We were sitting around the kitchen table counting okra, eight to a bag, when suddenly Avery cried, “Mommy, I don’t want to eat Francis!” As her five-year-old butterscotch- colored eyes spilled tears, I realized we were living a page from “Charlotte’s Web.” How did this happen?
Eight months ago, we lived in a beautiful bungalow in one of Atlanta’s coziest neighborhoods. My husband Skip had a commanding view of the city from his top floor office at the Centers for Disease Control. My freelance writing career was humming along. And after years of shelling out a fortune for daycare, Avery and her four-year-old brother Ethan would soon walk to the finest (free) elementary school in the state. We loved our friends and neighbors, who were funny, smart, accomplished, similar. Life was good.
Except for the nagging little voice in Skip’s head. He confessed that daily he heard, “You want a farm but you’re running out of time, you’re getting too old.”
Farm references began to pepper our conversation, but my life was a swirl of playdates and client meetings. I nodded in sympathy while dreaming up ways to distract him.
“How would you like to celebrate your 50th?” I asked, hoping his midlife crisis might be assuaged by a huge blowout. Parties had always been my drug of choice.
“I want to raise a pig on my own organic farm, then invite all my friends over to eat it at a BBQ.” Oh my. I hadn’t counted on this.
Especially because I’m a city girl. Prior to Atlanta, New York, Boston and London had been home. I love cities. In fact, whenever his ex disrupts our lives more than usual, he placates me with, “I owe you three weeks in Paris.” After ten years together, he knows that the mere mention of an exotic urban adventure can derail me from thoughts of murder-for-hire.
One night, over key lime martinis, I confide Skip’s growing frustration to my girlfriends. “You on a farm?,” they sputter after the laughing dies down. “You mean like “Green Acres”? Are you going to wear a feather boa like ZsaZsa Gabor?”
I’m torn. When we wrote our wedding vows, we pledged to honor each other’s dreams. But this? I’ll spare you the details of arguments that begin and end with, “How the hell will we make a living growing vegetables?” and get to the point: we agreed to become part-time organic farmers.
One week after my husband received the promotion that would’ve enabled us finally to make deposits into our savings account, we chucked it all. We moved to Austin, Texas, epicenter of the Whole Foods organic universe and home to my family.
Soon we found our halfway house, a place to rent while we tried farming. Just ten minutes from downtown, the old yellow house was close enough to get freelance work, yet surrounded by acres of fields and trees. That’s because it was nestled on the wrong side of the tracks — the prison, power plant, countless mobile homes and the former insane asylum would be our neighbors. Even so, the soaring ceilings and wraparound porch won us over. Besides, we were following in the fooststeps of the Bergstroms, the Swedish farmers who built the place when they immigrated to the rolling hills east of Austin in the 1860s.
After the Swedes sold out, the hippies moved in. For the past 15 years, the house and the listing red barn behind it had been a commune.
“There’s no telling what you’ll find here,” the landlord said as she handed over the skeleton key. Our kids set off exploring dusty stalls and dark closets. They squirreled through the hole in the wall that led to the top floor of the barn. “Mommy, look at this pirate treasure!” they shouted as they presented an ornate gold hookah found in the former hayloft.
In a matter of weeks, we went from feeding five mouths to 40. Avery launched the animal fest when she became besotted with the scrawny cat mewling in the barn. Visions of feline leukemia danced in my head as she kissed its carcass dotted in red sores.
“I’ve wanted my own cat forever,” she pleaded. “His name is Tommy and I promise I will love him forever.” We caved.
It was hard to resist the urge to fill the barn. We mailed-ordered away for 25 rare bred chicks, then while getting food for the brood at the feed store, my visiting teenage stepdaughter steered her father to the ducklings.
“Aren’t they cute? They’re so soft. Please, dad?” Presto! Six ducks found a home.
Of course, now we needed a dog to guard the animals. Enter Boone, a fluffy white puppy the pound assured us was a Great Pyrenees, a breed born to guard livestock. (He wasn’t and doesn’t but that’s another story.)
And then came Francis.
He began as the gag gift for Skip’s 50th surprise birthday party. Because there was no dream farm or friends to invite to a BBQ, I figured I could at least get him a pig.
How hard could that be?
