A Pig Called Snowflake

We knew the time was near, even though we didn’t know the date. Early Monday morning I turned out to do the chores while Cindy headed off to work. I started with the feeder pigs behind the equipment shed, then the chickens and finally off to see Snowflake. Her farrowing date was at hand. She had lost her entire litter the summer before. Was it to do with the heat or some other factor we had not determined? Ultimately we decided to give her another chance.
 
She had been showing a heavy belly for the past few weeks. But her appetite remained healthy. Sometime on Saturday she began gathering sticks and bringing them into her shelter to create an uncomfortable-looking nest. I removed the sticks and brought her more straw bedding, taking the time, as always, to pat her and chat for a few moments.
 
Strolling down into the woods, calling her name, I knew it had begun. No answering snorts to my call, her 350-plus-pound bulk nestled in the hay. I opened the gate. As I approached, Snowflake was on her side groaning, in heavy labor. One small and very active piglet dashed around her. I knelt down to examine her. No distress, so I rearranged the hay and went back to the house to work.
 
I checked on her every hour. By eleven o’clock in the morning, no additional piglets had been born. A hasty call to Cindy and we both agreed to call the vet. As bad luck would have it our vet was at a rodeo in Oklahoma City. He called back on his cell phone and gave me the number of several vets in the area: I left a message with all.
 
A vet in Riceville, 30 miles away, called me back. Typical of a Monday morning, he was covered up in emergency calls. He advised me to put my hand up her birth canal and check to see if there was a piglet blocking the path. If that was the case, I was to remove it and let her get on with the farrowing. He was concerned that she might not have the energy to deliver the rest of the piglets and gave me instructions that included feeding dog food, peanut butter and tums tablets (for calcium). Additionally, I was to give her a shot of oxytocin to induce contractions if she did not deliver another piglet.

OK, I’ve seen All Creatures Great and Small, so how difficult could this be? With some trepidation, I gathered up the Vaseline, scrubbed my arm and went back out to the paddock. Snowflake had meanwhile shifted her body so her butt end was against the back wall. I slathered on the Vaseline and inserted first my fingers then my hand up to the forearm. I could feel the piglet blocking the birth canal, head back. Snowflake howled with pain. After a few fruitless minutes I extracted my hand.
 
Back in the house I called Cindy and asked her to come on home. Before agreeing, she said, “I thought you had watched all of those James Herriot TV shows!” I went back out to put my TV vet knowledge into practice. This time I pushed all the way to my elbow. I pushed with the tips of my fingers on the small body blocking the cervical opening to the birth canal. After a few minutes I was able to snag a leg and begin the process of pulling the piglet out. It was dead, as expected. I left Snowflake in hopes that she would get on with the job.
 
Meanwhile Cindy arrived home and I brought her up to speed. We checked on Snowflake and found that no more piglets had arrived. Cindy called our dog vet to see if we could get a shot of oxytocin to induce contractions. The officious gatekeeper at the counter told her, “WE DON’T TREAT PIGS!” “We are not asking you to treat pigs—we are asking for a shot of oxytocin.” “Miss, we can’t hand out injectable drugs to the public.” Cindy: “This pig could die”. The gatekeeper: “Your human doctor wouldn’t give out drugs over the phone.” Cindy hung up.
 
Calling another vet clinic, she explained the circumstance again. This time, they immediately said that they would have the injection at the counter waiting. I headed out for Crossville, an hour away, to meet two customers picking up our beef at the processor. Cindy headed half an hour the opposite direction to the vet.
 
Returning home two hours later, I found her in the house. She had given the injection and contractions began, but still no delivery. She had to repeat the Vaseline procedure and hand remove all of the piglets. Snowflake ended up delivering four more, each one dead.
 
Here we were again. A sow on her second chance with what we, and our farm vet, felt was some congenital defect preventing a successful farrowing. What do we do?
 
I left on Tuesday morning for a work trip, the one remaining piglet doing ok—but, Snowflake not moving or eating. Upon my return Wednesday evening, the lone piglet had died. Now we were faced with the decision: We can’t sell her for breeding stock. We can’t keep her as a pet. We can’t afford to give her a second chance. And, we don’t have a customer for the meat. We made our decision.
 
