Saturday, April 09, 2011

Miss Cracklins, part 2

[Read part 1 here]

We stepped onto the kill floor.  Steam was roiling up from the scalder making the room humid, sticky, almost tropical.  The clean, buttery smell of fresh blood was in the air and I was nervous.  We discussed how the harvest had been going thus far with the men on the floor, their rolled-up sleeves revealing knotted muscles and scars.  We walked into the blast chiller to check out the morning's carcasses, still with wisps of steam curling up amongst them as Jay looked them over.  They were beautiful.  And I was nervous, nervous, nervous.

We'd gotten a late start that day and there was only one pig left to walk through the doors from the holding pen.  The door opened and she walked into the chute.  At that point I could feel some adrenaline coursing through my veins and I was focused on nothing else in the room.  The workers were finishing up with another carcass so Jay and I stood and watched as this sow checked the room out, sniffed around, took a couple exploratory nibbles on the bars of the chute, tried to root under the door through which she had just walked.

She didn't appear to be stressed out, just curious, just... obstinate.  The one pig with the neck fatter than any others... It took me what felt like years to finally turn to Jay and whisper, it's Cracklins.

I know, he said.

Of course we had both known the moment they opened the door.  Of course she WOULD be lucky number 13, the last pig to be slaughtered, the only one we would see.  If watching an animal die was ever going to turn me into a strict vegetarian for life, it would be the queen of the tummy-rub herself.  My legs felt rooted in place, as anyone who consumes meat is rooted to the slaughterhouses of the world.  One man picked up the .22 and walked up to her, steadied his aim... she moved.  It had to be a clean shot, an instant kill, for him to take it.  And then he did.  And there was Miss Cracklins' blood pooling on the kill floor.

What more is there to say?  This had to be personal because eating is as personal as it is animal.  Cracklins had a good life, as did all of the hogs we harvested.  In the end, I wasn't upset.  The night before, after loading them onto a trailer and sending them off the farm, Jay and I were watching Forrest Gump.  In the depths of some sad theme music I suddenly was awash in tears [and let me say, also extremely embarrassed.  What a girl!].  I was afraid of what I might see in the morning and how I might potentially feel about it.  I felt heartsick.  Jay was concerned and gently suggested that maybe we shouldn't go, but I insisted.  Never again would I have this opportunity and I tried to explain why.  He and I both realized, I think, that it wasn't a morbid curiosity but need for both answers and more questions.

How I came to be so intimately involved with meat and livestock and a farm is sometimes as much a mystery to me as it is to you, my readers, my family and friends.  I love it, but I also love the opportunity to tell people about what I see, just in case they wonder about but will likely never visit a kill floor.  I think it's something worth seeing, but I also think there is a right and wrong way to go about getting there.  You can't see blood for the sake of seeing it.  Cracklins is a reason for everyone to know their farmer, even if you don't want to know the names of his or her bacon-makers.  She's a reason to know your butcher, to know where your food comes from, and know how you feel about the way it was produced.  Death is difficult to see, but peace of mind is a beautiful thing.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Miss Cracklins, part 1

Creepin' up to say 'hey'
Here is why I've been hesitant to write about the pig formerly known as Cracklins:

we gave her a name and she enjoyed belly rubs and then she got mean and then she became sausage.

There, ok, I said it.

That's sort of what it comes down to, but at the same time, I'm not sure how to go about sharing the humor and smiles and, frankly, the agony caused by this one particular sow.  The book Half the Sky by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn describes the challenge writers and activists are faced with when translating a problem into action from readers: people feel overwhelmed by the idea of hundreds, thousands, or millions of beings [whether women, children, oppressed peoples, or animals] in trouble.  But if you can just tell the story of one, and give the reader a way to feel connected, you can build support or garner donations or accomplish what it is you've set out to do.

So what is the problem here?  The problem is that when most people go to the supermarket and pick out neat little bloodless packages of chicken breasts or ground chuck or pork loin, they only see the meat.  There is no connection to the animals.  To channel Temple Grandin again, it was here, now it's meat.  Where did it go?

Miss Cracklins was somewhat of an abberation.  All of the hogs on the farm are fairly social— they're used to the humans, legs, boots with stick-things coming out of them, whatever, that walk through the herd and bring grain and move fences.  Some of them don't mind being touched, some of them squeal if you get close, and some of them like back scratches.  Pigs are curious and they aren't above taking little bites of your boots when you're standing amongst a swirl of them.  But this goofy one, Miss Cracklins...  you'd be out in the field counting or fixing a fence or something and it would catch your eye.  This pig would be standing right behind you, waiting for a tummy rub.  And she would lay down and roll over, eyes closed, and let you scratch her to your heart's content.  As long as you were willing to stay there, she was happy to be there.