And, how does a city girl find a pig? Online, of course. All I knew was Skip wanted a tasty pig, not one of the bland, mass-produced kind. I plugged “heritage pig” into Google and the odyssey began. Links led to calls to organizations like Texas Organic Farmers and Gardners Association, the Texas Pork Association, Slow Foods. No one knew where to find one piglet. A hundred, no problem. But, one?
I called feed stores and farmers. “You want a feeder or a show pig?” I had no idea. The kind of condescension country folks reserve for city folks worsened with each call.
“You do know that pigs are not native to our state, doncha?” a farmer growled after I stumbled through my reasons for not wanting your everyday run-of-the-mill factory-farmed hog.
Time was running out when fate intervened. The paper ran a full-page feature story on a heritage hog farmer less than an hour from us. On the morning of Skip’s surprise party, I raced to fetch his gift: a half Hampshire, half Berskhire barrow.
Our piglet was not promising. He was a squealing, terrified, 35-pound, 8-week old, boy piglet, all black except for the white band that encircled his body and front legs. An enormous Oreo cookie. Barely $45 had liberated him from his parents, who at 500 pounds each gave me a finer appreciation for the sausage I’ve slapped on my plate without a thought.
As I drove my prize to the party, an unfamiliar musky odor wafted forward from the back of my Subaru station wagon. But that was all, not a grunt, not a whimper. Mr. Pig lay his thick head between pink hooves looking scared and miserable. I felt bad, but what can you do? He was merely a meal waiting to happen, the fulfillment of my husband’s midlife fantasy.
Skip was stunned and overjoyed with his present. Amazed that I pulled it off, I put my attentions to the farm and controlling our puppy who wouldn’t stop jumping on the kids or me. Each jump ended with a nip; every assault involved rips, scratches, and tears.
One morning, Boone’s razor sharp teeth rips a hole in my nightgown — my nipple pops out. The kids think Mommy’s nipple is hysterically funny. But after the fourth nipple level tear, I begin to wonder if we’re planning to eat the wrong animal.
Boone poops everywhere, digs up my garden, and destroys boots. Our pig is so peaceful by comparison. He relieves himself in one area, has no interest in tearing my clothes and quietly plays with his toy – a bowling ball – when he’s in the mood. He likes to have his back scratched but won’t beg for it. None of this desperate need to be included or entertained. It occurs to me that pigs are more dignified than dogs. And better company.
As the days go by, I begin to feel “hey, pig” is a bit impersonal. I suggest “Sir Francis,” as in Sir Francis Bacon, to serve as a constant reminder of his fate. It sticks.
We have our hands full getting the vegetable gardens started so we assign feeding the animals to the kids. They take pride in scooping out the pellets and pouring them into round, metal feeders.
Soon we notice Sir Francis is leaving food in his bowl. Is it because we switched to a cheaper feed? Skip checks the chow. It looks kind of gummy, which is odd because it’s stored in tightly sealed metal garbage cans. But instead of firm brown pellets, it looks like old Grape Nuts cereal. No wonder the pig’s not interested. As I scoop through it, my stomach tightens. One of our reference books said pigs can get a horrible disease from eating spoiled feed.
Avery is playing with the hose, spraying the ducks when Skip asks her if she knows how the feed got wet.
“I put water in the garbage can so Sir Francis will like his food more,” she reports, clearly pleased with her ingenuity. After watching us add water to his food bowl to make the slop he adores, she figured she’d save a step. There goes $60.
At five, Avery is quite confident about how the world works and gets upset when she’s corrected. I take her aside and gently ask what would happen if we put milk in our box of Cherrios then put it on the shelf. I don’t want to “dampen” her enthusiasm or embarrass her. Besides, our midget workers have to stay motivated if we’re going to get anything out of them.
Time for me to get more involved with feeding. Francis begins to associate me with rotten fruit, tomatoes gone soft, wilted lettuce leaves and oozy brown items decaying at the bottom of the crisper drawer. When I call him, his ears perk up. But because pigs don’t see well, he squints and peers around trying to locate me like a librarian in the stacks. When he finds me, he bounds over, ears flopping, grunting with pleasure.
There is something faintly prehistoric about him. You feel the presence of warthogs, rhinos and elephants as he tramps through his wallow.
