Today’s guest post comes from Richard Lee, a farmer in Knox, Maine, by way of Queens, New York. In 2012, Rich and his girlfriend (who, full disclosure, is also my cousin-in-law) Kate experienced their first season raising and slaughtering pigs. Warning: the following story contains graphic—though riveting—descriptions. Read more of Rich’s stories of farming life on his blog, Breaking Soil.
Sustainable, diversified farming is paradoxically an occupation defined by fierce independence and close-knit reliance on your community and neighbors down the road. I moved to Maine from New York City in January 2011 to find a community in which I felt I could bridge this paradox, and Kate and I have chosen to walk this road together by choosing to apprentice together on a small, horse-powered vegetable farm.
As we prepared to apprentice at New Beat Farm, Kate and I had a desire to maintain our own separate enterprise apart from the farm’s vegetable operations and decided to raise pigs. First and foremost, we liked pigs and the way they tasted, while advancing our decision to eat meat (but not too much of it) raised in non-factory, humane conditions and fed good, non-GMO food on a local scale (less fossil fuel use).
We also deeply appreciated what the pigs could do to improve and utilize marginal areas on the farm: they would become an integral part of the farm ecosystem by adding a source of fertility via their manure, by digging up weeds with their “plow” noses to reclaim brushy areas, and by utilizing the forage available in their paddocks in an otherwise un-farmed area. We were using their natural “pig”-ness to do a job as well as provide us with nourishment.
The pigs, of course, did not come without complications. We bought them as five-week-old piglets in mid-May—a much younger age than we were expecting. They fit right through the hard fencing we had set up with electric fencing on the inside. We went back to the drawing board and temporarily stuck them in an old chicken pen. In the meantime, the pigs were also having trouble transitioning to their new diet of organic corn mash and had the runs. The solution? Adding dug-up sod to their diet, which also gave them important vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
A week later, and after lots of ear-wrenching squealing, we returned the piglets to the paddock with a better solid and electric fence (powered by a solar fence charger!) in place. They even got a personal horse-drawn wagon ride to boot! Alas, squeals of protest were all that we heard until they were all happily together in their paddock.
From June until November, we lugged around 50 pound bags of organic grain for the pigs’ daily feedings, supplemented by whey from our cheese-making farm friends down the road and the occasional compost dessert. We bucketed them water from a 300 gallon tank mounted on a trailer pulled by the horses, and rotated their paddocks every week or two.
I had even built them a little tarped hooped shelter (eventually too little) so they could stay dry when it rained. Over five months, the pigs grew from no more than 40 to over 300 pounds of live weight each! Seeing them day to day, you could hardly tell that they were growing much. However, the butcher’s scale said much differently.
When it was time to say goodbye to six of the eight pigs, we let them get accommodated to the trailer for a few days (a welcome shelter in the cold November rain) and used the horses to transport them from their lumpy pasture. It was impressive to watch the horses pull approximately two tons of weight with relative ease over very bumpy terrain. The whole process of dropping them off at the butcher for our customers was simple and satisfying.
As for the remaining two pigs—our own and New Beat’s—we would slaughter and butcher them with our own hands. This meant stunning the pigs with a .22 caliber pistol by aiming a bullet at an imaginary X from their eyes to their ears. I spent the preceding week constantly going over the entire operation in my head to make sure that the kill and butchering process were as clean and painless as possible for the animals. I had only done this once before, and had never shot an animal in the head. Needless to say, I was nervous.
Once the 25-degree morning arrived, I took a few practice shots on a plastic milk jug to get a feel for the gun. Kate and I had already set up a small pen to contain a single pig, laid down hay bedding to keep the pen clean, and built pulleys and tripods for hanging the dead pigs. We lured the first pig from its electric paddock into the pen, while sequestering the second pig in the woods so it wouldn’t witness what was going on and lose its calm—stressed animals will have a stronger taste due to the adrenaline running through their system.
I took the first shot with the whole crew standing by. BANG! The pig went down and Kate quickly handed me a very sharp 12-inch knife I had bought specifically for this purpose. We dragged the body so the head was downhill and I jabbed the knife through its neck to the other side, severing its two carotid arteries. We let the blood drain, then moved the pig away from the pen and out of sight for the next pig. I didn’t want to jinx myself, but I thought things were going well.
I repeated the procedure with the second pig. BANG! This time one of our friends used the knife. The pigs were much heavier than expected—perhaps 350 pounds each with their innards—so hauling and racheting them onto the tripods took three people and then a pickup truck. But we weren’t in as much of a rush as we could have been, since the day’s temperature never went above freezing and the meat would cool quickly.
For the rest of the day, we skinned and gutted the pigs, sawed their carcasses in half down the spine, then broke each down into primal cuts. Experience wasn’t necessarily on our side here; I had slaughtered exactly seven lambs and one pig beforehand. When all was said and done, Kate and I were happy with the cuts we made, but wished we had saved more meat for sausage—hey, we could always make more sausage later by thawing the meat and grinding it.
From start to finish, our pork processing escapades lasted three days, starting with two whole pig carcasses and ending in homemade sausage, hams, chops, shoulders, and a copious amount of creamy white lard. We even took the extra step to smoke the bacon and hocks ourselves; an easy, mouth-watering process in itself, but that’s another story.