Saturday, December 3, 2011

Gettin' piggy with it…

At about three months, I really started to see a lot of growth, particularly in the midsection but also the shoulders and definitely the rump. Of course, the insatiable appetite may have something to do with it; Pretty much constant eating mixed in with frequent naps and an occasional walk. Not a bad life from my perspective, but nonetheless, the moods were unpredictable, so I tried to just stay out of the way. It’s been great so far, and it’ll be all worth it in a couple more months. One thing’s for sure, I won’t miss the stink. Big piles of slippery poo everywhere. I pretty much have to wear muck boots everyday. Oh, did I mention that we got two pigs?


After researching online and reading Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs, we had decided on the heritage Berkshire breed because of its sought-after meat and ability to live outdoors on pasture. It’s weird to say that we actually had to choose  a pig that would be able live outdoors but the truth is, many of the breeds raised by factory farms have been selected for a pretty pink skin color prone to sunburn and are usually kept on cement floors where they can’t root at the ground.

We’d considered getting a breeding pair, a boar and a sow, having heard that the Berkshires still retain their mothering instinct, but when we arrived at the farm near Pt. Reyes and saw the 400lb big boy and his two lady friends (below), we thought that maybe starting off with a couple “feeders” was a better idea. Plus, now if we had second thoughts about “processing” our pigs at the 200 lb market weight, we’d just remember how big they’d get if we didn’t!



In addition to helping us find a breeder for the piglets, Craigslist had yielded an extra large dog crate – the San Anselmo couple we bought it from for $25 was amused to hear who the next occupant after their aging golden retriever would be – which was now in the back of the Xterra. After some herding, wrangling and dramatic last second dives, the guy got each piglet by the back legs and walked them to the car like a wheelbarrow before swinging them up into the crate. I’m sure a more delicate approach would have been much less effective and the pigs, now two in a dog crate, seemed to settle in quickly.



This was another one of those “What a difference a year makes” moments as we retraced the winding Point Reyes-Petaluma road through the gorgeous rolling green hills surround the Nicasio Reservoir thinking, “We just bought two pigs. They’re in the back seat of the car right now.”

In the weeks prior, I’d built a small shelter using the redwood sheeting from the mushroom boxes we’d made into planting beds along with some galvanized metal roofing and mounted the whole thing on some 4x6” skids so it could be dragged behind the ATV. I’d also bought a couple rolls of electric mesh fencing and a fence energizer and set up a 40’ x 40’ enclosure under some oaks towards the back left corner of our property. The old car battery we’d replaced with the Optima in the Xterra provided the charge, and an extra strand of wire just about snout-level provided a little extra confidence that I wouldn’t be chasing pigs around the yard anytime soon. 

All that was left was to devise some kind of system to get them water, since we didn’t have a spigot anywhere close by. My first solution involved a plastic tub on the back of the ATV. My half-assed approach left my ass half-wet as half of the water sloshed out on the way there and the other half spilled as I clumsily dragged it off the ATV rack. Not a long term solution.


We found some 55 gallon plastic barrels on (you guessed it) Craigslist that would make transport a little easier but still, I’d learned during my post-college exploits as a fledging rock climber that a gallon of water weighs just over 8 pounds - 55 gallons would equal over 450 - way too much for *even me* to lift. I figured I could strap a barrel to the back rack of the ATV, fill it there and then roll it onto a shelf at the same height on the shelter I’d built for the pigs. No lifting involved and the potential energy of the elevated barrel would provide a gravity feeding effect. Good plan, right? So I measured the height of the back rack of the ATV, built a shelf at the same height on the shelter, filled the barrel and drove it out there.

Now, you armchair farmers (farmchair quarterbacks?), may already be onto my one fundamental miscalculation, but it’s worth mentioning one more; This approach put significantly more weight on the rear rack of the ATV than it was meant to take. I wasn’t so much worried about it breaking, or even the extreme compression of the shocks (hint hint on the bigger problem I was about to have), but I was basically riding in a slow motion wheelie with barely enough weight on the front wheels for them to steer. While I made it out to the pig paddock without flipping – a serious risk I don’t intend to take again – when I backed the barrel up to the custom-height shelf on the shelter, it was about a foot too high! Oh yeah, I’d measured the height of the ATV rack *before* I’d added the 450 pounds of water and compressed the shocks! After about 13 minutes of standing there scratching my head and another 2 waiting for Yoda to emerge from behind an oak to teach me how to use The Force, I was finally able to hoist the load up the necessary amount with some cam straps.


Which brings us back to an XL dog crate in the back of an SUV. This is a different kind of “unboxing video.”




The question everyone asks is “What does Petunia think of the other pigs?” Well, she’s come over to check them out a few times…


…but then pretty much heads the opposite direction. She doesn’t really seem to recognize them as anything familiar. Okay, whatever, I’m gonna go lie in the sun.


The new little piggies seem pretty happy in their new environment. They snack on grass, root in the soft dirt, lay in the sun and then settle in head-to-tail in a little depression they’ve carved out to sleep for the night, never mind the cozy shelter filled with hay I built for them.


We started a tradition about 4 years ago that we call the “Friend’s Thanksgiving.” Usually the weekend after we all get together with our families to eat our aunts’ jello salad with mayonnaise or listen to our sister-in-laws caution us that the turkey might be too dry, Ann and I invite all our friends over to make their favorite dishes and fry a turkey (which BTW is only slightly less dangerous than flipping an ATV). This year was particularly fun because we got to show our “farmlet” off to the people who hadn’t yet made it up.

The night before the party was spent injecting the turkey, one of two pasture-raised birds we got from Tara Firma Farms just up the road from us, with an eye-watering mixture of onions, garlic, Louisiana hot sauce and Tequila.


It’s fun to watch the skin bulge as you depress the plunger on the wide bore syringe and know how good all that’s gonna taste the next day.


But even a pregnant lady needs to de-stress with a sip of Japanese Scotch (?!) once in a while.


Everything came off perfectly, and we appreciated everyone making the hour or so trip up from San Francisco or the East Bay. As usual, Dan produced a perfect (and 100% explosion free) bird out of the peanut oil and even surprised us with our own fryer and pot as a wedding present. Ann’s oven-roasted turkey with rosemary from the bush outside our front door and salt rubbed under the skin was excellent as well.






Several people brought loads of hand-me-down clothes and baby supplies for us. It’s an interesting phenomena that as we get older, the average age of our gatherings is rapidly descending.



The mini John Deere tractor was a big hit. I’m thinking a collage of everyone’s kids riding it might be necessary, perhaps on a yearly basis until they graduate Med school.

Levi-on-the-tractor gus on the tractor

Although there was a minor incident when Lily couldn’t find first gear…

IMG_0322 IMG_0323

The day after the party, I was up by the back fence and saw two huge turkeys. While we get a few wild turkeys coming through every once in a while, these belong to the neighbor above us who’d actually texted me the other day saying they’d gone missing for a few days and could I keep an eye out. He lets them free range completely, roosting in the trees at night but returning in the morning for food and water.


Having paid $7.00/lb for our pastured turkeys, a few times the cost of conventionally-raised, I couldn’t help but consider that right there was at least a couple hundred dollars worth of Thanksgiving dinner just walkin’ around. I’ve already been on the McMurray Hatchery web site and offered to get a couple extra for friends and family next year. 

Oh come on. That is some bucolic stuff right there… One big happy family.