There were only two shots fired from Greg Stratton's .22 Magnum rifle. The first dropped Bacon instantly, and she fell into the pen's hay with a thrashing thud. The second took a few seconds to aim at, since Kevin was certainly confused by the commotion and ran around the pen, but he didn't run for long. Ten seconds later one shot hit him squarely in the head and he too hit the ground, flailing as much as Bacon did. Their thrashing was normal, it is what happens. It's not pretty and the combination of bullet holes and chaos made for a very messy end.
In Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life she writes about how different animals die. How the steers seem to drop with a force stronger than gravity (she says so do sheep), how chickens flap and seem to panic, and how pigs scream and bleed and thrash. She said when she started farming, she thought these were the beasts' personalities coming out in their deaths: the calm steer, the quirky chicken, the charismatic pigs, but after a while that assumption died with the livestock as she witnessed more and more deaths. It was a series of synapses and nerves, a chemical reaction of the end of a life. I agree with her observation. What I saw in the pen was not a piteous flailing, but a last explosion of life, the mind's finale of fireworks sent through the parts it has always controlled and moved. The struggle was energy leaving the body and moved into another form. A mystery and a gift, that.
Soon as both pigs were shot one of Greg's assistants, a gentleman from the Eagle Bridge Slaughterhouse close by, jumped right into the pen and slit their throats. If there was any life left in the two hogs, it was gone within moments of that significant artery being sliced. The blood covered the hay that made their bed the night before. Jasper was about five feet away and showed zero emotion. His ears did perk up at the gunshot, but as they died he just ate his hay outside.
Once still, a large hook on a wooden handle as slid into each pigs' mouth and then the animals were dragged across the farm one at a time to the Stratton Truck: our little farming community's abattoir on wheels. While getting the pigs hocks onto the two hooks that would lift them up to chest level for skinning and gutting, Greg told me he did in three steers this morning for one of my coworkers. He had come recommended by the Daughton's, who used him for Tasty the cow a few weeks earlier. This was a man well appreciated and it showed why in his careful work, he was professional the entire time.
Once the pigs were both hooked, the skinning process could begin. First Greg sawed off the feet at the ankles, and threw them too the ground. I couldn't help but smirk and take a picture, there I was again, looking at carcass feet on a sunny winter day: this time, porker edition. Soon after the feet left their heavenly body, so did the heads. One of the gents cut out the tongue for me and asked me, while dumping it in the bucket of hot water, if I'd like to keep it. He held it right up to my face, and it felt almost like a character test. Could she handle seeing a tongue cut off a dead head and sloshed in a bucket and then still eat it? Darling, I wanted to say, as if a little tongue ever made me shy? Who do you think you're dealing with here, son?
Instead I smiled and asked, "I never ate pig tongue, before. Is it good?"
Greg chimed in at this, "A pig tongue is good eatin'. You boil it with bay leaves and it makes a great meal. Can't beat it."
"I'll take them!" What the hell. You only live once. It's the only tongue I'll be getting anyway next week.
After my lesson/recipe, the two pigs were skinned expertly, starting at their hoofless ankles, down around their inner thigh, and then the tail and bum area were removed. From there the pig skinned just like I would skin a rabbit, starting with shallow cuts near the skin and then peeling away easily. I watched the blood-soaked animals, all hair and chaos moments ago, being slipped off like a bad memory. As if their death was an outfit and instead of being naked, there was just food under their coats.
I was asked what I wanted to do with the heads, feet, offal, and such. I went and grabbed the wheelbarrow I mucked the stall with earlier this week and parked it right by the hanging pigs. That'll do the job, it has done worse.
