, hoping that this wisdom might preserve the boys’ limbs if I could get the tip to them fast enough. They had been too proud to ask themselves or too knee deep in the situation to think beyond the pigpen, but they welcomed the information when I brought it like a gift across the road and set it out gently so as not to injure their already wounded egos.
"Bill suggested putting a 5 gallon bucket over the head, then leading them up,” I said gingerly before walking back into the house to watch through the kitchen window.
The pigs, first one then the other, did just what Bill suggested they would. With a couple of directional nudges they walked as politely as dogs up the ramp and into the truck.
As the guys were driving out, I saw Bill wave and smile, give them thumbs up sign, kindly focusing on mission accomplished rather than the hours of challenges which preceded his advice. The bacon that arrived that year in time for Christmas brunch was the best I’ve ever eaten.
Since that afternoon over two decades ago, I’ve read that a pig snout (approximately 2,000 times more sensitive to smell than the human nose) can be taught to sniff out landlines and truffles. I’ve learned that they are the only farm animals that if given enough space, makes a separate sleeping den (which they keep spotless) and bathroom area (which they place as far away as possible from where they sleep and eat). And according to Scientific American, the volume of a pig's prefrontal cortex is around 24% of the total neocortex and 10% of the total brain volume, percentages comparable to primates including humans.
Most of what I now know about pigs I learned from our experiences with our two potbelly pig pets Emma and Sanford in more recent years. They sit for treats, let us rub their belly like dogs, and have all kids of different grunts ranging from “Oh that looks delicious” to “I am not a fan of that kid making pig noises from the other side of my fence.”
The two times we bred Emma, I was amazed by how submissive she became when she needed help with a stuck piglet, letting me reach in and readjust the piglet without complaint, her eyes only expressing thanks. Then minutes later, after they were all out and nursing, I was impressed by our ordinarily gentle pig’s fierce protective instincts. She would not let us anywhere near them. Actually roared if we tried to step foot in her pen.
Years later when Emma died, her male companion Sanford taught us that pigs also have incredible emotional awareness. Emma had been his girlfriend for years and when her kidneys began to fail, Sanford doted on her. He snuggled up near her to keep her warm and when she finally died — sweetly curled in a hay nest — Sanford called to us in a way I have never heard him call before. Urgent. Sad. “She’s gone!" he yelled as I tended the goats, and there was no question what I would find when I ran to their house. I cried, gave Sanford strawberries to try to ease his sadness and let him watch as Chris carried Emma away in a blanket to bury her by the graves for our dog Ned and barn cat Minnie.
Now here comes the part that I must admit I wrestle with. I want to both honor the wisdom of other farmers, there is nothing I respect more than traditional small scale farming. I see it as one of the most human, connected, challenging, loving things a person can do. It is always the product of long days, hard work and a passion for the job. The amount of diverse skills you need to have to be successful are staggering. But starting your own farm by necessity is a delicate combination of turning to others with more experience, and forging your own way. If you don’t feel good in the heart about your approach it will never be possible to put in the hours needed to keep things running. In my case, after 35 years of meat, potato and vegetable every night for dinner, that meant becoming a vegetarian. I couldn’t hide my own head in a bucket, walk blindly forward as if I did not know what I had learned from research and from my own experience.
Each of our farm animals has a personality. I feel we owe them a debt of humanity for the services they provide us. I could no more eat them than my dog. But it is hard to admit this out loud and not something I would ever impose on anyone else. It is personal choice that enables me to feel good about my work and connection to our animals. I seldom mention our no cull policy to other farmers or that I don’t eat meat, because both fly in the face of traditional practice. I lack a certain toughness that is expected in “real" famers.
But I shouldn’t have worried about losing our’s neighbor’s respect. Years in, I see that no matter how you come at the job, there is a respect among those working a farm that is earned through sticking with it over the years. On the surface, he teases me about my soft approach, but at the same time he shares wisdom and treasures he finds in his barn from their goat keeping days with incredible generosity, enjoys our cheese and comes up a couple of times a season to visit the goat kids and chat at the fence with his wife, a lovely bionic woman who has had every joint in her body replaced in recent years due to all the hard work she has invested in their second job of farming. This meeting in the middle, open respect and sharing among farms is what makes Maine -- in my opinion -- the best state of all to live in.
Although farming can be deeply lonely work — when faced with hundreds of bales of hay to get in, the loss of a prized animal, hours of digging out after a storm, or a succession of goats kidding in the middle of the night — there is always the knowledge that you are connected to all the people who have ever engaged in raising animals before and everyone doing it on farms around the world at that exact moment. There is never a time when you know everything you need to know, but with every year, you learn there is also no shame in reaching out to others who know more, or in letting your instincts and intuition guide you through the dark when you are on your own.