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Free Range Pigs

We try to take Sundays off at our Hoosier farmhouse, and not even open the roadside stand along State Road 135 in the village of Vallonia. Closing up the store on Saturday night, we packed all the tomatoes, sweet corn, potatoes, garlic, &c. inside, loaded the nicest watermelons back in the truck bed, leaving 30 ugly ones on top of a giant wooden spool under the awning, in case people needed one. The ugly fruit are covered with bumps caused by the fungus, anthracnose, which affects organically-grown melons more, causing their skin to resemble what happened to my face between the ages of fourteen and about twenty.

Of course we will be checking that table at our store sometime today, curious how many watermelons remain, but besides that the only necessary job is to feed our catfish, chickens, and pigs. 

Sipping a Bloody Mary made with freshly canned tomato juice, I borrowed Laura's phone and checked the weather forecast as I routinely do every morning. Google offers suggestions for news articles I might be interested in, usually concerning things like the drought in the West, the perpetual obsessive clash between Democrats and Republicans, and pigs.

Growing up in Jackson county, Indiana, as a teenager in the Reagan and Bush decade, I never once thought I would be interested in pigs. Family hog farms formed the backbone of our local economy, as the egg producers had already been run out of business, and the fluctuation of corn prices caused a plague of bankruptcy auctions, inspiring songwriter John Cougar Mellencamp to compose “Rain on the Scarecrow.” He filmed the video at an auction in our county, and if you lived here during those years, it still might bring tears to your eyes. 

The hog farmers were the last dominoes to tumble. Hoosiers had raised pigs since the land was taken from the Shawnee in 1813. Even with low corn and soybean prices, families could easily mill their own grain. Also, up until those days, nearly every farm still included a woodlot of about 10 to 40 acres where pigs were kept free range. The corn, pumpkin, watermelon, cabbage fields were fenced in, and during the winter the pigs gleaned all the weeds, grain, and whatever else they could dig up. Of course the USDA started funding confinement operations in the “Get Big or Get Out” era, and farmers were convinced that it was a waste of time to round up pigs from the woods, that it was more efficient to keep them indoors, pump the animals full of concentrated feed and antibiotics, cut their teeth and tails so they wouldn't try to eat each other for lack of a diverse diet and anything to do but dream of a way out. Now if you drive around Jackson county you see tall grain bins next to abandoned hog sheds here and there, otherwise the only pigs are owned by Premier Ag, their long steel sheds stashed out in the river bottoms where nobody lives, obscured by rows of poplar or willow trees. 

The last family hog farms were wiped out in the Clinton years, when the price of pork was crookedly lowered by insider trading to less than twenty cents per pound, meaning that a three hundred pound pig brought less than sixty dollars! Nobody besides hog traders and farmers knew this was going on, or cared. Consumers were stoked for cheap bacon. 

This morning, while I was checking the weather, which I already suspected was void of a chance of rain for at least one week, Google suggested an article which caught my attention. In the election last November, California voters had overwhelmingly approved an animal welfare act which would outlaw ninety-six percent of the pork consumed in that state. Perhaps the voters weren't aware of the ramifications. Of course the pork industry, about ninety-nine percent of which is now controlled by a handful of corporate packing houses--many of which were shut down temporarily during the Covid outbreak due to severely shitty working conditions, is upset to say the least. They are livid. The law is supposed to take effect in January of 2022, at which point California consumers would theoretically be unable to purchase factory farm pork.

“We might be selling frozen bacon to California consumers next year,” I said, stirring the ice in the Bloody Mary, “if that law ever takes effect, which I doubt it will. Pork would be worth its weight in gold out there. That would be an ironic twist of fate for Hoosier family farmers who still have the land and time to mess with chasing pigs. Guess you could overnight the meat. Pack it in styrofoam.”

“It's cold this morning. What's the high for today?”

“Seventy-nine. Low humidity. Nice breeze. Can you believe they're outlawing confinement-raised pork in California?”

“I'm just glad you put an electric fence in the hog pen, finally.”

“Sorry about the other night. That won't happen again.”

“We'll see.” The scratches from corn leaves were still visible on Laura's arms and legs. Friday evening we had driven home separately from the store, and when I'd returned in my truck, she was out in the neighbor's field brandishing a stick, baby pigs darting left and right. “I kind of liked chasing the pigs, but not in the corn.”

“I swear it won't happen again.”

She smiled. “Right.”