Thursday morning, after Cindy left for work, I went to see our sow and brought my Winchester 30/30. She was in her hut. I knelt down and talked to her while I stroked her massive head. Standing up quickly, I raised the rifle and fired one shot aimed directly between her eyes. She died instantly.
 
Livestock serves a real purpose of providing protein in a convenient package. I am comfortable with the choice of being an omnivore. And, I’m equally comfortable with the decision to put her down. Still, she was a beautiful pig called Snowflake.

This Farm Note from the archives was written in April 2011. This is before I began to regularly post on the blog. The Farm Notes began in 1999 and were shared for those years with a group of friends and family. Over the coming year I will post periodically from those archived Notes.

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Reading this weekend: An Island in Time: the biography of a village by Geert Mak. A well written work examining the decline of a specific village in the Netherlands; and the larger decline of village life globally.

A Good Day

Even the knowledge that the cardboard box I had just thrown on a roaring fire in the burn barrel contained 200 onion sets could not diminish the joy of a beautiful Saturday morning on the farm. These late winter days, with frost on the ground at daybreak, but whose clear skies promise warm temperatures by late morning, are pure gold.

Cindy was off early to catch a flight to Florida leaving me to my own devices. So Caleb and I spent the morning knocking off items on the to-do list. Principle among them were to move about ten cubic yards of compost from the pile to the spring garden. Once that was done I tilled the space and we put in two hundred feet of potatoes and onions (I had run out and bought replacements), and some kale and turnips. It was a good start for the season.

A good to-do list needs to be slightly ambitious, with more than one can easily do in the allotted time. But not so much more that you are discouraged by the tasks undone. It should also contain small items that are easily accomplished so that you feel that satisfaction from checking them off the list. And, it should contain larger projects that may not be completed in one day. But, by at least making a start, you will be closer to their completion.

A good day on the farm, for me, begins with the practical completion of the to-do list. But it always includes good companionship from Cindy, neighbors and friends. A shared cup of coffee or a meal and good conversation adds depth to the good work of the day. Our former farm volunteer, Hannah, came by last evening for that shared cup of coffee and a good conversation. She had been out hiking with a mutual friend and had that healthy glow and exuberance one experiences at twenty-one.

But a good day should also include solitude, perhaps a bit of reading, maybe a good cigar and a walk. So I dropped all of those into the afternoon by rereading Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History and smoking that cigar while checking on the cattle.

After Hannah left, I fixed myself a small lamb roast, an onion and chard tart and had a few glasses of wine before an early night. I’d have to rank the day pretty high on the satisfaction scale.

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Reading this weekend: The Sixth Extinction: an unnatural history by Elizabeth Kolbert. Equal parts fascinating and truly depressing, she focuses on the current sixth wave of extinction in the history of our planet. It is principally caused by that widely spread bipedal weed, and that fact alone should leave us feeling ashamed.  Is it an act of cognitive dissonance to derive so much pleasure from your days and yet know that one’s actions collectively are causing so much destruction?

Loading Hogs

I’ve fallen in the pig paddock, face first and full on my chest. Three inches of muck, ice, snow, and manure cover me and my brand new Carhartt vest; a stampede of 300-pound hogs thunders past and over me. Standing up and trying to sling off the mud, it occurs to me that there must be a better way to spend one’s leisure time.

Nine days earlier we had a heavy snow, followed by a week of below freezing temperatures. The first few days are idyllic, pristine white landscape, the road quiet at the bottom of our hill. Then a week goes by with my truck parked at the base of our gravel drive: three-tenths of a mile of snow-covered ice and my four-wheel isn’t working.

Meanwhile, we have three hogs destined for market. During lunch one day, I go outside and set a four-square of T-posts around the feeder and the gate into the wooded pig paddock. I then hoist through the snow and mud four corral panels, each 14 feet long. Lashing the panels to the T-posts creates a makeshift holding pen with the gate on one end and an opening into the paddock on the other.

The plan is to entice the three hogs into the pen—somehow keeping the other nine out—open up the gate, and let the anointed amble into the stock trailer. What could go wrong?

I back the trailer near the paddock gate, set up another panel between it and the gate, and swing the trailer door open to create a neat second enclosure for the chosen three. I go back in the house to work until Cindy gets home.

