Death on the homestead is commonplace. Sometimes it’s planned but many times it is not. And that’s one reason why most kids who grow up on a farm accept death so easily. It’s a hard lesson, but sometimes a tasty one as well…
Shortly after getting our first homestead in Omaha, we decided to get three piglets. We’ve always been vehemently against mega hog farms and wanted to learn to raise our own meat humanely. I bought a book on pigs, scored three from a neighbor farmer, and built the best pen I could in the corner of our pasture. Then, we made our first mistake…
Mistake 1: Don’t Name Your Food
Right off the bat we broke the cardinal rule of farming. We named our three pigs. Not the cliché, Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. Nor, Bacon, Ham and Chop. We went with Tulip and Petunia for the girls, and Brick for the boy. I was thinking, Straw, Sticks and Brick as in the Three Little Pigs. Anyway, we named them and they soon learned to respond when called.
Mistake 2: Grooming Your Food
Right away, my three daughters were enthralled with their new “pets.” They gave them baths, combed their hair (yes, pigs have hair believe it or not), and even tried to paint their hooves (which never happened but it was fun trying.) I recalled the scene in “Charlotte’s Web” when Wilbur got a milk bath but we never went THAT far.
Mistake 3: Letting Your Food Interact
Honestly, I don’t know if this is a mistake or not, but we let our pigs free-range with our chickens and guinea fowl. They had complete access of our back-yard, except for the garden. This was very beneficial in terms of food costs, as they pigs foraged and fed themselves quite happily. But, we’d also find them eating a dead chicken now and then, and choke on the feathers afterwards. My girls would get dropped off at the bottom of our hill from the school bus, and walk up the pasture petting the pigs every day. And sometimes they’d come up to our sliding glass doors and peek inside to see what the humans were doing. It was comical at the time, but as noted, the emotional repercussions were severe.
Mistake 4: Playing With Your Food
We got the pigs late in the season so we ended up keeping them over winter. I built them a decent A-frame with wind-blocking and plenty of straw. We lived on a hill, perfect for sledding, and let the hogs join us one day. I think they enjoyed it, but my wife was afraid that they were going to rabidly eat one of our children. It was a fear I also shared without ever expressing it.
Mistake 5: Taking them to the Slaughterhouse Yourself
This is yet another iffy rule. When it was time for slaughter, I loaded the pigs up myself and went to the processor. As I watched them walk down the chute to the basement, filled with the screams and the stench, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. Total shame and self-loathing. We had raised these beautiful, intelligent animals from piglets, and here I was sending them to their premature death. They knew what was coming and the betrayal I saw in their eyes literally haunts me to this day. It made me realize I wasn’t cut-out for pig farming.
A couple days later we picked up nearly two-freezers worth of meat. Bacon, chops, tenderloins. All packaged in plastic wrap and rolled in white butcher paper. I gave some to a friend and took the rest home to the girls. That Sunday, we had bacon and farm fresh eggs for breakfast.
I’ll never forget the look in my middle-child’s eyes, red and brewing a set of tears as she munched on the crispy brown strips of bacon…
“Tulip tastes so good….”
We never raised pigs again.
Ben North lives and writes from a homestead in Iowa.