Tuesday, April 24, 2007

My Work: City Mice Part 4

In the spring we turned our attention to outside, and I bought books on chickens, pigs, sheep, and cattle. We cleaned up piles of rubble in black flies so thick I couldn’t breathe. We took a truckload of old newspapers and a truckload of metal to the recycle depot. We got an old ambulance from Ray to use as a chicken coop and bought Barred Plymouth Rock chickens for our own fresh eggs. We reorganized one of the sheds for White Rock meat chickens, found a great black Labrador dog at the Humane Society and barn cats along the road.

This was more like it.

One sunny morning I was sitting on the ground next to the chicken’s outside run, listening to their gentle ta, ta, ta, when I realized we were in the middle of our dream. I was so pleased I dozed off right there. We planted a main garden, a berry garden, and a kitchen garden. We plowed a field and planted corn. We bought pigs.

It started when I mentioned to Ray that I didn’t think you could really live on a farm without having pigs.

He put down his wrench. “I’ve kept pigs from time to time and there is no more stubborn critter in the world than a pig. My Uncle Berk says they are the only critter with their head on backwards. You want them to go this way and they go that way, that’s for true. I was loading pigs one day and a four hundred-pound sow didn’t want to get into the truck. Instead, she went right through the barn window, four feet off the ground, broke all the glass out of it. We chased her around the yard for an hour trying to get her back in the barn. We finally roped her and dragged her back with the pickup, kicking and squealing. She made a furrow a foot deep across the yard where she braced her feet against that truck. Good thing I got four-wheel drive or I doubt we could have pulled her.

“Another time I had a boar inside and a sow in heat outside in a pen made from four-foot pallets half buried in the ground, then a second row of pallets lashed on top of them. That made a fence six feet high. “Well, this sow kept getting out and trying to break down the door to get to the boar inside. I thought there was a hole in the fence somewhere, so I went around and around that fence looking for the hole. Couldn’t find one. “Then I was standing in the kitchen one morning and I saw her hoist herself up and over that fence. She just climbed those pallets like you would climb a ladder, up and over. The only difference was that she weighed twice as much as you and had shorter legs.

“That’s the only time I’ve seen a pig go up and over. Usually they go under. A regular fence is no good, they will get their nose under it and lift fence posts right out of the ground. The best thing is electric, turned up high. Pigs are smart, some say smarter than dogs, and if you can train them when they’re young, they won’t try to go through an electric fence later, even though they could if they wanted to.” We followed his advice in an old corral in front of the barn that was fenced all around with six foot-high page wire; heavy checkerboard strands about six inches apart. We put up one solar panel, added ten more batteries, and hooked up an electric fencer to jolt those porkers if they got too close.

The kids went with me to get the piglets in the pickup. On the way, I had Conor read me the part of the pig book that covered buying piglets. “A thirty to forty-pound pig should be six to eight weeks old,” Conor read, “A thirty-pound pig ten weeks old is a runt and may always grow slowly. The animal you buy should be active with clear eyes and not sneezing or wheezing. It shouldn’t shake or limp when walking. It shouldn’t be skinny, or flat-sided with an end-on appearance of a loaf of bread.”

“Yeah, I don’t think we should buy a loaf of pig,” Charlotte giggled.

Conor gave her a stern look and went on, “Watch out for swollen joints and abscesses. Be sure to check that they don’t have a bulge beneath their bellies or in the groin, that indicates a hernia. Pinch an ear gently to make sure there is no delay in blood flowing back quickly that could indicate anemia. Eyes should not be dull or sunken. Avoid a pig with drooping head or tail.” I was ready to avoid the whole business.

I asked the farmer for four pigs with some color on them. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, then went in his barn. There was scuffling and squealing and he came out with a red piglet in his arms.

I checked the belly, legs, and eyes and put it in the truck. We added a white pig, a Hampshire-looking pig with a black band all around it’s middle, and a spotted pig. Easy to tell apart. On the way back, we talked about names. I had been warned not to let the kids name anything they were going to eat, so I favoured naming them for cuts of meat. We finally settled on Pork Chop for the white, Hammy for the spotted, Hickory-Smoked for the black-banded, and Peameal for the red.

Four months later I looked at our hogs, now three hundred pounds each. Back in the days when most people had pigs, it wasn’t unusual to hear of a farmer who slipped in the mud or fainted in the pigpen, then was trampled and eaten by his pigs, and more than one farm family has sat resting on the porch in the evening breeze and seen an old hog run by with a child’s arm in his mouth.

While I was standing there, Charlotte came up behind me and warned, “Now Dad, don’t get too attached to those pigs. You know we’re going to kill them.”

So much for her attachment.

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