Ex-Vegetarian becomes meat farmer….this is my story..
We have just seen off our pigs Bo and Jo. They arrived at around the same time their name sake took office and the similarity of their white eyelashes and eyebrows meant that the names stuck. I’m not sure if their namesake will last much longer than they did! Although myself and co-farmer Jon have always been told NOT to names the animals meant for market..how could you eat something you have named?! Horror. This article is a description of what that process was like for the pigs, for us and for our family and customers.
I first became a vegetarian when I was about 12. I developed a real empathy with animals and hated the idea of their pain and suffering. My nutritional main stay was ‘beanfeast’ a dehydrated soya mince. My mum, who was quite enlightened for the time, would pack me off to my friends houses with a packet in hand,to avoid putting people out with my weird food needs. That lasted a few years till the onset of puberty and anaemia.
I next tried in Australia on my gap year when I was 21 and sitting on beaches in the baking sun reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. I was attracted by wanting the spiritual pureness of the vegetarian diet and really didn’t enjoy eating meat. I really peed off a lot of my workaway hosts with those weird food needs.
My return to the UK in the winter and the stress of my PGCE year teaching in London Comprehensive schools put paid to this quite soon when I found myself almost sleepwalking to the fridge in the middle of the night to finish off the family’s lamb roast that I had managed to pass over at lunch.
Then again when I was 31, I met a vegan boyfriend and had access to really healthy organic vegetables for the first time in my life as I was volunteering at a community garden in London. By this time I had realised that I was gluten and lactose intolerant so it was just too difficult for me to travel anywhere and be able to eat. He ate a lot of French bread!
After this came 6 years of pregnancy, gestational diabetes and breastfeeding. I was desperately trying to meet my body’s nutritional needs for growing and feeding my babies and repairing myself.
By this point I had started living off grid on 20 acres of land in the UK. Hertfordshire is beautifully sunny in the summer but living in a wood heated yurt in the winter I definitely appreciate having access to animal fat. Which brings us to the present day and our decision to raise farm animals for meat.
When we became stewards of this beautiful, land 4 years ago, we had intentions to plant a food forest, start a goat dairy and keep some hens. More than anything, we had a desire to repair this degraded soil and bring back the life and biodiversity of the site, while being immersed in nature.
Fast forward 3 years and realising that we would always eat meat so why didn’t we learn how to raise farm animals it in a way we could be proud of and allow the animals to express their natural behaviours while regenerating the soil.
So while the flock of sheep were rotationally grazed around the pasture, we needed to convert another 300 sq metre patch of pasture to be the next no-dig market garden.
After mulching the last patch we had used a rotavator to get a nice tilth on the soil. The mulching with cardboard, manure woodchip for the paths and compost seemed to do the trick keeping out all but the most stubborn of docks and creeping buttercups. Why? Why? Did we turn to machinery.
A few months afterwards, those weeds were back again with a vengeance after the blades of the rotavator had taken each and every root of those perennial weeds and cut them in to hundreds of new pieces of weed.
So the plan this time was to let Bo and Jo graze and root to their hearts content and do the hard work of clearing the patch for us… and my did they do a good job.
We also fed them pig food which is mainly grained based and threw in old plants from the garden next door.
When they arrived they were the size of Labrador puppies. Jon picked them up from Baldock in the back of our fiat panda. We had lined the boot with chicken wire to prevent them jumping over the back seat and wedging themselves under the brake pedal or onto Jon’s lap while he was driving but we didn’t need to worry about that at all.
They just slept for the first week, reminding us that they were just 8 week old babies removed from their mother and brothers and sisters. Knowing this made us even more determined to care for them and treat them with respect. We had a moveable wooden house for them lined with straw in a paddock encircled with a poultry electric fence.
When they woke up, we watched as they became trained to the fence. It didn’t seem too painful, they had a few shocks and then learned. It was disturbing how human they seem, its their eyes, black pupils looking dolefully at us and the eyelashes. They also cuddled each other when they slept and their skin was soft and pink. They didn’t like being touched at first and if we picked them up, the squealing was horrendous! But they soon got used to our twice daily visits and then when they heard the car driving in or saw us at the fence they would run towards us. Grunting and snuffling for food. We put a paddling pool in for them full of water daily. They would rest their bottoms in when they got too big to get their whole bodies in. They would sun bathe. When people visited the garden they would tear around in circles chasing each other like they were on show. They were really chilled out and happy animals.
The hardest time came when the days got shorter in October and the solar charger on our electric fence began to fail. The pigs started to go a wandering. Their first stop was at the caravan, our farm office, to seek us out looking for some treats. They would almost knock on the door and then follow us back to the paddock with a friendly nudge in the back of the knee. Unfortunately despite our best efforts of regularly charging batteries at our friend’s house and changing them over, the mud was making the fence short. It was so wet and muddy, we regularly lost our welly boots going to feed them, we kept putting recycled cardboard down in the house so it was dry under belly.
The fateful day came when we were just about to tuck in to a roast at our friend’s house in hertford when I got a call from a neighbour. Two pigs were running in the road in our village, Colliers end, back and forth between the church and Parkins close. A crowd had gathered! They had managed to herd them back to a secure fence in my neighbours farm. Jon got back in the car and teared over there. The pigs had seen us leave in the car..they were just trying to find us.