Out of 100 or so hogs running freely in a huge wooded pasture, many of whom looked almost exactly like she did, I could pick her out of the crowd by her fat neck.  Good lord did she have a fat neck, and I mean really.

The Cracklins fairytale continued as it became apparent that she was going to be a mama!  In raising free-range pigs, unlike in factory operations where confinement makes temperament irrelevant, a friendly sow makes life easier for everyone.  In theory her pigs would be friendly too, and if you had the choice between a sow who wanted to take a chunk out of your butt and one who wanted a tummy rub, the choice is pretty obvious which you would want to keep around.

On the day that we loaded for the last fall harvest, we saved her out.  Once again, among 20 hogs who mostly looked the same, there was Miss Cracklins and her fat neck.  She had a diva personality and was obstinate about being moved... even sweet-talk and grain failed to win her over.  But she was still here and everyone was excited for her little piggies to arrive.

She farrowed while I was home for Christmas, and out of 8 pigs only 2 survived.  Some sows have really great maternal instincts and others just... don't.  But even that could be forgiven for an inexperienced sow.  What I noticed, however, was that while the other sows in the field with her became increasingly friendly [game of tag with the Plastic-Loving Pig, anyone?], Cracklins became more aggressive.  It didn't make much sense to me but the signs were unmistakeable.  She was still small, but I kept imagining her with an extra 100, 200, 300 pounds of weight and attitude.  I certainly wouldn't want to work with her.

I had a difficult time choosing, between all of the sows I had come to know, which ones to keep and which to send for one final harvest.  They have distinct personalities.  With Cracklins, even the thought of sending her, a named pig, made me a little uneasy.  I'm new to this and I'm a softy prone to anthropomorphizing.  But for many reasons, she was loaded onto the trailer with the others.

to be continued...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Made For a Man...

...but are they strong enough for a woman?

Since September I have worn out 4 pairs of heavy-duty cowhide gloves and I noticed a few days ago that my 5th pair has started to tear.  At least half a dozen pairs of thick wool socks, and my favorite pair of work jeans, have also met their demise.  The first pair of muck boots I owned lasted over 5 years, during which time I wore them to the barn, walking my dog year-round, and to class in the winters.  My current pair is just over a year old and I've noticed the constant muddy mix has begun to eat away at some of the waterproof stitching.

Consider this a challenge, Carhartt!  I work harder than your gloves do, and it's nearly official.  The ones pictured above lasted about a month, and the "heavy duty" boot socks I've been wearing under my muck boots gave out after about, oh, 5 or 6 weeks.

Every day on the farm brought new challenges but it brings a peaceful balance with it, too.  With a lot of hard work and interminable senses of humor, things are looking good.  In other words, the work I came here to do is nearing its end.  I'm headed home.  What an incredible journey it has been— I will never forget this place, the pigs, or the people I came to love here.  I hope to be back soon, maybe when there are a few less pigs and a little less mud.  I hope my girls remember me, because I know I will never forget them.  At times I was pushed to the utter limits of my physical strength, my mental capacity for multitasking and problem-solving, and the depths of my humanity.  I never thought I would get into an automatic vehicle and reach my foot blindly for the clutch, but... here I am, some weird college/city/farmgirl hybrid who misses the contents of her closet but also loves to drive the tractor.  Wah not?

Derive happiness in oneself from a good day's work,
from illuminating the fog that surrounds us.
                — Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Eating Well

Yesterday I watched the HBO film Temple Grandin.  She's arguably the world's most famous autistic person, and a foremost expert on animal behavior and slaughterhouse design.  Grandin thinks and sees the world in pictures, she has a difficult time understanding what death means.  [Just watch the movie, I can't do it justice.]

In one scene that particularly moved me, she questions what happens to a cow after it is slaughtered:

"Where does it go?  It  was here, now it's meat.  Where does it go?"

Being here on the farm for nearly 6 months has brought that question to my mind as well.  Once as we were loading a group of hogs to send to the processing plant, I wryly remarked that "today is the first day of the rest of your lives."  [The pigs didn't seem terribly impressed by my sense of humor, but they don't get impressed by much except straw and grain.]  These pigs, like millions of other livestock around the world, are born and raised for slaughter.  Our market hogs spend about a year on the farm, rooting around for delicious woodlands treats.  Then they spend 2 years curing, becoming Woodlands Pork.

