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.