Around 5, we head out to the paddock with a bucket of corn and two dozen eggs. Pigs are curious creatures and soon a crowd is gathered ’round. The first hiccup becomes quickly apparent. Even though the electric fence has been disconnected, they all give the open gate a wide berth.

Then the second flaw: With all of the snow, much of it now melted, the area around the feeder is inches deep in muck. Each time we toss an egg, it promptly sinks from view. And the third: How does one entice a passel of pigs with a bucket of grain when they already have mounds available in the free-choice feeder?

It becomes a dance, albeit a frustrating one of two left feet. Get one or two pigs in the enclosure, close the outer panel, watch them panic and, using their snouts, toss the panels aside. This goes on for close to an hour, with Cindy and I both becoming increasingly ill-humored and mud-spattered. Finally, we manage to get one hog into the trailer and closed off in the front compartment. We have three eggs left to entice the remaining two hogs. At this point, my hands are cut and my sleeves are caked to the elbows in mud.

It is at this juncture that an opportunity presents itself, when two hogs step over the invisible line and lumber toward the trailer. Cindy is before them, dropping the last eggs to lure them on. I’m in the rear, unlashing a panel to slide in behind them and block their escape.

I guess it’s the racket of the panels and the trailer, but about the time I make to slide the panel behind them, they break for cover. They spook all the other pigs, and together they take down all four panels and run to the other side of the wooded paddock. That is when I fall into the muck—my fall being temporarily broken by a spike of metal that rips through the seat of my pants, my boxers, and my buttock.

I stand up, pants tattered, the cold wind whipping through the fabric onto my bleeding cheek, determined to prove my superiority. I began to hurl the panels about in a tantrum. Cindy suggests we break for coffee.

After stripping on the porch and having my wounds attended to, I sit down with Cindy to regroup. A new plan emerges: an extra panel, more chains to hold them together, extra eggs from the coop to entice the two hogs, a couple of wheelbarrows of hay. We march back out with new confidence.

We toss hay in front of the trailer to give the illusion of comfortable bedding and create easier purchase into the trailer. Perching our eggs on the edge of the trailer within easy reach, we chain the panels tight and call the hogs. They come running. In fairly short order, we manage to get one into the trailer. We call it quits. Two hogs in the trailer does indeed beat 10 in the bush.

Meanwhile, the truck to pull the trailer is still halfway down the drive. I had last tried to move it mid-afternoon. Tossing the keys to Cindy, I sit down on the stoop of the potting shed to watch her attempt. Success! Another 30 minutes and we have the trailer hooked up, have all the chores done, and are in the house at 8 p.m. Is it any wonder we work two full-time jobs to pay for this kind of leisure activity?

And the damnedest thing? We get to do this again tomorrow evening with another group of hogs going to market.

This Farm Note from the archives was written in January 2011. This is before I began to regularly post on the blog. The Farm Notes began in 1999 and were shared for those years with a group of friends and family. Over the coming year I will post periodically from those archived Notes.

 

Where Do We Go?

Some thirty years after their passing, I visited the hometown of my grandparents. The Crowley, Louisiana, of my childhood was a bustling, thriving small town. It served as a hub of a rich agricultural landscape of rice farms. The Crowley I visited a decade ago was much as any other small town in America—it seemed to have lost its coherence, its reason for being.

A blighted and empty downtown, even as the rice warehouse district still appeared to be functioning. Housing stock that had disintegrated. A certain pride had vanished. The traffic arteries into town were littered with strip mall architecture. And with all such building, much was abandoned after ten years of use: what do you do with an old Hardees?

We sacrificed our communities and the social cohesion of small towns as farmers left the land. The small businesses supporting those families were shuttered or replaced by big box retail. We moved nationally from a citizen-producer society to a “folks”(as in quaint and harmless)-consumer culture.

The Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon, Earl Butz, had a message to farmers, “Get Big or Get Out.” And American farmers got out. Our modern policies on agriculture, to be fair to Mr. Butz, have always been thus inclined. As a nation we see value in the production of agricultural goods and pride ourselves in the amount produced. But we’ve never valued the farmer and the small town around the farm.

