Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Raising Wilbur

I am not a born pig farmer. I am a city girl who arrived at raising pigs along the long path to culinary perfection. The quest began with our search for perfect tomato sauce, which extended from buying the right tomatoes to growing them, researching the best varieties, and bottling them when the season ended.

It was only a matter of time before my husband, Bret, and I turned our attention to the sausage in the sauce. Raising our own pork was a short leap from there.

Raising pigs is a lot different from growing tomatoes. Tomato plants do not arrive, pink and curious, from a supplier. They do not act afraid of people, or lie in the sun ignoring the shade provided them, or go through a phase of sunburned ears. Our children have never named a tomato plant.

The kids asked what we should name the pigs. I suggested: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Supper. Instead they called the pig with the reddish spot Wilbur. We kept reminding the kids that the pigs were for food, but other names followed: Pig, Cow, Stripe. Three of the pigs would go to other families; only one of them will end up on our table. I did not want to know which one it would be. We would not be writing a pig’s name on the sausage package before we put it in the freezer.

The pigs lost their cuteness as the summer heated up. Their pink skin became hairy as it was exposed to cool nights and hot sun. Existing spots darkened and new spots appeared. They lost their fear and began treating humans as rudely as they treated each other.

They pushed each other, stepped on each other and climbed up on each other. They nipped at each other’s ears. The water trough sat unmolested for hours, but the moment that one pig decided it needed a drink, the others were there, too, pushing and snorting as if the drinker would take it all.

There is a reason why in our society, selfish people are called pigs. The creatures live in a Hobbesean world, where the strongest get bigger and the runts waste away until they are culled from the herd and sent to people like my family. There, among pigs no bigger than themselves, they are free to act just like the big pigs did back where they were born.

Unlike dogs, pigs have no regard for humans as the alphas of the pack. They are, however, curious creatures. The pigs in my yard were very curious about human feet. They snuffled at them and nibbled on them, which might have been cute if I had not seen what their teeth could do to a tough, oversized zucchini. A slap to the flank would not deflect them from my boots, though, and a gentle push with a shovel only made them angrily snort and shove back. It took a firm, sustained push to discourage them, and when they got bigger I had to whack them on the shoulder before they would leave my feet alone.

One day after a hard session of shoveling pig waste and defending my feet, I decided that I would probably be OK with eating homegrown pork. I was ready to shoot the pigs myself. By then they were so big and so rude that I would not allow my children in the pen unless I was there, too.

The creatures packed on more than a pound a day. It seemed obvious to me that pigs are creatures manipulated by man to suit his purposes. In nature an animal that big, that lumbering and that low to the ground would never survive. It would high-center on rocks. It would be run down by predators.

I abandoned my theory about the pigs’ clumsy helplessness when summer gave way to fall. In the cooler weather they became happy, nimble animals, racing joyfully around their pen. They chased each other, usually with goodwill. In the cool nights they lay together like sardines. They ate the corn stalks we cut out of the garden, munched our windfall apples, and ran out to meet us when we came to visit their pen. Some of them seemed to ask to be petted.

They had some truly comedic moments, like the time I left a plastic bucket where they could get it. In no time one of them had it in its mouth and trotted around the pen, taunting the others as they tried to take it away. A couple of times they managed to find the end of the water hose and pull it into the pen. Then all four of them pulled it taut and chewed on it, turning it into an impromptu pig party until we realized what was happening and rescued the hose.

In addition to giving us sausage, the pigs were supposed to teach responsibility. My son willingly shouldered a shovel and, by the side of one of his parents, helped muck out the pen.Oldest Daughter helped bury the manure in the garden spot. When the nights were so cold that the hose froze, it was up to the children to either drain the hose in the evening to keep it from freezing, or else to haul buckets of water out to the trough in the morning.

One November day Oldest Daughter said she was tired of the job. We told her it was only for another week; after that they would go to the custom meat house. Good, she said. Her eyes looked teary.

I was not home when they took the pigs away. Jim, our friend who owned three of the four pigs, was going to handle their transport to their final destination. That is how The Rodeo came about. We heard about it secondhand from our neighbor Frank.

Frank was an experienced pig handler. He knew there was pig trouble when he heard the commotion from the direction of our pen. He went there and discovered Jim and the work crew from his landscaping business trying to load the pigs. The pigs didn’t want to leave the pen, so one of the men somehow got a rope around a pig. It started squealing, and the three other 200-plus-pound pigs came after the guy with the rope. He got out of it OK, but clearly their strategy wasn’t working.

Frank lent a hand, brought over his trailer and loaded the pigs onto it without incident. Then he drove them a mile down the road to the custom meat house.

My husband told me the story, and we were quieter than usual that night. Finally I blurted it out. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to eat the sausage, it was just that this was the pigs’ last day alive, and they were traumatized.

I expected my country boy husband to tell me I was silly, but he didn’t.

A couple of days later the ground sausage went into the freezer. Bret kept a little of it out, fried it and scrambled it into the morning’s eggs.

It was an excellent breakfast.


  1. For some reason, I was sad after reading this article. Wilbur's last day, and he was traumatized and struggling for his life, not knowing where he was led to. I pictured myself as Wilbur, happy in my pen and content with how the master had treated me--she had fed me, gave me food, named me, provided me a shelter, and even written about me. Who would've thought that I would be her breakfast one day. It was simply a feeling of betrayal. But then it was also life. I think I will stop eating pork now.

  2. Oh, the joys of country life. This was a lesson I too only learned after marrying my husband. They would often comment on the name of the beef we would be eating at his parent's house.

  3. This story has everything--humor, pathos, philisophy, and incredulity. Thanks, JoLynne, for an entertaining article.

  4. Oh, my. That led to laughter and tears. I'd rather not be acquainted with the food on my plate, but that's totally hypocritical. Do you plan on raising them next year?


I love comments! But don't even try to leave one anonymously.

Emails from home

Most of our email is pretty mundane. Once in a while, though, the immediate flavor of country life sings amid the shopping lists and communications to the office. Here are some stored on our home computer, written by people in our house and edited for privacy.

Some of the terms are softened for a family audience, but not by much.

Your evil kitty just woke up your son by urping up a mouse on his lion blankie.

You know you live in a small town when…

...Fifty-year old people born and raised in town are ‘new comers’.

...You are more afraid of locking yourself out of your house than of being robbed.

...The library has a different schedule on every day of the week.

...You are darn proud that your town has a library. Incidentally, your library account is handled not by a card but by a number that the librarian types into her computer. You have trouble remembering it, but the librarian can always tell you what it is.

...You can honestly say, "The Mayor is in front of the house fixing his manure spreader."

Good news: We caught another mouse.

Bad news: We have at least one more.

Good news: He must be hungry and he thinks of traps as a food source, since he robbed the bait of an un-sprung trap, finished the bait of the sprung one, and ate an eye from his dead brother.

Hope you're done with breakfast.