Monday, January 13, 2014

Pork Harvest

Yesterday was Harvest Day for the four pigs I have been raising since summer. They had been named Ham, Ham, Jumpies and Commander. Odd names, I know. But I didn't pick them (at least not initially). My friend Joanna's four-year-old niece chose those names for Joanna's new chickens and I figured they worked for pigs, too. So the four porcine members of the farm were called such, HHJC for short.

HHJC were good pigs. Only one break-out attempt that I managed to thwart with some creamed corn bribery to get them back into their electric-fenced pen. That was the only attempt and I am both amazed and grateful that over 800 pounds of pig were held in check by one strand of wire! The pigs lived in the woods behind the farmhouse, close to the horses on a piece of land butted into the hillside. They were under the trees and nestled into a forest windbreak. I'm very happy with the spot and it served them well. Come slaughter day all four pigs were bright-eyed, healthy, and all piss and vinegar. Not one ear had frostbite and not one day went by without lots of bedding to nuzzle into.

This did create a lot of deep-bedding and made the ground-level of their sleeping area rise up a good 3 feet! By the last month I had to lift up the wire, but that was the only perimeter maintenance of their pen this winter.

It shows that it does not take a lot of infrastructure or investment to start raising hogs at home. My set up was built in the summer with the help of Tara and Tyler from Going Slowly and Kathy and Mary of WindWomen Farm. Good friends with strong backs and better hugs make light work. We used scavenged goods from all three of our farmsteads to make a go of it and I am happy to repay them all for their help in gifts of bacon and chops! The structure we called the "Pigoda" wasn't complicated at all. It was a simple roof and walled side. It handled 50-MPH winds, hail, snow storms of over a foot of accumulation and hot days in the 90s. As the weather grew colder this fall, hay bales were added and bedding deepened to create a nest that kept the pigs so deep and toasty that on cold mornings a burst of steam would escape when they popped out of the hay for breakfast! It was a charming sight to behold.

Yesterday a crew from Stratton Meats came. They specialize in farms like mine, traveling to folks with one steer, a few hogs, or some lambs to be killed, skinned, and gutted on site. This is such a gift to people like myself and, in a way, to the pigs. All pigs raised for food are destined for the same end: intentional death for the harvest of meat. But I am grateful I do not have to load my pigs into a trailer in the middle of winter, deliver them to a strange place of cement and high walls and wailing animals, and leave them without being present for their deaths - scheduled by an employee at the business's best time. But with Stratton Custom Meats I am right there. I am there for the shot to the head, for the slit throat, and for the dragged bodies to the traveling abattoirs on the rigs they drive in. I do not enjoy this day and take no pleasure in their demise. But it no longer bothers me the way it did for my first pig. That was really hard. Yesterday was hard, too but not for the same reasons.

I am comfortable with raising pigs for the table. I do look forward to the meals and recipes ahead (and anyone who doesn't like bacon concerns me a little bit)… but come Harvest Day I am anxious until the last pig has left this mortal world. What concerns me the most is a swift ending after a reasonably comfortable life. A life with sunshine and wind, rainfall and mud. A life with buddies to wrestle and fight over kale roots with. A life in the forest, outside, with a big bed of hay and warm bodies to cuddle next to every night. These pigs didn't live in the barn pen like ones I raised before and that offered challenges to both me and pigs - but I liked this set up very much. The pigs did grow slower but they grew true. The folks from Stratton said they would dress out around 150-180 pounds of meat each.

If you are wondering exactly what happens when traveling butchers come: I'll explain briefly. The gentlemen get their pulleys and hoists set up, lay out the knives for skinning, get electric saws plugged in and load their .22 rifles. Then they shoot the pigs in the head to stun them, cut their throats to bleed out, and drag the bodies to the hoists for skinning. Some folks scald pigs and Stratton offers this option but the cost really high. My pigs are skinned and then gutted. Their feet and heads removed and set aside. I keep the jowl meat and tongues, and have kept trotters in the past but not this time. I find I don't like them and no one was sharing the pigs with wanted them either so they went into the woods to be composted with the rest of the beast bits. They are taken far away from the farm. The earth must be fed, too, after all.

The eight halves were taken away about an hour or two after the arrival of the crew. They were wrapped in plastic and delivered right back to the butcher shop to be hung, cut, and other pieces smoked at a local smokehouse Greg uses. It'll be about a week and a half before they are ready for pickup. I'm glad I own a pickup truck, because that is going to be A LOT of pork.