As a consequence of bad policies and decisions, these communities have been eviscerated of any real living core. The principal businesses of the small towns in our East Tennessee valley are check cashing, title loans, pawn shops, tattoo parlors and antique shops—businesses that either suck away the individual’s ability to squeak from one check to the next, help him hide from himself, or sell him a phantom of a past he will never reach.

We have approximately 750,000 farmers in the U.S. Compare that to more than 14 million in a comparable-size area being farmed in Europe. Is it just a coincidence that Europe’s village culture remains more intact than ours? Whatever the reasons, it is clear that various factors have conspired to preserve that European tradition, and to the benefit of a livable landscape and community.

When you can’t or won’t get big and you get out … where do you go? Where do we go?

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Reading this weekend: Paper: an elegy by Ian Sansom

The Farm Toolbox: the Rock-Bar

Archimedes may have had a rock-bar in mind when he postulated “Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the earth with it.” It is a six-foot iron bar, weighing twenty pounds, with a round flat head on one end and a wedge on the other; a perfect combination of form and function.

A gift from Cindy, on our first Christmas at the farm in 1999, the rock-bar is an rock-bar 001absolute essential in the farm toolbox. If you want a quick means test to separate the men from the boys, put a rock bar in their hands and step back and observe. We have had a lot of people volunteer to help on the farm over the years. Your average musclebound gym rat lasts about thirty minutes with the rock bar and indeed most farm work. Whereas that skinny wiry farm kid can use it all day.

Cindy and I can both speak with some authority, having dug hundreds of post-holes, of the accuracy in naming such a tool. When you have dug down through two feet of clay, only to hit a rock, the rock-bar is the only tool to shift it. Raising it high in the air, wedge side down, you bring it down with force, repeatedly. Like practice for a Russian gulag, you break big rocks into smaller rocks. It is hard work but intensely satisfying.

Once your hole is dug and your post is set, flip the bar over to the round edge. As dirt is added to the hole use a rhythmic pounding action to compact the dirt. It requires short brutal strokes around all sides of the post-hole. No substitute tool or action is as effective in firmly seating a post.

When not pulverizing big rocks into little rocks, the rock-bar moonlights as a lever. Got a stock trailer that needs to be shifted or a boulder that needs rolling up hill? It will do it and with minimal effort on your part. Seldom does a day go by without resorting to the rock-bar.

Form, function and even beauty come together when used by the right hands.

Woodlot Management in the Anthropocene: Part Two

Our impact on the environment is widespread and planet-changing. If you accept that, then you’re left with few approaches to dealing with that impact. You can exploit the planet, with little or no thought to what happens when its resources are used up. You can try and leave it alone. Or, you can try and use it in a way that is mutually beneficial. Some resources like oil are not renewable, at least not in any timescale that makes sense to us. Trees, however, are renewable, if managed correctly, and we’re going to try to manage our woodlot system in a way that provides resources for us, yet improves the trees and soil.

Timeline: As I wrote a couple of weeks ago in Woodlot Management Part One, we’ve divided the total area of our woods, approximately 30 acres, into eight woodlots. Our plan is to work with one lot at a time over a two-year period.

As Earl Scovell writes in his 1943 essay “The Farm Woodland“: “[T]hese practices are not limited to a few days or months.… They can be applied at any season over a number of years…. One uses the labor and time when available when it is not otherwise profitably occupied.”

Our timeline is to work the woods during the months of January and February. The first year is for selecting and removing the cull trees, and the second is for harvesting marketable trees.

Woodlot division: The eight woodlots are not necessarily of the same size. Rather, we selected parcels that seemed manageable over a two-year period, following natural boundaries or fence lines.

Culls: The criteria for culls are to a large degree commonsense. Cull trees that are damaged or diseased. Cull trees that are leaning and could harm better specimens when they fall. Cull species that are not indigenous or that are of little market value or use on the farm.

The goal is not to create a sterile industrial system but, instead, to mimic nature, encourage growth, aid soil and water retention, and provide a habitat for wildlife.

Felling and removing: Commonsense again is our guide. Fell trees in a fashion that they

Horse drawn logging arch

Horse drawn logging arch

do not hit the next crop of seedlings, saplings, maturing trees. We plan to remove trees with either horse or tractor using a logging arch. (The arch is an ingenious piece of equipment that raises the front end of the log off of the ground, avoiding the scarring so injurious in a clearcut operation.)

