“KICK! KICK! KICK!” Julia yelled, holding onto a flailing pig leg for dear life. I’m face to face with a 180-pound heritage breed pig. He ignores the staff-like branch in my hand, as I hesitantly smack his fatty, spotted bum in an attempt to herd him away from the fence gap. The goats are bleating, hysterical from their unwelcome guests. Farm manager Julia is dragging another sizable ham back towards the fence opening and I’m seconds away from letting another pig bust out.
Pigs are escape artists. All 12 of ours managed to rally and knock over the fence, ripping and rooting through the neighboring goat enclosure like rampant bulldozers. Yesterday they got a taste. The crew got them back in with some level of finesse, thanks to apprentice Logan Morrow’s experience with cinta sinese pigs in Tuscany. (Except it turns out our pigs don’t speak Italian). But once our pigs tasted the vines on the other side of their fence, it was game over. They were back to feast.
Our pigs are silvopastured, or forest pastured, meaning they roam their native woodland environment free to dig up roots, acorns, and other nuts (that make them taste so tasty), using land otherwise unfit for other kinds of growing. In this system they serve a double purpose: meat and land management. The USDA National Agroforestry Center writes “Silvopasture is an agroforestry practice that integrates livestock, forage production, and forestry on the same land management unit.” Farm manager Julia Trunzo is the principle guardian of our hogs. She uses the pigs to clear invasive vines and bramble taking over the forest.
Let me tell you, Julia is one rad farmer. I’ve watched her fling 50 pound bag after bag of feed on her shoulder and gracefully slip into the pen, always managing to shut the gate without getting knocked over by the overexcited animals. She’d probably laugh modestly if she heard this, but she’s a straight up bad*$s and incredibly inspiring to a young, aspiring female farmer like myself. She’s a farmer who doesn’t let a couple of rude pigs sabotage her order.
So now it’s just Julia and me trying to wrangle our almost-fully-grown pigs back into their side of the forest enclosure. (And obviously I’m trying my best to impress her.) How does one catch a gigantic pig? Well, you just don’t when they’re approaching 200 pounds. But you can grab them by their back legs and hope to the high heavens you can manage to drag them back without throwing out your back or falling over. You must also abandon all hope of not getting covered in pig poop. Yup. Pig poop.
Unlike me, Julia doesn’t hesitate and manages to grab the last troublemaker. “Don’t let that other pig out! Don’t let him out!” she yells, as I attempt to regain my footing in the mushy forest mud and guard the fence hole.
Pigs are dramatic. One squealing pig is so loud and ear piercing you’d think we were slaughtering 30.
I’m stuck and the overexcited pig gains ground. The captive pig shrieks shrill yelps so loud I can’t hear Julia’s instructions. Pigs are dramatic. One squealing pig is so loud and ear piercing you’d think we were slaughtering 30.
I panicked. Do I help Julia drag her pig or do I try to push back the fugitive in front of me? Will he bite me?! My unassertive attempt failed. The agile giant slips right by me, trotting over to his captured brother. Julia lets go and the two pigs scurry off, deeper into the brush where they can feast. “I was trying to tell you to give him a little kick,” Julia said, attempting to make me feel better for totally blowing it.
I don’t want anyone thinking our pigs were sooo hungry they needed to escape. They get the royal treatment in these woods. Quite frankly, pigs can be jerks and their grade A grains and vegetable seconds mustn’t have been enough to refrain from their little coup d’é·tat. They’re freakishly intelligent creatures, plotting escapes when they know there are tasty roots to be ransacked.
“We’ll just let them do their thing for now and try again later,” Julia decides, seemingly unbothered by the stressful situation that just ensued. She has a lot of experience with the reckless nature of pigs and knows their temporary playground is “pig proof.” We fastened a few lose points of the fence and now all we could do was wait for the pigs to re-congregate by their grain bins and properly repair the hole. “Ow!” I yelled as a curious pig nipped my calf. When you’re dealing with livestock, the sense of urgency never subsides.
I failed. It felt terrible! And now I was covered in poop and smelled like goat. And lemme tell ya: That scent does not go away with soap.
Julia brushed it off, ensuring me that it takes time to get comfortable with livestock this big. “They’re just unmanageable at this size,” she consoled. So far I had worked with sheep and chickens, but forever daydreamed about when I’d finally meet my favorite, cuddly, little pink animal, a pig. Well, they’re not so precious anymore. But they are incredibly fascinating animals, especially when used in silvopasture to live out their full piggy potential.
When you buy a chicken, you might as well have given your farm a promise ring. Buy a pig and you’re straight up engaged.
I washed my hands for the third time. “Next time will be better” I thought. And there will be a next time. Sure, growing vegetables is challenging. When you become a farmer, you commit to that lifestyle, but livestock is really a game changer. When you buy a chicken, you might as well have given your farm a promise ring. Buy a pig and you’re straight up engaged. Vegetables might be able to wait, but hungry, thirsty and escaping animals can’t no matter how rainy it is or tired you are. Adding livestock into your mix forces you into marrying your farm. Working with the personalities, urgency and neediness of animals is both enchanting and intense.
So far from my little experience with pigs, I can confidently say the first step to a happy farm marriage is overcoming your fear of animal poop. And wrestling. And ramming. And mud. We need more sustainably raised meat, even if it means a few of us take a tumble every now and then. I’ve never laughed so hard or washed my clothes so often.