In the months since I first arrived at the farm, I've gotten to know the pigs pretty well, not only individually but collectively in their respective groups.  I see their day-to-day interactions, and they see a lot of me.  When they're hungry they follow me around, even if I'm nowhere near their pasture.  They'll walk their fenceline, eyes trained on me, and whine in my general direction.  Some of them like to nibble on my boots, others like to rub on the tractor tires.  A few seemed to watch for me to set down a bucket or a grain bag— as soon as I did they would snatch it and run away [can someone tell me— why do pigs LOVE plastic so much?].

Our last harvest was on Monday.  This one was personal, different from the others— previous harvest-loads came out of one large group who lived their final months in the woods.  There were too many to know them individually.  We loaded them onto the trailer or sent them back into the woods based on size, the biggest first.  You look at them one last time with the knowledge that you've taken care of them every day but... beyond that there's only so much emotional rollercoasting going on.  It's exciting to have a successful day of loading, and it means out-of-this-world [to-die-for?] pork is in your future.

I knew the ones we sent on Monday.  They have been living at the front of the farm with their piglets for the last few months.  I interacted with them every day and came to know their personalities.  The spotty one who is obsessed with plastic.  The Hereford with her ever-alert ears and that square, puffed-up way she would stand and snort if you surprised her in a field.  The two who stood watch over each other while they gave birth to piglets.  Miss Cracklins.  We sent a pig with a name.

I asked Chuck last week if I could have the day off so that I could drive up to Nelson's Processing Plant.  I felt it was a necessary part of the experience for me— as a carnivore, as a farmer, as a student, as a human— to confront the fate of "my" pigs.  Even as I discussed my reasons for wanting to go with him I could feel a tightness in my throat, the sometimes-choking knowledge that when I watched them take their last breath it wouldn't be like the cows I saw before.  These aren't pets, of course, but they're more than just dinner, too.  My sows, my charges, my Big Mamas, my girls.  It was me who walked through all of the fields and decided which ones would live and which would die, who we'd keep and who we'd eat.  Cracklins, who used to walk up to people and roll over for tummy rubs, was a lackluster sow [she had 8 piglets and only 2 survived] and she had become increasingly aggressive.  She was also difficult to work with, obstinate as hell.  So she went on the trailer along with 12 others.

Meat-eating has been getting both more and less complicated for me in the last few years.  More complicated because of what I have learned about production and what I know about the animals themselves.  But far, far less complicated because I see a clear way of eating that is good and right.  Because I personally saw to it that each of the pigs we slaughtered had a good life, to the best of my abilities.  They have forever changed the way I think about food, and not in the way I expected.  It's not what you eat, but how you eat.  As they say in West Virginia... I eat pretty damn good.

Next up, Miss Cracklins' story.  Coming soon.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Your Questions

Writing is a lot like working out— the more you go the gym, the more you feel like going back again and again.  It can be a little painful and awkward at first but then you get into a rhythm and it becomes a release.

That said— do you, faithful and occasional readers alike, have any questions for me?  I spend a lot of time in my own head here and sometimes I think of things I'd like to write about but they are lost in the mix of daily routines and the unexpected.  Or I'll start on something and then realize [or tell myself] that it may be ridiculously boring or overly technical and not something anyone wants to hear about, let alone read about.

Let's hear them!  It's February, the worst month of the year, and I'm going to need something to keep me occupied when it's just above freezing and raining and I need time away from the mud.  Reply with a comment, send me a facebook message, email, whatever!  [You can be anonymous if you'd like.]

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Animal Instincts

Two years ago I didn't know the first thing about pigs— no concept of how to handle them, what to feed them, what sorts of structures they required to keep them safe [and out of trouble, hopefully]... nothing!  After the first week of work at Spannocchia, I was writing in my journal about things that quickly became the most mundane and obvious parts of my job.  Checking fences and milling grain became second nature. I remember reading over the entry after I came home and laughing at myself, thinking how little I knew.

One thing I really enjoy about working with animals of any kind is that you're constantly learning.  I grew up with a dog who was already a "god dog" by the time I was born.  After Bogie died I wanted another one so badly that I somehow convinced my parents to buy me a puppy training book to prove to them that I could handle the responsibility of one.  I read it cover to cover many times.  That coupled with a fantastic dog trainer/behaviorist taught me about the body language of dogs, i.e., how to communicate with them in a language they understand.  Hobbes and then Oscar both turned into the best dogs anyone could ever ask for.