If you had told me in Jackson county, say at the fair (which is one of the most heavily attended in Indiana, especially the hog and cattle barns), back in 1987, that someday we would have three sows, one boar, twenty baby pigs, and also be probably the THIRD LARGEST HOG PRODUCERS in the county, in 2021, I would have laughed at you. First of all, in 1987 I would have been hanging out with all the farm kids in the hog barn at the fair, listening to AC/DC from a boom box, to hogs grunting and squealing, to teenagers getting a green light by their otherwise strict farm parents to go a little wild for the week, do some socializing, and camp out away from home without supervision. Naturally I joined the other rural youth in those sheds. In those days there were probably more than a thousand family hog farms here, and many young folk had the opportunity to show one at the fair, auction it off and keep the money, so all my friends were there, though my parents were school teachers and definitely not in favor of raising pigs. I was wearing sneakers one afternoon when a pig returning from the show got loose and charged down the aisle, stomping my left big toe so bad that I eventually had to have the toenail cut out by an arrogant doctor who no doubt sexually harassed his young nurses, who were all unusually attractive by Playboy standards and about twenty-two. I only say this because Dr. Stout administered the Novocain shot to my toe, then disappeared into some back room for about thirty minutes where I could hear him and the nurse engaged in laughter first, then moaning, while the effects of the local anesthetic wore off.

“It's wore off by now,” I said, when Dr. Stout returned with the nurse, her hair somewhat tousled like a corn tassel. “It's been like half an hour.”

“I'm your doctor. I know what I'm doing!”

“OUCH! God DAMN!”

“I wasn't gone that long!”

“Yeah you were. I got a watch!” I did. In 1987 I wore a digital watch and had a face covered with zits that reminded me of anthracnose.

So anyway, if you'd have informed me back then that out of the hundreds of farm kids who were showing their pigs, camping in the barns, and not getting their toe stepped on because they knew better, that I would be the only one raising pigs in 2021, I'd have thought you were nuts. But now there's a market for free range, cruelty-free, pork, and we happen to grow about ten acres of vegetables or cover crops, and it just makes sense to have pigs clean up all the extra we don't sell. They eat nearly everything, we have discovered. Pigweeds, lambsquarters, horseweeds, johnsongrass, crabgrass, bluegrass, country, rock, punk--currently they are stationed in a field about half an acre where we grew our potatoes this spring, rooting them up from the sand. We are still in the learning stages of raising pigs on the free range, and this year was our first attempt at what they call “farrowing,” when a sow gives birth to about ten or so piglets. The corporate, confinement, or whatever you call it style of farrowing is to keep the sows in crates and tight pens so they can't lay down on their babies, and is one of the main reasons that California voters made the bold effort to basically remove bacon from their diets if this law goes into effect. 

Last July we purchased the boar, Stevie, as a young lad only forty pounds, from the second largest hog producer in Jackson county, Ed Stuckwisch, who along with his father, Fred, decided not to drop out of raising pigs back in the Clinton years when the price went south. They now market most of their pigs live to Mexicans from nearby Seymour, or rednecks from the hills, or German Lutheran ex-farmers who used to raise their own pigs and refuse to purchase meat from the grocery store. For several years we bought entire litters weaned from Ed and Fred, as I was in no hurry to become a professional hog farmer, and mess with something I knew nothing about. They have been helpful with advice, as have numerous old timers in these parts who remember back in the days when the pigs farrowed naturally in the woods. “You don't need crates in the forest. The good sows will make a nest. They are great mothers,” they assured us.

The first litter was born in early June, at our main vegetable farm about four miles from our house. We had put up hog panels around a swamp in the low ground, and sure enough the sows made a nest in a grove of maples and poplars that ring the water, but one day a sow and three tiny offspring escaped while we were not present. The land surrounding that farm is divided into one acre lots with suburban-style houses, and the parents were at work, the kids home alone. They called the sheriff, who called my friend, Greg, who owns the property we farm. Greg called us.

“Spec, I got a call from the sheriff. You got a momma pig out, a couple babies. They were spotted under a weeping willow in someone's backyard.”

“Oh, crap. I unplugged the electric fence the other day. Didn't think they'd be trying to get out. Probably get her back in there, turn the charger on, it'll be fine.”

“No, it won't.”

“Why?”

“I just had another neighbor email a copy of their deed. No pigs are allowed.”

“No pigs?”

