Five years ago yesterday I opened the trunk of our Subaru and discovered a baby Berkshire pig huddled inside. Erin had surprised me for my birthday once again, outdoing even herself. Thus began our first week of Green Gate Pigs – not with a whimper, but a grunt.
Many grunts later, I am driving to LaGrange to pick up our latest hog harvest. Even now, I feel a little disoriented and sad as trays of frozen meat roll out and I pack them into coolers. I look at one of the labels – “heart” – and wince. This fist-sized muscle is what beat a pulse through Arrow, a 600-pound gilt who failed to become a sow and, consequently, was assigned another fate. With five coolers filled and loaded in the van, I’m ready to head home, but poke my head around the back of LaGrange Smokehouse and notice a rather large cow standing alone in the waiting pen. Usually the pen is empty at this late hour, and never, ever was there an animal eating – eating calmly – as this one was. As I walked up to the heavy pipe enclosure, this Longhorn bull raised its massive head from the hay bale and stared at me; we stood eye to eye. I’d never seen a cow so huge, nor so completely unfazed by its predicament. I said, “Do you have any idea you are eating your last supper?” As if to answer me, he tilted his pipe-like horns; they glinted in the late sun, spanning six feet at least.
I pulled up front to pay my bill, and inquired at the counter about the mysterious Longhorn; why it was still out there, and why was it given food. This monster, she explained, had been there for two days. During that time the crew had tried to fit it through the shoot, but his horns were too big. I’d seen other Longhorns in there before, and if they worked them just right the men could twist their heads sideways and push them through the narrow door at the same time. Not this time, though. Indeed, Taursus was waiting for his owner to pick him up the next morning.
I pondered that bull on the long drive home. Was he the first animal there to ever get a stay of execution? Even Arrow, massive by butchering standards, was squeezed through the door. The secret was to have horns and grow them big. I wondered if the owner was furious or had laughed and decided to let his prize spend the rest of his days in golden pastures. It sure made a good story, especially in Texas.
On visits to other butchers, we’ve seen the other side of the animal husbandry. Erin still cringes at the sight of leaving our plump, happy, healthy pigs in a waiting pen, sometimes with the most sickly and mistreated creatures you can imagine. In one instance, they had been shipped down from Iowa – the culls and rejects headed South for the low-income markets. We could hardly tolerate the thought of our pigs, who had fed on grass, our vegetables, and Whole Foods vegetable scraps, being butchered side by side with these miserable animals.
Many of you have become attached to our pigs almost as much as we have. You ask how we can kill them and we answer like all farmers do – we feed them and then they feed us. A win-win. What makes our farm unique is that our pigs also feed you, even if you only eat our vegetables. This week, our tomatoes and peppers are growing in the field where our rare-breed Guinea Hogs lived last year. After moving the pigs across the dirt road and leaving the field fallow for four months, we tilled it up this spring and planted our vegetables there. As a result, these are, by far, the most productive nightshades we have grown on the farm. Instead of buying fertilizer for that field, our pigs provided it for us. That’s how farming has worked for thousands of years. We think it should continue that way.