I also grew up horse-obsessed, of course.  I remember one day seeing a book on my mom's bedside table whose cover showed a picture of a man with a horse standing directly behind him, without a halter or leadline anywhere in sight, his great head just over the man's shoulder.  If you've read the book you know the man of whom I speak, Monty Roberts.  The book is called The Man Who Listens to Horses and that, too, I read over and over again until I had parts of it memorized.  In it he explains how he came to know and "speak" the language of horses and how it enables him to "join up" with them to form a team.  He did it by observing them in the wild— and soon realized that they expressed clear signals to one another, and he could elicit those same behaviors from them.

People who are mostly around horses in movie theaters may think that horses are constantly rearing up and neighing and snorting but it's just not true.  Hollywood for some reason finds those sound effects necessary [I think they're really awkward and distracting!].  Horses are prey animals.  It wouldn't make any sense for a horse to go through life constantly alerting every wolf, mountain lion, coyote, bear, etc., to their presence.  So instead they have a strong body language, and as you learn to listen, or read it, you can also learn to use it.

I'm no expert but I've tried various methods of Mr. Roberts', as well as seen him in workshops a few times, and I have seen how it works.  It's truly an incredible thing.

When I was in Italy my closest companion came to be a horse, Nera.  A beautiful mare, smart as a whip, well-trained but then left out in the pasture to rot for a year before I arrived.  It was immediately obvious to me that at some point someone[s], most likely the ever-rotating interns with no idea how to handle horses and impatient, had mistreated her.  She was shy but in an aggressive way, always at the ready with a kick aimed in my direction, always watching me.  I started taking her treats and spending my free time down at the stable each day, and after a few weeks managed to get a halter on her and slowly begin grooming her.

Another evidence of past mistreatment reared its head a few times when she was haltered and tied to a post.  I would leave her side briefly, usually to grab a different brush or something, and suddenly she would be rearing back in a white-eyed panic, thrashing until she broke the halter.  She did that to me 3 or 4 times, for no apparent reason.  Something awful happened to her once under similar circumstances and she won't ever forget it.

I took my time with her, happy just to have a horse in my life.  The riding wasn't important and I had been there a month before I attempted it.  Jay and I had been saddling her up and taking her for walks, not wanting to do anything to damage her already fragile trust.  One evening we walked her to the front of the villa and it just felt like the right time.  He gave me a leg up into the saddle and we just walked and walked more.  Each day we went a little farther.  At first she was anxious to leave her pasturemate behind, but gradually she became, I think, just as enthralled with our long rides through the woods and meadows as I was.  It was spring and everything was blooming.  On my free days we would disappear for hours and hours, exploring in every direction the 1200 acres of nature preserve that surrounds the farm.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I Used to Throw Like A Girl...

My hat, modeled by Oscar
... then I starting working on a farm and now I throw like a MAN.

OK, probably not so much but it's been suggested.  I amuse most of the good ol' boys around here just by virtue of being me, but in the months since I started working the amusement seems to have turned from "haha, you're a sissy girl" to something more along the lines of, "She's a pretty good worker... for a woman!"  I'm fairly certain that Paul meant that as equal parts joke and hearty compliment, and it's something I hold close and carry proudly with me out here.

Jim has been working on the house near to where most of the pigs are kept.  Apparently on his smoke breaks he watches us work from the windows.  One day we got done around the same time, and I walked over to say hello.  "How's it going Kate?" he asked. "Out there workin' like a man?"

His favorite joke now seems to revolve around me arm-wrestling the other guy working on the house, Ray— and winning, of course.  Yesterday as I was filling buckets of water, Jim stuck his head out the window and hollered to Ray, who was carrying sheets of drywall or something, "Well lookatchu Ray, carrying two at once!  If you keep that up you'll be as strong as Kate!"

Amidst the blood [literal], sweat [literal], and tears [figurative] of the day, that just struck me as so incredibly funny that I was grinning about it all evening.  On some days it feels as if my body's going to break if I try to lift or throw or hoist or... anything else!  Other days, however, the combination of icy wind and a gently warming sun and pig problems makes me feel so very much alive that each breath feels like a renewal.  This must be what the French mean when they talk about joie de vivre.

This morning I was out in a field perched on the tractor bucket 8 feet above the frozen ground, tipping bags of grain into a big feeder.  Chew [his name is either Jimmy or Johnny but no one can ever remember so he just goes by Chew... wah not?]... anyway Chew walked up and we talked about this n' that... as he bid good day he paused, turned to me [by that time climbing back onto the tractor] and said "You know, I'm gon' brag on you a bit now but, for a woman... you amaze me."

Seems I really earned the soft pink Carhartt hat that keeps me warm when I'm out working with the pigs.  Many thanks to Chuck and Nadine for the badge of honor.