“It's on the deed. Most subdivisions have clauses that prohibit the raising of pigs within a certain distance. Pretty common these days, unfortunately, Spec. You'll have to move them.”

Because we feed them in the stock trailer, two of the sows and one boar were relatively easy to relocate to our farmhouse, and the eleven piglets from the first litter we caught with the help of their mother being in the trailer, and several friends engaging in the sport of catching the squealers. 

The largest, and fully pregnant as in due any day sow disappeared into the bush while we were rounding up the babies. Laura and I returned to retrieve her as the sun was setting. We waded through the mosquito swamps, swatting every inch of bare skin, and failed to locate her as we admired the system of tunnels and paths the hogs had carved under the maples. We followed tracks several hundred yards through a drainage ditch between two of our fields, and the tracks led to about eighty acres of soybeans on the neighbors' farm. The beans were nearly a foot tall. The surrounding woods were full of swamps in every direction. 

“It'll be impossible to follow her tracks. She could be anywhere. I'm getting ate up,” I said.

“Me, too.”

The next morning we drove up the road, to the woods that lead to Starve Hollow Lake and the extensive Jackson-Washington State Forest, and debated whether it was worth braving the mosquitoes and copperheads in pursuit. 

“No doubt she went and had a litter somewhere. They'll turn up eventually,” we both agreed, before dialing the sheriff's department and informing the dispatcher that a pregnant sow was loose, likely to be dropping a litter.

At the Bluebird Cafe in Vallonia we taped a sign to the window: “Pregnant sow in excess of 600 pounds on the loose between Stuckwisch's Farm market and Starve Hollow Lake. CASH REWARD for information as to their whereabouts.”

We were at our farm stand later that week when a strange number called. It was one of the neighbors to the fields and the swamp where we'd had our pigs mostly fenced in.

“I seen your pig last night while we was eatin' on the back porch. She's livin' under the trees on the edge of your field.”

“We'll be right there.”

The woman met us in her back yard, walked to the woodline with us, where sure enough, the sow had a litter of ten in a nest under some wild persimmons along the fence line between our field and Stuckwisch's farm market. These were cousins of Ed and Fred Stuckwisch, and at one time had raised hundreds of pigs. When the market had crashed in the '90's, they'd quit raising hogs and sold the road frontage ground off as a subdivision--hence the clause in the contracts. Now their old hog buildings are empty, like a ghost town.

We parked the stock trailer in an old turnip field, and dumped a bag of ground corn and soybeans from the local mill. For a couple days we fed the sow in there, realizing she wasn't going anywhere for a minute, and one afternoon while working the field adjacent I left the tractor loudly idling near the trailer and snuck up on it, slamming the door. Laura helped me catch the ten babies and load them in with their mom, through the side. 

Since then the pigs have been staying at our home farm. For a month they ravaged all the weeds in the barn lot in addition to any cabbage leaves or carrot tops we tossed in, and after the potatoes were harvested we moved them to the field out back where they are now, mostly weaned. None of the males are castrated. After watching videos about castrating pigs, we decided to follow the model of several North European countries and skip the traumatic procedure which is neither fun for the people or the pigs, instead planning to harvest them before they reach puberty, in early October.

Our Pigs

I was in the middle of composing this piece when Laura received a phone call. Two old redneck men had heard that we were selling live pigs. They wanted three “gilts”--weaned female piglets. “They'll be here in about fifteen minutes. You'd better save your article.”

Now my right shoulder is out of socket, and one fingernail on my right hand is swollen so badly I can barely smack keys on a laptop. I'd never attempted separating young pigs from their mothers, and had been hoping that the animals would be hungry enough to be baited by busted watermelons, but that didn't turn out to be the case. Only one of the guys who showed up could walk without a crutch, so Laura and the able-bodied man wielded a hog panel around the babies, trapping a few along the fence where they munched on juicy, red watermelon flesh. The first two I grabbed turned out to be males. By then the mothers were going nuts, about ready to turn us into bacon. I finally caught one gilt, carrying it squealing to the old rednecks' stock trailer while the sow promised to murder me. The next effort was where I ended up not getting my fingers quite around the back leg while diving in the dirt, resulting in the injuries. 

“We're still learning about raising pigs,” Laura told the guys, who departed with only one and agreed to come back in a few days when we have a better arrangement for snaring the gilts. 

If I end up needing to have this fingernail removed, I'm not going to call on Dr. Stout.

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