The Pig Project
We’ve always seen Highgrove Farm and Commons as more than “just” a farm. For us, it’s an on-going experiment in creating a truly regenerative lifestyle. Obviously, that involves a big focus on growing as much of a whole diet as possible in as close to a closed-loop system as possible – and that involves pigs (more on that later).
But it also involves a way of working that is seen as pretty unconventional in contemporary culture; one built fundamentally on the idea of life as experiment and using constant feedback to guide our actions. How do we set ourselves up to get smarter and smarter about how we live and how we work?
The key to that is embodied in the lojong – two activities: one at the beginning, one at the end. The idea is simple: before you begin any activity, take the time to set a clear intention. When you finish, take the time to reflect on how things actually went. Use both to refine your understanding of the way to do things and apply it the next time you’re setting your intention.
So, this post is all about laying out our intentions for our little piggies (who are quickly becoming not-so-little-piggies) and their role on a regenerative farm (in the middle of a pandemic).
A good place to start is why we have pigs at all. There are three drivers at this point.
Pigs are natural tillers.
This is a brand new farm on an overgrown clear-cut with no established gardens. We could crank out the tractor and plow over the sod, then go over it multiple times with the tiller until we’ve broken up the soil and root pack, then come back with a bed maker and then truck in some amendments and fertilizers. Even if we did that, the next few years would still be a constant battle against the grasses and weeds trying to re-establish themselves.
Pigs basically do all that work (minus making the beds) for free. It’s in their nature to root (the verb) any roots (the plant part). We estimate that our pigs should clear a 15 by 30 meter garden bed by the end of this season. And not only do they take care of most of the grasses and weeds, they also break up the hard pack and add their manure.
After the pigs have gone to market, we’ll prep the area they worked for winter (probably some combination of tilling, cover cropping and compost cover). Then next spring, we’ll only have to do minor prep work to have some well worked, biologically active, relatively weed-free and healthy soil in which to start the first garden beds.
As a side note, we’ve started to develop our plans around the gardens thinking in 16 x 16 meter squares, rounding up to an easier-to-work-with number (because it’s easily divisible by 2 and 4). In other words, 8 pigs + 1 season = 2 garden modules!
In British Columbia, if you gain what is known as “farm status” your property taxes are greatly reduced. You gain farm status through farm gate sales – a certain sized property has to earn so many dollars from the produce of the farm. As a new farm, it’s very challenging to have a reasonable cash crop in the first year. Pigs for meat are a relatively easy way to get most of the way there. Meanwhile, the relatively low effort care they require leaves us free to start developing the other infrastructure necessary to get other parts of the system going.
Pigs have been a staple of traditional farms in many cultures for thousands of years for a simple reason – they are an incredibly efficient way of growing food. A sow can reasonably have 2 litters a year (technically capable of 3), with each litter producing a dozen piglets.
And those little piglets grow like few other animals. They have the lowest baby to mother weight ratio – the piglets are teeny-tiny compared to the mom. And they grow to almost 300 pounds in less than six months (depending on the feed available, of course). And they’re omnivorous. They will eat practically anything. They love kitchen scraps, grubs, roots, nuts, fallen fruit, and things that have gone a bit manky (which we don’t give them). If you make cheese, the whey is pure nutrition for them. Pigs were the first waste-to-energy machines.
For the last few years, we’ve been getting half-a-pig as our pork for the year. We found that we were supplementing that a bit, so this year we plan to keep a whole pig to feed us. So, if you use us as a guide, one pig can take care of the protein and fat needs of two people for a year. So, one breeding pair of pigs could have enough piglets every year to feed almost 50 people (with all sorts of important caveats, of course, and no we aren’t planning on having anything close to that many pigs).
As a first year activity on a new farm and as it’s the first time we’ve had pigs, our goal this year is to keep things as simple as possible. In the future, we are hoping to find ways to avoid commercial pig feed and give the pigs access to more grazing variety. (Pigs are actually forest creatures and would probably prefer the underbrush of a forest to an open pasture.) But some of that will have to wait until next year or beyond.
We are leaning heavily on some very good friends of ours at Hidden Track Farm in Saanich, BC who have been raising pigs for a few years and are taking a year off of pigs to focus on other aspects of their farming operation. We think of them as our mentors and they’ve been sharing information, resources, and even equipment with us. We’ll even be able to sell our pigs to their existing customer list as well as our neighbours on Pender.
We purchased eight shoats (piglets that have been weaned) in early April. We’ll be caring for them until the end of September when they “go off to market.” We made arrangements for the abattoir and butcher almost immediately upon getting the shoats. This year, likely because of the pandemic, there was a rush on bookings and we were lucky enough to get coached in doing it ASAP so that we won’t find ourselves stuck with a bunch of big hungry pigs and a skyrocketing feed bill. [Insert here diatribe against government regulations which were intentionally designed to impede small-scale operations and allow the big players to consolidate their virtual monopolies.]
Our main job is caring for our pigs while they’re here.
Caring for the pigs includes homing them, feeding them, managing their access to pasture, and monitoring their overall health (and giving them belly rubs). Homing them involves creating suitable shelter and pasture space, and helping them to acclimate to a new environment. When we received our shoats, they were just over five weeks old and had probably never been outside in their lives. We needed to make sure that their transition was as comfortable and safe as possible.
Feeding them (we are discovering) isn’t quite as straight-forward as you might think. What to feed them is pretty simple. This year, the majority of their calories will come from commercial pig feed, but they will also have access to as much pasture turf as they want to dig up and eat. They’ll also have as much kitchen and garden scraps as we can get them. How much to feed them is a constantly moving target. Because their appetites increase so quickly, it’s hard to keep up!
And, of course, caring for them also means just, you know, caring. We know that there are many people with strong feelings about the role of animals in the food system, some arguing for veganism on ethical and environmental grounds. But for us, working with animals as part of a small-scale, closed-loop regenerative farm leads is an almost spiritual practice.
Most of the work is just keeping an eye on them to make sure they are safe and happy and if they aren’t, figuring out what we can do to help. As a result, you get to know the little buggers intimately. You are constantly watching to understand what makes them happy and what upsets them. All the while, you know that without you they wouldn’t exist and because of you they will die. It’s hard not to get a bit contemplative and ask yourself some tough questions.
But the “closed-loop” part of the farm means you come to experience all the connections and all the cycles. Everything needs to eat something else; everything is food to something else. And both actions are rooted in existential understandings of what it means for all living beings to be alive. It’s just how it goes. What you eat becomes part of you and eventually, you become part of something else. You start to realize there is no escape from being part of the great wheel of life and no reason to want to. Instead, your focus turns to how to care for the life that is in your hands right now.
As a result, we’ve signed on to the “one bad day” philosophy. It basically says that it’s our responsibility to ensure that while they are under our care, our little piggies experience the best life possible right up to the bitter end. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind getting that kind of deal myself.