Letting Pigs Be Pigs
I have always loved animals. When I was a little kid, this love led me to briefly become a vegetarian for all of about two weeks. I proudly told my mom "I don't eat meat, except for bacon and bologna." Even at that age, the allure of bacon was too strong. Somehow in kid logic it made sense.
With age and experience my personal ethics around eating meat became more well-defined. While our family still eats meat, we make it a priority to source local, humanely raised meat that's farmed in a sustainable and earth-friendly way. This is one of the major reasons we became farmers - not only can we be sure that our animals are being raised in accordance with our values, but our friends and family can also benefit from a trusted, local source of sustainable meat.
Our animals are an important part of the farm's ecosystem. In any natural system energy cycles through various parts of a food chain. The more links in this chain, the more complex the system is, and the more resilient it is in the face of stress and change. If any one link weakens or breaks down, there are others there to take its place. You can think of an ecosystem like a stock profile - even if individual stocks go up and down, a diverse portfolio can continue to grow and stay strong in the long term. Adding animals like chickens and pigs diversifies our ecosystem, making it more efficient and resilient.
Before we had pigs, we composted a LOT of sweet corn. It wasn't being wasted exactly - after composting, those nutrients from the sweet corn were spread back onto our fields to nourish next year's crop of vegetables. But we still didn't like seeing all that corn go straight from the farm stand into to compost pile day after day. By adding pigs, we added another link in this food chain. Nutrients now flowed from the sweet corn, to the pigs, and then into the pig's manure, which went back into the soil. Corn still wasn't being wasted, the soil was still getting nutrients, BUT we had added another step - turning that corn into bacon along the way!
In order to spread that pig manure around, we rotate our pigs through the pasture. Every week they are moved onto fresh grass, which they mow down with surprising efficiency for stubby little chonks with squished-up pug-noses. After they chomp down the grass and clover into a short lawn, the pasture is now the perfect height for chickens. When the pigs move to their next block of pasture, the chickens move in behind them. After eating all the clover flowers (their favorite,) the chickens get to work scratching and pecking, spreading that pig manure around and taking care of any fly larvae or maggots that may have hatched in the meantime. It's an elegant system - just like any healthy, thriving natural ecosystem.
Letting our animals graze on pasture fulfills another important goal of ours - giving them the best life possible. I'm still an animal lover, and I want our animals to be happy even if we are going to eat them in the end. Every animal species has a set of behaviors that define it - the "pigness" of a pig, or the "chickenness" of a chicken. Pigs like to root around, wallow in mud, and use their strong flexible noses to sniff out good things to eat. Chickens like to scratch in the dirt, take dust baths, and peck around for tasty bugs and flowers. Keeping them confined in a barn or pen deprives them of these innate behaviors, leading to stressed and unhealthy animals.
Before I was a farmer I was a zookeeper, and later a professor of Animal Behavior at a local college. In the zoo world we use something called "behavioral enrichment" to improve the lives of animals in captivity. Enrichment activities are often designed to mimic natural behaviors the animal would do in the wild. For example, zookeepers will hide food in a replica anthill to encourage an anteater to seek out morsels with its long, sticky tongue. They will hang burlap bags of meat up in a tree, so that a tiger or leopard has to jump and climb in order to earn its breakfast. Without behavioral enrichment, zoo animals often succumb to anxiety and depression. They pace nervously around their enclosure, stand in one place and sway their heads from side to side, or obsessively lick and chew their paws (which you may have seen your dog doing as well!) Animals that are allowed to express their innate "animal-ness" have lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, better health and body condition, and better social interaction with both people and other animals (Fox et al. 2006.)
Left: Chowing down on pumpkins. Right: All lined up for belly rubs, amid the ruins of the day's sweet corn feast.
So what does this mean for farm animals? Raising animals on pasture is an incredible form of behavioral enrichment. Our pigs and chickens are allowed to express their innate behaviors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our pigs root and dig, flipping up patches of clover with their strong noses to munch on the roots. They excavate wallows and roll around in the mud during the hot, muggy days of summer. Our chickens peck and scratch, roaming beyond the walls of their shelter to find grasshoppers and flowers in the tall grass. On dry days they dust bathe, sending clouds of dirt up into the air and ridding their feathers of pests and biting insects. They are certainly not bored - on pasture, there is always something new to be done. And they are certainly not stressed - anyone who's seen an Instagram video of our pigs getting their bellies rubbed like a puppy will know!
Raising pigs and chickens on pasture is just one more way that we're building a better, more sustainable, and more humane food system. We are proud to be a source of healthy, earth-friendly meat for both our family and our community. Do you want to try some of our pasture-raised meat for yourself? Locals can now order chicken and pork online for pickup at our farm stand. Just fill out the form, hit submit, and we will pack your order and set up a time for pickup.
And yes - the bacon is delicious!