In July, when the sun had long since gone down but heat still somehow thickened the air, I would peer into Jane the Sow’s stall to check for signs of farrowing. Night after night I would put my palms on her massive stomach and feel her piglets kicking and moving. She was my first pregnant pig, and I eagerly absorbed all of her behaviors and logged them in my head for future use. She was drinking more and more, and excess froth often collected on the outside of her mouth as her due date came and went. Then, on the Monday after the 4th of July, our entire farm crew found eight tiny piglets, milling about in the hay at the feet of a very tired looking Jane (the picture above was taken at this very moment). To my dismay, I wasn’t on animal crew that week– I remember standing at the gate staring at them in absolute wonder, hearing my veggie manager call my name but not quite registering that I had to leave them.
A week later, they were not growing very well. I wasn’t sure what they were supposed to look like, but had a feeling that something was not quite right. That next Monday, we found a dead piglet on our weekly farm walk, its tiny spindly body stiff and cold– my first death on the farm. Two more piglets died that week. On the second death, we did a necropsy in the field. I was planting fennel with the vegetable crew when my manager called me over and asked if I wanted to see a necropsy… She knew I was more in love with the animals than vegetables and grains, and allowed me to step away and observe even though it meant sacrificing a worker on a rare sunny day. The afternoon sun shone in my eyes as I peered at the tiny pig cadaver resting on a piece of cardboard on the back of our farm truck. A local professor was there with gloves and scalpels, and slowly she peeled back the layers of skin and tissue to expose the kidneys, stomach, heart, lungs, liver, and intestines. His stomach was so full of milk it seemed like it was about to burst. So they were eating… but why were they eating so much at once? On that abnormally hot day, we decided that Jane was likely only producing milk during the cool evening hours, forcing her piglets to gorge themselves to the point of death.
During the weekend that followed, one of the animal crew members noticed Jane was refusing to let her babies nurse. She was turning on them, stepping and crushing their tiny toes. My coworker immediately whisked the piglets into a dog crate with bedding, and went off in search of milk replacer. Each morning and night we mixed a big bucket of liquid that smelled suspiciously like a vanilla milkshake, and poured it into pans for the piglets. They would stand at our feet and scream in elation, eventually diving into the pans headfirst. They only came up for air with the greatest of reluctance, their snouts dripping with the warmed milk. Jane was moved to a woodlot, and spent the rest of the summer in the shade of old trees, chewing on multiflora rose and walnuts.
The piglets grew fast, their shoulders broadened and their limbs thickened. We developed relationships with them, against our better instincts, and gave butt scratches and belly rubs each day during chores. Two of them were sold to a farm in New York, to be used as breeding stock. I tried to get them to take my favorite, but she was smaller and more meek than the rest. As I left to begin my academic year, I was grateful that I wouldn’t have to be at the farm for their processing date– I had forgotten that I agreed to farm-sit during winter break.
This winter I found the feeder pigs as much larger, more rowdy versions of their baby selves. They still rolled over for belly rubs, but were not afraid to try and topple me over to get their grain. They would eagerly nip and my pants, and occasionally attempt to fit my shoe into their mouths. Knowing that they would be processed within the month caused me no small amount of pain– a small part of me wanted to simply feed them and get out of the pen, without stopping for a scratch or tummy rub. But as I slowly develop into a farmer, and find my own ways to cope with such things, I have learned that every animal should be treated with the same volume of love, compassion, and respect, regardless of their purpose on the farm– no matter how much pain and sorrow and guilt it may cause me, their caretaker. And so after chores I sat with them, and I scratched them behind the ears and talked softly to them and administered belly rubs upon request, while at the same time compartmentalizing my sorrow and guilt to provide the best possible life for them.
Yesterday we loaded them onto the trailer, and this morning my manager brought them to the processing plant. Their lives were filled with safety, love, affection, lots of delicious food and a pasture to run around in, followed by one bad day. In a month, they will provide sustenance to a family, or a member of our meat CSA. Their existence will have had purpose, and meaning. I know all of this, and I am proud of the work that I do, but it is hard.
There are people out there that might think of me, and livestock farmers in general, as evil. One morning this fall, a new “friend” in my orientation group said to me… “how can you raise animals for meat and eat them? I just don’t see how that is any different than murdering and eating humans.” I don’t think anyone has made me more angry than this particular vegan did– I vividly remember taking a swig of stale coffee and launching into an uncharacteristically hostile tirade while the rest of our breakfast crew gazed at their plates of soggy french toast.
All I can say is that through my work I am able to have a direct relationship with the food that I eat. Whenever a piece of meat (or milk, or cheese) enters my mouth, the only thought in my mind is one of deep gratitude for the living being that made it possible for me to eat and live. We are raising heritage breed animals the way that animals are supposed to be raised– with room to run, to interact and play with members of their own species, to experience the sun, and wind, and mud (in the pigs’ case, anyway).
I woke up this morning with a heavy heart. As I made myself a cup of coffee, my phone vibrated, and a picture of a tiny calf appeared on my screen. It was a message from my manager– Gemstone, the beef cow I walked to a new stall last week, gave birth to a healthy baby bull calf. Keeping with the theme of “G” names and rocks, we named him Geode, Geo for short.
It sounds cliché, but with death comes new life on the farm. It is a painful but beautiful reminder of how important it is to remember where our food comes from.