These four pigs lived most of their short lives on this small farm. They grew well, lived alongside me, and became a part of my everyday life. Every pig teaches me another part of the story - that our time is short, far too short. You can spend it laughing in the mud or scared of what's to come. In the end, we all end up feeding the earth somehow. I will prefer to be one of the dirty and laughing.

Thank you, HHJC. You served the farm well and I am grateful for your gifts. Gifts to come soon in the form of meat, but also the fertility you added to the forest, the soil, to the pen you lived in. It may be the home of some really amazing greens in the years to come. Yes, you are gone but energy doesn't leave. It can't. It sticks around and when I do bite into that kale on some distant summer or into a pulled pork sandwich this spring: I will be savoring it with every bite. Good food asks this of you. It demands you listen.

I am all ears.


Blogger Kelsie said...

I've raised a lot of food for myself, but I've not taken that leap into raising meat, and your posts always give me the courage to want to try someday. This was lovely. Thank you.

January 13, 2014 at 9:17 PM  
OpenID T. Crockett said...

If you get a chance, what is the purpose of scalding?

January 13, 2014 at 10:09 PM  
Blogger Jedediah said...

They surely were happy pigs. Wen you said that you were going to keep them outdoors, I was happy to hear it because I think done right, this is the best thing you can do for pigs.

January 14, 2014 at 2:39 AM  
Blogger aart said...

T. Crockett...I believe scalding is to loosen the hair so it can be scraped off the skin.

Jenna.... what are your plans for the area of their pen, will you rotate the next pigs to a new area and grow something there or muck it out and use the bedding/manure on a garden or compost and put the new pigs in the same enclosure? MMMMMMM...BACON!

January 14, 2014 at 6:50 AM  
OpenID peihome said...

So handy having the butchers come to you! And oh, fresh free-range pork... nothing better!

January 14, 2014 at 8:04 AM  
Blogger Maria said...

Great post! Thank you! I need to order another 1/2 pig! I wish I was closer to you! You have to love a traveling butcher! Convenience!

January 14, 2014 at 8:58 AM  
Blogger Margaret said...

It used to be that posts like this included a warning at the top. I am glad to see your confidence in yourself and your choices. Good Post

January 14, 2014 at 10:09 AM  
Blogger Glyndalyn said...

The purpose of scalding is to heat the hog so the hair can be easily scraped off. The water should be about 140 degrees. If heated too long, it is hard to remove the hair. I understand why this process adds to the cost.

Hog killing is a dying art. We have some neighbors who are teaching their younger children. Each child has a different job each year during hog killing. In the old way, several families are involved. They may render cracklins, lard, ect.

Jenna's meat will be good. However, there is nothing better than home grown, home killed, home cured Tennessee country ham.

Rural TN on the Phony Farm

January 15, 2014 at 10:15 AM  
Blogger Glyndalyn said...

The purpose of scalding the hogs is to remove the hair with less trouble. The water temperature should be about 140 degrees. If heated too long, the hair will be difficult to remove. I understand why the cost is more with scalding.

Hog killing is a dying art as well as a lot of work. We have neighbors who are teaching their school aged children. A different child takes a different job each year. Several families get together to kill. They may render cracklins, lard, ect.

I am sure Jenna's meat will be delicious but nothing beats a home grown, home killed, home cured country ham from Tennessee.

Rural TN on the Phony Farm

January 15, 2014 at 10:22 AM  
Blogger Valri said...

Great post! ...very interesting. I too am wondering more about your future plans aart asked about. Also details about the sizes of the pen, shed and is it neccessary to be in a wooded area? Do you have any photos you could share of the setup. Thank you

January 15, 2014 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Pit Stop Farm said...

HHJC lived as good a life as any other beast on this earth I'm sure. Why no pictures, Jenna? Not that the gruesome details excite me, but they serve as a reminder to those of us who might forget where meat actually comes from.

January 15, 2014 at 5:26 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Pitstop: I did take photos but only a few of the men working post-slaughter on the hanging carcasses. I didn't post them because I didn't ask their permission to put them online. My friend Miriam is documenting the entire year of food and harvests on the farm and she took a bunch but she is in Brazil now with family/work. SO I don't have any photos right now to share. But it isn't for any reason of anxiety!

January 16, 2014 at 8:00 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Yes, the scalding is to releas hair just like you do with a chicken's feathers!

January 16, 2014 at 8:01 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Yes, the scalding is to releas hair just like you do with a chicken's feathers!

January 16, 2014 at 8:01 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Glyn! I smiled and laughed at your post! I wouldn't DARE try to compete with Tennessee ham!

January 16, 2014 at 8:01 AM  

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