He snorts, presses his snout against the gate and wiggles his backside. I pour scraps into his bowl, he dives in like Thanksgiving. As he munches, the tight curl in his skinny tail unfurls, flaps around and rewinds. He’s pleased. After his snack, we play tug, I give him a massage, he nibbles my fingers. He grunts, I grunt back.
As I hang fly strips over Francis’s bedding, Skip teases me, says he’s getting jealous. Could I be falling in love with a pig? Is that possible?
When we got him in June, he weighed as much as Ethan, our preschooler. Just four months later, he weighs more than Skip. We guessed it would take a year before he achieved BBQ weight, but at 210, he’s within range of the magic number: 235. He’ll be ready by Halloween. Oh my.
When I bring him dinner, I linger. Maybe I should feed him a little less so he’ll have more time. I begin to feel like I’m visiting a fat man on death row.
Francis rolls onto his side, trying to rub out something unseen from his left ear. His little brown eyes appear sorrowful. Is he bored? His days are spent laying around watching the chickens scratch and the ducks complain, but he is alone. I wish he had a companion, another pig to understand each grunt and add a few of their own. When I share my concern with another pig owner, she suggests a playdate. But Francis no longer fits in my Subaru or Skip’s Volvo. Perhaps it’s time for a pick-up truck?
I’m mulling this over at the feed store when a white-haired man in jeans and plaid shirt with snaps sparks a conversation.
“What’s the feed for?,” he asks eyeing my crisp white summer dress, strappy heels and pearl earrings. I’ve barely said pig, when he launches into his wild boar stories.
“Growing up my family would shoot a wild one every year. Had to, to get by. We’d all help prepare it. Eyeballs were the best part, taste just like candy. And someone was always cutting up a tongue sandwich as we worked,” he continued on, oblivious to my nausea. “My parents went for the blood, drank 8 ounces each, swore by it. I never liked it myself, too sweet for me.”
I forced a smile and tried not to gag as he reminisced. There was no stopping him.
“You know the secret to good sausage? I tell ‘ya. You gotta use hog, venison and brisket. Lots of garlic.”
As he went on, I was thrown back to Avery’s question at the kitchen table. “Are you going to put a knife in him and cut him up?” she had gasped through her tears.
“No, sweetheart, when he gets big enough, we’ll take him to a place where they put him to sleep forever, then they’ll, um…” I was at a loss for words. I have no idea how he’d be done away with – injection, electrical shock, drowning? Who knows how a pig becomes bacon.
I try to solve the mystery at a farmer’s conference. I’m steered to a hog farmer, who says he’s in that line of work because, “You can use everythin’ but the squeal.”
“How do you kill a pig? I ask him.
“Harvest, you mean harvest,” he says, peering down at me like an overall-clad Goliath. He was all Texan rancher from the dirty boots up to the straw hat perched on his large square head, a distance that seemed to span more than 10 feet.
“First, the pig comes down with lead-poisoning. Course, a Mexican may want to pay you for the honors, that way you’ll get $1 a pound on the hoof. I get $4 a pound after it’s packaged and all.”
He lost me at lead poisoning. Lead poisoning? How does a pig get lead poisoning – eating old paint? Then it came to me. Oh. Like right-between-the-eyes, that kind of lead poisoning.
Here was this enormous tree of a man, the kind that drove a pick up truck that required a running leap to reach the first step. Someone I would never know in my former life. Yet, in an instant we were bonding over our pigs.
“I bet you named your pig, didn’t you?” he said with a wink.
I nodded, a little embarrassed. I wasn’t about to confess how quickly I’d gone from calling him Sir Francis to Francis to Frannie.
“Noone told me I’d fall in love with him.”
“Noone ever does, but that’s the truth. We all do.”
He laughed as he told me how his animals – hogs and Longhorns mostly – cost more than he was bringing in. “I’m upside down like a big dog,” he grinned, maneuvering the chaw to the other cheek.
Upside down is what we’ll be if we keep Francis. A 500-pound pet, who thanks to a bit of surgery prior to purchase, can’t reproduce and earn his keep on the farm.
Should we get a freezer? Make Francis our Christmas presents? Even if we do “harvest” him, how will we get him to the processor? In a Volvo? Oh my.
TO BE CONTINUED…