Posted on | February 18, 2013 | 5 Comments
It’s that time again. Grass has sprung up in the garden.
The last couple “wintry mix” events have left a lot of the lettuce, radish, and other greens in the garden burned and curdled.
Of course, the ice and snow hasn’t stopped the henbit, chickweed, and purple dead nettle from squeezing out the crops that are surviving.
As the days warm and the soil dries, someone needs to be down in the garden, turning over the raised beds, re-edging the rows, and yanking up weeds before they get a death grip.
I just couldn’t figure out who that someone would be. Last year I was forced to use a tiller to prepare the garden beds. We’ve expanded the garden so much that it’s too large for me to turn by hand. Plus, my insistence on letting grass grow between the beds, instead of mulching the paths, means there are tougher weeds like crab grass and Johnson grass getting into the rows. And if you’ve tried to pull crab grass and Johnson grass by hand, then you’ll understand.
I have always prided myself on a limited use of heavy machinery on our farm. Oh, sure we’ll break out the tractor when we need trenches dug or hilltops flattened. But I depend a lot on the wheelbarrow and the hoe and break big tasks into smaller, manageable chunks. The Other Half is the muscle and, if he should be at work, 4 kids lifting or pushing together are just as good. So although the tiller got the job done, and I was glad to have it, it required ear plugs, a tolerance for gas fumes, and an ability to work only during “reasonable” hours (i.e., when the neighbors were not sleeping or likely to be annoyed by its roar). It tore up my hard-earned earthworms and might have taken a leg off a toad or two. Never mind the time spent cutting and unwrapping the thick grasses, fibrous roots, and occasional hay twine from around the blades about every 1/2 row or so.
I figured there had to be an easier, Earth-friendlier way. I knew there was an easier, Earth-friendlier way to turn soil. I saw it in action once.
We still have an amorphous plan to put pigs on the pond to seal it. But we haven’t started the fencing yet and I was hoping to use the money from selling the spring goat kids (Cassie is polled!) to purchase that fencing. In addition, it’s way too cold to put piglets down there without extensive shelter. Plus, they’re unlikely to start wallowing with temperatures dropping into the 20’s at night. Also, I haven’t found a supplier of healthy piglets. I don’t want to use the flea market where I got Papa Noel as he was a sickly piglet that required some coddling to thrive. And even if we eat pork 3 times a week, we won’t have room to put 4 or 5 pigs in the freezer this fall. So we’d have to line up buyers, and deposits, and consider butchering arrangements. Never mind the fact that Papa was a never-full grain pit. With the dairy goats kidding and needing extra grain during their heaviest milk production, I didn’t want a batch of pigs to add to the feeding expense.
In other words, if I went ahead and got pigs to turn the garden, I wouldn’t have any place to put them when they were done. And the feed bills in the mean time would be crippling. So I attempted to “borrow” a few pigs. I figured I could use them in the garden and/or the pond, I would provide the care, the owners could provide the feed, and then I could return them—no butchering or buyers needed.
I considered the large neighboring farm.
They raise pastured pigs and have pork at their farmers market stand year round. I could have some of their pigs stay in my garden and then on my pond if they provided the feed. I would provide the land and the daily care, free of charge, and they could have them back in the fall when they were ready to be butchered. But they have hundreds of acres and don’t need my measly 4 acres to keep a few extra pigs.
I tried another local farm that keeps pigs mainly for agritourism and children’s educational activities.
They might have been interested in giving their pig pasture a break and some recovery time from their sow and her upcoming litter of piglets. Again, I was willing to let the pigs stay here until butchering time. But they don’t have piglets on the ground yet this year. And, even when the piglets are born, they’ll want them there until summer camp is over. So that wouldn’t work either.
I even talked to the pot bellied pig rescue group.
A farm down the street has several acres used for pot bellied pigs that have been surrendered and are awaiting their forever home. Surely they would be interested in letting a few pigs have a lush garden to dig in for a few weeks, while waiting for a pet home. But they didn’t like the idea of their pigs being contained in a 16′X16′ pen, even though I explained I would be moving it around the garden to a fresh area every time they finished turning up a section of the garden. They felt it was unsuitable for the “mental and physical health implications of allowing enough area for the pigs to defecate away from where they eat and sleep” and I needed to consider that “pigs are the 4th most intelligent mammal under humans.” It’s true. Papa Noel had a designated area where he always deposited his urinary and fecal output. It just happened to be about 2 feet away from his automatic waterer. And he had an entire pasture to wander around in. Pot bellied pigs might be the 4th most intelligent mammal. But I don’t think Papa Noel’s breed earned that distinction.
So on a balmy day last week, I sat on the deck, taking in the sunshine and pondering my dilemma. I wondered if I should go ahead and get some pigs or nix it and borrow the tiller. I wondered where I could find piglets this time of year. I wondered if I should just get pigs to till the garden and then resell them or try and keep them to seal the pond this summer. I wondered if I had enough friends interested in natural pork to sell the meat from several pigs this fall. I wondered what other women wondered about when sitting on the deck, taking in the sunshine. Normal women. Women without pig problems.
Eventually I went inside and did what any reasonable person would do. I put a wanted ad on craigslist for a couple of feeder pigs. I shrugged as I hit “post” and figured that sometimes you just had to let the Universe decide. Or the denizens of craigslist. Which is kind of the same thing. Either there were pigs out there for me. Or there weren’t.
I only got one response.
One positively perfect, supremely suitable, cosmically correct response.
