If you want to raise more of your own food, or just clear some land, think pigs...

Consider a Pig

by Julia Rappaport

Consider a Pig

Susie Middleton

A Berkshire pig.  

I’ve been writing about farming and agriculture on the Vineyard for three years now. I’ve seen the sheep get carted off the Allen Farm in spring, and I’ve checked out the Mobile Poultry Processing Trailer. I know a little bit about how slaughter and processing works.

But for some reason, when I think pigs, I think Wilbur. As in Charlotte’s Web. Or I think applewood-smoked bacon and pork chops with applesauce. I never think of the slaughter. With summer approaching and piglets abounding, it seemed time for a reality check. I decided to go see Rebecca Gilbert at Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark.

Rebecca and her husband, Randy Ben David, met over pigs, and since then, they’ve long kept a few pigs on their property. Their trusty swine have helped clear the couple’s North Road farmland, and now raspberry bushes, open fields, and a brand new community garden exists where scrubby trees and brush once stood. On the day I visited, two pigs rooted around their pen behind the house. One was a hefty sow named Olive and the other a meat pig, Number Nine. Rebecca’s boar, Thunder, was over at the Allen Farm studding.

According to Rebecca, avoiding the thought of pig slaughter is not that unusual. “Pigs are not like chickens. They’re more like dogs,” she said. “They have personalities. And it can be difficult to take care of something like that, to raise it, for slaughter.” But pigs are also a manageable animal for the novice or experienced farmer to raise.

Rebecca gives three tips for people interested in keeping pigs. 1. Think about it. “Before you start, contemplate whether you can raise something for slaughter,” she said. 2. Consider the breed of pig. “Choose a pig based off your needs and location,” she advised. (See “Choosing a Pig,” at right.) 3. Prepare for the pig before it arrives. Set up sturdy fencing and have feed on hand. Pigs can live happily in a small backyard space enclosed by electric fencing or hog panels, or in larger pastures.

Pigs (especially older breeds) are known for their rooting ways; they will strip down trees and dig up poison ivy from the root and, for that reason, can be an economical alternative to clearing land with machinery. “It jumpstarts the fertility of the land,” Rebecca explained. So build a pen where you need the clearing and let the pigs go to town, rotating them every once in awhile. “Moving them a lot can help save on feed and expenses,” Rebecca said. Plus, it gives the pigs exercise and works a broader section of land.

The more you move your pigs, the more berries, grass, and bark they eat and the less you have to feed them. But pigs still need feed and plenty of water. Organic and non-organic grain blends are available from Island feed stores. It’s a good idea to add some vegetable scraps to your pig’s diet. Rebecca says, “Just like humans, pigs need a balanced diet. So we give them their cereal in the morning and their salad in the afternoon.” Rebecca adds that on the Island, restaurants and grocers are often happy to donate their kitchen vegetable scraps to pig farmers. You’ll just need to be willing to pick them up every day.

Come fall, it’s time to think about slaughter options. If you want to sell the meat, you’ll need to take your pigs to one of two USDA-approved slaughterhouses in the northern part of the state. There are a few Island farmers who for around $50 will bring a small number of pigs along with them when they make the trip with their own herd. If you plan to keep the meat for your own consumption rather than sell it, there are some slaughterhouses closer to the Island. A third option is to slaughter the animals yourself on the farm, but Rebecca cautioned that this is a highly skilled job she would not recommend to the novice. Finally, some people choose to keep the pigs through the winter for breeding purposes, but it’s tough work and expensive. Rebecca and Randy usually keep their two breeding pigs and sometimes a meat pig through the winter months.

So who should be raising pigs? “People who are serious about raising their own food. There’s a lot of meat on a pig and a lot of it is really good,” Rebecca said with a laugh. “Also,” she added, “someone who wants to clear their land.”

If you’re not sure you’re ready for a pig, try renting one. Rebecca rents her pigs out to interested people, especially those looking to clear their land and especially towards the end of summer. She and Randy will even install the electric fencing.

If even that sounds too adventurous, go the Sunday roast route: Seek out some local pork available at Native Earth Teaching Farm, the Allen Farm, Morning Glory Farm, and sometimes at Blackwater Farm. Plan a pig roast, fry up some bacon, or make a soup with pork hocks, raised right around the corner.