Post skinning, it was time to disembowel. The animals were cut open right down their middles and their organs came out, clean and bloodless, in one package. This is called the offal, and it isn't awful at all. Because these fellas were experts no stomach opened or intestine shared their putrid inside smells. In fact, the entire process had no unpleasant smells at all. It was a beautiful 30+ degree day dappled in sunshine. The conversation was casual and happy, about the farm and how long I lived here, about deer harvests and their work. It's not a somber thing, at least not sad. Their death means so much bounty for this little farm and its guests. Folks coming to the farm soon as next week's mountain music workshop will be chowing down on slow-cooked shoulder roasts of pulled pork sandwiches at lunch. I celebrate these animals, and do so with respect in my joy. If that makes no sense to you, just wait till you bite into your first home-raised pork chop. Things change.
While the men went on with their work, Greg sidled up to me with a clipboard and order sheet. We went through a detailed list of packages and cuts. It was so detailed I got to pick how many slices of bacon went into a package and how many chops made it into another. I got to choose how heavy the smoked hams would be, and what kind of sausage I wanted (breakfast, Italian sweet or spicy, or meat ready to grind.) I chose all of them!
The wheelbarrow was filled soon with the pile of bloody hides, heads, feet and organs. It was set to the side, kinda of watching the whole thing go on. Later, I would carry the thing back into the woods to dump off the ridge down a steep slope. The crows would host a levee in my honor soon as they found out. I owe crows a lot, they are lucky to this girl, and I am glad to offer them dinner too.
Next the animals were to be halved, and this was the final step in the process. Greg plugged in his big ol' meat saw and made short work of the job. The halves were hanging in the sunlight and I looked on at them, at the barrow of dead parts, and at the four people who made this happen today. Then, realizing with a sheepish smile, it was far more than four people who would create hundreds of meals for me and mine. There was the breeder upstate who sold me his own stock, Tara who joined me on the adventure and helped me set them up in their new home. It was the folks at Wayside who offered their scraps as food saving me tons of cash) and all the folks saving scraps at workshops and birthday parties at the office. My pigs ate well, grew well, lived well, and died well. This is something to be proud of, and I am. Proud and grateful for all involved and enjoying my wolfish grin as I think about the recipes ahead and the ability I have now to barter and trade for things I don't have right now, like turkey or duck or a bed of vegetable starts.
So how did I feel about it? I didn't feel any guilt, nor any disgust, or anything beyond a scientific interest in what was going on and a desire to learn the trade myself. That doesn't mean I wasn't mindful of what happened, it's just that it gets easier and it gets to be more about the bigger picture than one or two deaths. I can only say that time offers this and it was much easier than last year's Pig. And I can not stress how lucky I am to have a professional team like this come out, for what I consider a good price: fifty dollars a pig, talk about a reasonable fee. Then I buy my meat back from him at the shop later this week, all frozen and packaged and ready to enjoy and the smoked pieces a week or two later. As a small farmer with a full time job and other things to tend to (this day also included a farrier visit and 30-bale hay drop off) it is a blessing having pros come and take care of this and then offer me packaged roasts and sausages for a dollar a pound (or whatever his rate was). I am expecting to pay around 280 dollars total for the whole ordeal. Not bad for 140+ pounds of home-grown meat.
Of course, it isn't about the money or the deal. It's all more than that, but what I want to stress before I head off to bed is this: You can raise your own bacon and hams. It wasn't hard, or expensive, nor did it take a lot of space or equipment. I built them a pen in the corner of a barn with hog panels, deep bedded them every other day, and offered them fresh water and food morning and night. There were no vets or antibiotics, wormers or pills, or anything unnatural used in their rearing. They got to keep their tails, keep their noses free of rings, and spent every day being scratched behind the ears and given space to root into the hay looking for corn kernels, tussle, and scratch their big asses on the wall. This kind of pork is rare in this country, but only because folks like us haven't had at it yet. If you have the land and space, I say give a pig a try next year if you enjoy pork, bacon, or hams. It is nothing a person with a house cat can't handle, and you don't have to be there like I was at their ends. That said, I bet there are mobile units like Greg's all over the nation and you can find out about them from livestock vets, auction houses, feed stores, and friends. You can do this too, if you want to. I promise you that.
Thank you for reading along. Hope some of you get to come over and enjoy their reincarnation as farm meals in the months to come.