Apparently, just 15 miles away, a little homestead raises American Guinea Hogs. In addition to some dairy goats, and chickens, and a pony for their three kids. For real.
American guinea hogs are a breed that came to America in the 1800’s, were widespread in the southeast, where I live, and they are now listed with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
They are not big grain eaters, as they get too fat on rich feed, and do better foraging for grass, weeds, roots, nuts, etc, and were traditionally used to clean out gardens on small family farms.
They only reach 150-300 lbs, making them easier to handle and butcher, producing a smaller carcass, and just enough meat to fill the family freezer– no need to line up buyers for hundreds of pounds of meat. Since they are a lard breed, the meat is darker, more marbled, and more tender than commercial pork. It is listed with the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
They are hardy, adults don’t normally need worming and piglets don’t need vitamin shots, and docile. Boars and even sows with litters are rarely aggressive with their handlers or other animals. Their easy-going and friendly temperaments are just right for being raised around families and other livestock.
I am not making this up.
Just one town over from mine, a family farm had the perfect breed of homestead hog.
And they had two female piglets, just under 40 lbs, for sale for $40 each. Which they offered to deliver for free the next day after their daughter’s dance class. Which I immediately agreed to and told them what time we’d be home from our son’s basketball game.
When I told The Other Half, he asked if I even attempted to bargain on the price.
You do NOT bargain with The Universe!!!!
You accept your perfect, garden-tilling, forage-eating, family-friendly piglets from the nearby, more-than-the-average-number-of-kids, random-assortment-of-barn-animals homestead, you pay cash, and you say, “Thank You!”
The farmer showed up on Saturday afternoon with the piglets and 2 of his 3 kids. Because his wife and the baby couldn’t all fit in the truck together, not if everyone was strapped into their car seat. (Oh, the pain of the full size car seat and the joy of the switch to the booster.) His kids hopped right out, the little girl introduced herself and her younger brother, they pushed CC the sassy Shetland pony out of their way, patted Bruno the 115 lb Great Pyrenees on the head as he rushed toward them, and moseyed into the kidding barn to catch and hold Cassie.
God, I love farm kids. The individual presence of CC or Bruno standing at the barnyard gate is often enough to make city kids wet themselves. Together their proximity can cause fear-induced seizures. Or instantaneous onset of E.Coli. But farm kids move around livestock with the confidence of city kids around cars and crosswalks. It’s a beautiful sight.
I asked the farmer if they had goat kids at their place yet.
“Yeah,” he said as we pulled the crate out of the truck bed. “But the kids can never get enough of baby animals.”
Kids?? Can anyone ever get enough of baby animals? Isn’t the presence of spring babies the Universe’s trade off for some of the more grueling and dreary chores of the farm? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure it is.
I asked him what the piglets were eating at his place and he told me they were eating greens out of the garden and whey from a cheese farm, plus hay or chaffe hay on occasion. Not grain.
I’ve got lots of greens. Especially since that warm day on the deck was the last day before the arrival of snow. Several inches of snow. I knew as soon as I woke up and saw the flower pots on the deck, there would be lots more frost burned and soggy vegetables up for grabs.
I don’t make cheese often enough to use whey as the main source of protein for piglets. But I do have something else. Right now the chickens are laying 2 dozen eggs a day, not including the ones I am putting aside for the incubator. Or the ones in the way back of the coop that I’m too lazy to climb back to get. The local farmers market is not up and running yet and I give away as many eggs as possible at work. But the farm fridge still looks like this:
So greens from the garden and leftover eggs it is. At least until the snow melts this week and the piglets can be in the garden, unearthing their own goodies. As hardy and healthy (and hairy!) as these girls are, a straw filled doghouse should be enough to keep them warm on cold nights. In the meantime they’re in a section of the kidding barn, where we pet them and talk to them and push our palms against their rubbery noses when they come to greet us. Because you can’t touch enough cute, rubbery pig noses. You just can’t.
So far they have been happy and easy to care for. They escaped out of their temporary pen in the kidding barn on the first night and we discovered them hanging out, agreeably, with Charlotte and Cassie in the morning. Not that Charlotte was pleased with that socially demeaning occurrence, but no one appeared agitated, injured, or stressed.
We have named the smaller one Penny. Because having a Penny the Pig was just too irresistible.
The fatter one is named Pushy.
Because we quickly discovered she would push Penny out of the feed bowl and snag all the eggs for herself. That behavior probably explains her added girth. So we provided 2 food bowls and Pushy can move Penny to the other bowl, but they both end up with equal amounts. This issue should resolve itself when they are foraging in the garden.
The good news is that the garden will be turned without the tiller this year. And the pigs will probably do a better job with the root mats, invasive mint, and encroaching blackberry brambles than me. Plus, none of the remaining mealy winter crops will be wasted. And the soil will be fertilized.
As if all that wasn’t enough, I have discovered 2 more amazing things about the American Guinea Hog since the gilts arrived.
First, unlike Papa Noel, they are not squealers. Even when they’re excited, they settle for adorable snorting, snuffling, and oinking. I imagine they would squeal if scared or injured, but so far we aren’t subjected to ear-splitting squeals every time we enter their pen. Which is handy. Since they will be living in the garden, bordering the neighbor’s property line.
Second, after some research, I have discovered that America Guinea Hogs can definitely be used to seal a pond. Especially if you lay a bunch of them end-to-end, like this farm did:
I really like these pigs. And the farmer I bought them from told me that they have piglets born twice a year and would be happy to provide me with more. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to this, people. Let us hope the Universe has something else planned, shall we?