It takes a thick skin, a tender heart and good facilities to be a good farmer…
The spring rains came with their characteristic force and we lost a litter of newborn piglets to a combination of poor choices and poor facilities. Piglets are remarkably temperature sensitive, if they get wet, stressed, muddy and cold, they die. During fourteen hours of hard rain, unless you have a fully enclosed room, that’s pretty hard to avoid.
After doctoring, bottle feeding (due to stress, the sow didn’t let down her milk), keeping them in the house in a box next to our bed, and still losing them I was feeling pretty low. As I struggled with our failures, some farm stories I’ve heard came to mind.
Once when visiting the Midwest, I spoke with a woman who told me with pride of her brother-in-law’s pig facility: a total containment system.* She beamed as she explained, it was so clean the farmers had to wear protective clothing, like surgeons. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her it was to protect the pigs from human germs, because their immune systems were so compromised by their antibiotic laden diet. Though these animals are not exposed to the elements, I’m certain sometimes fatal disease sweeps through such facilities. I wondered if those farmers felt as anguished as we, when we’re awakened in the night by a piglet gasping its last breathe.
I also recalled a story my grandmother told me about my great, great uncle, a dairy farmer. She said every time he sold his cows to market he went behind the barn and cried like a baby.
I thought of all domesticated livestock: their original purposes and the purposes to which we have evolved together, whether it’s possible to return to them to their natural place in the ecosystem, and if so, would it be humane? What is humane? These are the sorts of things one contemplates at three in the morning with a sick piglet in your lap.
The next day, I broke down as I returned to the house with a piglet it had become apparent, though we had done all we could, was not going to make it. I asked myself in earnest, am I really cut out to be a farmer? I’ve wondered this same thing many times: as I sweat with anxiety watching the wind bring our corn to its knees, or clean and stitch wounds without anesthetic.
I sometimes fantasize about having a passive food forest wherein we need only forage, and our main protein source is free range insects. Fantasy is the operative word in this scenario. There’s not much to forage in the dry season and though I do eat bugs …they’re not my favorite food and are very difficult to pair with wine.
Honestly , I can’t imagine a farm without animals, for the pure joy of their presence, and their essential role in a self-sustainable cycle . If you have livestock, especially pigs, there in no way around raising them for sale, barter and slaughter. Yes, you could have a few birds for eggs only, but it’s not a self-sustainable system, and, if there is milk, there is meat. No animal births only females.
During these few long, painful days I contemplated all routes a happy healthy farm, and whether I have the fortitude to bring such a place to fruition. Finally , I clung to the image of my great uncle, who I didn’t know; I don’t even remember his name, but I can picture him because I have known others like him, a prematurely wrinkled farmer whose skin is perpetually red from wind and sun. He is bent over, his hands on his knees, leaning back on his barn, crying. He is thinking of the individuals he’s sold, of their personalities, the illness’s he nursed them through, and the times they made him laugh. He is sobbing and saying thank you and wondering about his choice to be a farmer—examining his own life and theirs, as he does every time he lets them go. I held this image in my mind, and my heart, and I got up and went out to forage weeds for my pigs.
*For the record, I oppose livestock containment facilities.