Mycelium: An acquaintance recently pointed me to a fascinating work by Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running. (Mycelia are vegetative masses of filaments, of which mushrooms are the fruit). The book introduced me to several revolutionary ways of viewing the woods and our harvest plans.

First: I had never really given much thought to the woods as a crop. Like any crop, if the soil nutrients are not replenished, then each successive harvest is weaker. Imagine if you never added any amendments to your garden. Would you expect the same yield year after year? This is why timber companies routinely sell off their holdings after the second or third clearcutting.

Second: We can play a role in increasing nutrients and soil depth by chipping the branches and using the mulch in the forest itself (as well as using the selective harvest scheme in rotation). Using mycelium in the mulch layer, we can facilitate the breakdown and accelerate soil creation.

Third: We can use some of that mulch layer to start beds of commercial mushrooms. And we can inoculate the stumps of trees that were harvested with commercial strains of fungus like oyster mushrooms.

Selling timber and products/CSF: The final stage is marketing the harvest. There is firewood from the culls and the crowns of the marketable trees, logs, mushrooms, and mulch that can be sold or used on the farm. We are considering setting up a variation of a CSA (community-supported agriculture), a CSF (community-supported forestry).

In a CSF, customers might buy in for a cord of wood, a few hundred board feet of lumber, mulch, knowing they were supporting local sustainably harvested timber.

This is a short overview of our plan and goals. A lot of details have been left out, and some of those details are yet to be decided. But, hopefully, I have given you enough of an idea of our general framework that you can share in our enthusiasm.

Have a good week,

Brian

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Reading this week: Mycelium Running: how mushrooms can save the world by Paul Stamets

Woodlot Management in the Anthropocene

The modern urban life has made a fetish of the idea of wilderness, a landscape untouched by human hand. It is a powerful image that has done much good in the past century by helping preserve from grasping industrialists some real gems of the natural world in the form of national parks.

But one might argue persuasively that the very act of setting aside some land to remain “untouched” albeit with interpretive nature centers, hygienic toilets, washrooms and campgrounds and state of the art asphalt roadbeds for scenic motoring, has led to greater exploitation of the non-wilderness world. After all, if we are preserving some beautiful national parks then the rest of the landscape is fair game.

This fetish is one that we all have internalized. I know for myself how powerful the allure of wilderness is in how I view Cindy’s and my farm. But the concept doesn’t hold up upon closer scrutiny. The human species has impacted life and terrain across the globe. The unflattering term ecologists now use for the current epoch is Anthropocene: a period in earth’s history when the impact of human existence shapes both the natural world and its climate.

All of this brings me to discuss our decision to begin working our woods as part of our productive use of our land. The current model for woodlot management is to strip it of every tree of even the remotest possible economic value every fifty to sixty years. Bring in heavy equipment, build roads to get the logs out and abandon the land to heal itself. We only have to walk to the back of our property to gaze out at that example, fifty acres of former forest, denuded into gullies getting deeper after every storm.

I have many old farming texts in my library that remind me that the idea of sustainably managing woodlots so that they are in continual production is not new. It makes sense and I understand the concept intellectually and practically. But we both wrestled with the idea of cutting any trees down for base commerce. There was a sense that to care for our land meant farming the open pasture areas, that the woods were somehow sacrosanct. Even though the woods have been logged, and not well, countless times.

The man must surely get tired of being referenced, but a recent article by Wendell Berry on sustainable logging had us rethinking our relationship to our woods. It inspired us to devise a template of sorts to allow us to harvest firewood and timber on a rotating basis. The template divides our woods in eight woodlots with a two-year harvest timeline.

This is all in the preliminary stages of execution. The next two years are a learning period. And there is a lot to decide on and discuss as we move forward. The practicalities of selecting cull trees and market trees, cutting bulk firewood, cutting and felling trees safely and without damaging other trees, removing the logs without scarring the land or removing topsoil, dividing the woods into woodlots, selling timber on the market or to farm customers are things I’ll try and address in a second post in the next couple of weeks.

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Reading this weekend: Garden Earth: from hunter and gatherer to global capitalism and thereafter by Gunnar Rundgren.