Self Sustainable. Organic. Farm to Table. Appealing words— admirable concepts. But we seldom consider what it entails to bring such belief systems to fruition; how we navigate the road from farm…to table.
Farmer Chris and Sous Chef Adam on Machete Duty
This week at Rancho Santana’s chicken facility our farm and kitchen staff walked that path.
Felipe and Omar Plucking
Melky and Justin Butchering
Hen to plate.
Sautéed Chicken Liver with Radish, Fennel Frond Salad
When I was a little girl I had a friend whose family were farmers. I loved Jackie and the Ludwigs, they were self-assured, no nonsense, capable people. They gave big hugs, and ate huge piles of food at their long table full kids and laughter.
Merle, Jackie’s daddy, was a ruddy man with gnarled hands and an earnest smile. I remember one afternoon spent with him in the pig barn, watching a sow give birth. The place was bright and cozy with heating lamps. There was a rail round the birthing pen to protect the piglets. All Merle had to do was tie off their umbilical cords, cut their milk teeth and look them over. The sow murmured peacefully. I watched, fascinated and relaxed, as mucky piglets slid from their mother into Merle’s hands. Jackie went to nap in the hayloft; piglets were a run of the mill happening. Then suddenly, to my horror, Merle dashed a piglet’s head against the concrete wall. It was silent — killed instantly. My anguished gasp must have disturbed him from his meditative method, because he glanced up and spoke (another shock; he wasn’t one to explain himself.)
“Abby, that piglet would have suffered and died. It was kinder to kill it.”
Then he turned back to his vigil, and I went to the hayloft and cried. I didn’t disturb Jackie; I didn’t want her to think I was a wimp. She was a real farm girl, I knew she’d never cry over a piglet, or doubt her father’s judgment.
I thought of Merle the day I found Chupa with her little legs spinning, covered in fire ants, unable to stand. I asked Felipe to kill her. I’m ashamed to say I usually lack the courage to kill , even to be merciful .
He said, “Let’s give her a day or two.”
I understood. When you raise animals, you’re responsible for bringing lives into the world . Even though it’s their destiny is to die, we’re still inclined to save them; give them time, care —hope.
Sadly, but appropriately, Chupa has been slaughtered. She never fully recovered from her head injury, and as she grew it was harder for her to walk and play without falling. I was concerned she’d tumble into the creek ravine and be seriously injured. My brother-in- law Santos, an experienced butcher, came to the house; she died here with us, swiftly. The meal was made for my sister-in-laws 50th birthday party. It was a fitting end to a truly happy piggy existence.
I loved raising Chupa, but she consumed a lot of resources and we lost money on her; small losses make a difference on a farm like ours. Felipe has since realized that not culling when it’s appropriate stresses the sow, and undermines her ability to care for her healthy piglets. I’ll not likely have the opportunity to bottle feed a piglet at eleven… one… three… and five o’clock in the morning again, and though I wouldn’t trade my time with Chupa for all the lost sleep —that’s okay with me.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written a farm update, so, I am very pleased to report we are 20 piglets more populated and—it was our best harvest ever! Our little plot produced four and a half tons of grain. I believe we own it all to pig poop… and Felipe’s herculean efforts.
What 4 1/2 tons looks like.
We were astonished by the benchmark crop. We’d felt behind in its care all year, and we couldn’t find anyone to harvest (Felipe is working and I have retired from field work with its allergens, scorpions and wasps) so the pigs have been destroying and consuming it for over a month. But Felipe, somewhere in the midst of the season managed to lug (on his back) 60, 80lb bags of rotted pig manure about a ¼ mile uphill, to a small field he reclaimed from the scrub this spring. I spread 20 bags on our small tortilla corn field, and even with him hauling the bags into the plot for me, it was still hot, heavy, hard labor. As usual, he never ceases amaze.
Here’s a bit of information about “do it yourself” organics that may surprise you. By substituting the manure we were able to use half the chemical fertilizer we have in the past, but—it took 2 tons of manure, rather than 150 kilos of fertilizer. And, a field that would generally take two hours to fertilize took two days of strenuous labor. Not to mention the months of collecting and managing the manure. Of course, the benefit is less chemicals on our land, in our water and animals. Still, doing it the natural way is MUCH more difficult.
We’re trying a new tactic with the stored grain this year. We put bounce dryer sheets between the bags to keep the field mice at bay. We’re not certain it will work, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed. Rodents do a lot of damage, chewing holes in the bags, making a mess and leaving their droppings in the grain, which the sows do not appreciate.
Gorda and her brood.
Gorda and Minnie had total of twenty healthy piglets. They were very considerate, birthing on the weekend so Felipe could assist. Still, he was tired Monday morning after 12 hours of waiting, crouching, cleaning and acclimating piglets to the teat.
Felipe assists Minnie
Finally— we have a new dog. After so many horrible deaths, I’d decided not to get another dog until I could afford to fence in our yard. But King was in such a terrible situation, I decided he was better off taking his chances with us than living as he was: on a chain so short he was forced to sleep, eat and shit in the same place. We’re taking every available measure to keep him safe. He’s assisting in this effort by never leaving Felipe’s side.
We look forward to another prosperous year at the PDR; this year’s goal: by year’s end, Felipe will no longer need to work outside our farm. Wish us luck 🙂