The Politics of Pig Slop
by Kate Tvelia Athearn
Every day in restaurants, school cafeterias, and markets all over the Island, a culinary magic trick takes place. Farmers leave empty containers by the kitchen door and return to find those very same buckets overflowing with cucumber peels, stale bread, melon rinds, and a variety of other foodstuffs: a mishmash of grains and produce known informally as “slop”—unappealing to humans, but oh, so delightful for pigs.
Several times per week, my husband and I perform this miraculous bucket swap in the basement of the Little House Café in Vineyard Haven. We have what co-owner Merrick Carreiro describes as, “A beautiful arrangement.”
Not only is Merrick supporting local agriculture and saving money on trash removal, she is producing less waste. As the population grows and available space shrinks, we are all more conscious of our garbage output. Those of us who grow our own food are particularly aware of the work that goes into each bite: planning and planting, weeding and feeding, watering and watering and watering… And that’s just to get it grown and harvested.
Restaurant owners and chefs work as hard as we do to find affordable local ingredients and combine them in gorgeous and delectable ways. They build relationships and bargain shop, julienne and chiffonade and flambé. It’s heartbreaking to think of how much of that food could end up rotting in a plastic bag, taking up valuable landfill space.
In my family’s five years of pig farming, we’ve learned a lot about what makes a mutually beneficial pig-bucket relationship. We’ve made mistakes. We have secured
buckets in inconvenient locations, and suffered the wrath of business owners who are overrun by fl ies and vermin because we didn’t pick up often enough.
Ideally, no communication between farmer and chef is needed, containers are simply placed, filled, and—voila!—replaced. Our first summer, we fed our pigs bakery leftovers, which sounded great at first, but wasn’t. Day-old donuts just aren’t for pigs! Unfortunately, eating a big fat pig is just as unhealthy as being one.
As omnivores, pigs benefit from a varied diet, but they can’t survive on slop alone. The majority of their nourishment comes from high-quality grain, specially blended with optimum nutrition in mind.
Slop is a controversial topic in pig farming circles. Some farmers avoid the practice altogether, citing it as hazardous to porcine health. But many local farmers agree that these problems can be avoided with a little forethought and some common sense. Don’t give them table scraps, which can be contaminated with human germs, and avoid including meat in your slop, particularly pork.
Pigs may seem piggish on a number of levels, but they aren’t cannibals.
Katie Carroll, chairman of the Chilmark Board of Health, is a fan of the pig-bucket practice, if done safely.
Buckets should be kept in a cool spot, and collected regularly to avoid the growth of bacteria, which would threaten the well being of the animals.
Slop should also be clearly marked, to prevent getting it mixed up with food that might be served to a customer.
It isn’t easy to keep up the bucket collecting routine during our hectic summer schedule. But it all feels worthwhile, once the calves have been fed, the sheep hayed, chicken water refi lled, that tricky gate latch fixed (again), and the staccato tick-tick-tick of the sprinklers rains down on the garden. A feeling of calm fulfillment descends upon the farmer who has worked her body and soul, not only to keep her animals healthy and safe, but to provide them with a tasty treat now and again.
When we pull up to the pigpen with a truck bed full of slop, the mud-caked pigs lift their heads and perk their floppy ears at the sound of the squeaky pickup truck. Snouts rise to meet delicious aromas. They squeal with delight as we dump buckets into the feed trough. Then they dig in with gusto, flinging kale stems in the air as they root for the tastiest morsels. In moments like this, we get as much fulfi llment from their existence as we will from their harvest.
We can feel good about doing our tiny part to reduce waste and complete the cycle of farm-to-table and back to farm, as we relax in the shade of the pear tree, in chairs left nearby specifi cally for this pig-viewing purpose, and listen to the munch-and-grunt of pure piggy joy.