They easily followed him home up the road but this time we had to nail boards up to keep them in their house. It was only for a few days until we found a better solution,but I couldn’t run the risk that they could hurt someone. The space was too small for two full grown pigs and it was hard for them to stand up or turn over. it reminded me of those youtube videos that show how much space pigs have in the massive indoor pig factories that feed the meat to our supermarkets. The sows can stand up and often roll over and suffocate their newborns, it’s so sad to see. Bo and jo started getting stroppy with each other over the food. It was the first time I saw them unhappy.
It was also getting cold and we had run out of paddock for them to dig up. All sign were pointing to the realisation that it was time for them to go. We eyed them up and thought they were roughly the weight of Jon, which is 75kg and big enough for bacon.
I called around our customers who had expressed interest in some free range pork and we divided them up in halves, quarters and even eighths. This was hard for me to discuss,dealing out their dead bodies and then go and feed them and give them a tickle behind the ears. Jon took over feeding full time then.
When our friend came to take them to market, I couldn’t eat and I felt nervous with a knot in my stomach. We just reversed the trailer into the paddock and put some food in it and they trotted up the gangplank happily. I realised how lucky we had been. They both stood there with out making a reaction as we closed the door. I had heard horror stories of the squealing as they went away. Maybe because they were together they felt safe.
It was 45 mins drive to the abbatoir and then they were penned up and killed straight away as it was a Monday. I was glad about that. They are stunned and then killed. It’s over quickly. In a way I wish I could spare them the journey and do it here ourselves, there used to be an abattoir at the end of the road. You need a license to do it now and it’s easier for them to be transported from the abattoir to the butcher as he has refrigeration.
I felt sad for a while and then for the next week, driving into the farm and not being greeted by running pigs. There was always a few seconds before they saw us and started to move as their trotters were firmly stuck in the mud but after extraction they really did run. Ears and tails wagging. It did feel like the first time I went back to my family home after my childhood dog died. No one to greet me, but all the evidence of the life there once was.
Going to the butchers on the day they arrived was half exciting, half filled with dread. My daughter was off school, sick so also came with me before I took her home to sleep again.
There they were, hanging long and head down cut in halves. Rick talked about their weights and the good fat layers, not too much, not too little. He said they were as good as any pig in his shop. I felt very responsible and maybe guilty. I could recognise them, Bo was smaller. They were 73 kg and 69kg at only 5 months old. The breed was a Landrace crossed with Large White, which is a prolific grower and suited to outdoor as well as indoor systems.
So grief and guilt so far. The only chink was that we didn’t have to worry about run away pigs and had happy customers ready to pick up their pork. It feels really nice to share it and a little bit like we are sharing the responsibility of taking this animals life. It feels more dare I say it… like a sacrifice.
When I came home from the butchers with our first delicious sausages it prompted a spontaneous prayer. Me and my 5 year old daughter said an earnest thank you to the pigs, not just for the meat that will keep us well fed and warm but for the work they did in the garden, the fertility they have put back with their manure, for how much they taught us and for the experience in general. I’m more grateful for that sausage than for any I’ve eaten in my life.
Since raising and eating our own animals we have just evolved into weekday vegetarians. We always try to buy organic milk and cheese and until I can start that goat dairy this will have to do. But we only eat 10% animals protein in one day whether meat, eggs or dairy as I read a study that has found this or less to be optimal for the health of humans. (The China study)
The meat we have at the weekends is really anticipated and appreciated. We have more meals with friends where we bring the joints of meat and I feel oddly more human through this process,
There are a few things I am considering before committing to raising more pigs next year. I wish the abattoir was local. The draconian rules about not being able to feed pigs scraps. A third of food that is bought is wasted. Just thrown into landfill to produce methane. If it could be diverted to feed the animals that have evolved alongside human beings to eat our scraps like pigs and chickens, we would be closing a large part of the food loop and we could bypass the large amount of arable land that is used to grow grain to feed them. You cant feed pigs or hens any scraps from any kitchen not even a vegan one.
I have high hopes for a maize maze next year as well as a pumpkin patch that the pigs can run through after it’s past its best and also to let them run in the forest and eat the nuts that the squirrels haven’t managed to find.
So that’s my story. From Grief and guilt to gratitude. As for the customers…we mostly hear about how glad they are to find us, how they are looking to alternatives to buying supermarket meat but don’t feel like they can go vegan at the moment and basically…YUM! And as for the pigs. We will never know their side of the story, I just hope and feel that they enjoyed the life they had.
I don’t rule out becoming vegetarian again one day. I still sit on the fence about the spiritual question of raising farm animals for meat but I also know that whatever our diet, things die so we can live. Whether it’s the snails/slugs on the veg. farm, the wildlife cleared from arable fields, the bees transported to the almond trees to pollinate and then die. I think that with a lot of careful thought and planning we could all be vegans and healthy but I’m just not sure if this is necessary. There is a better way of farming animals than the CAFOs and we all need to eat less meat, local and better. I’d like to be part of that solution; Be the change as Gandhi says. If you agree with this please support the small scale meat suppliers and the butchers who help them. Without Rick at Gannon’s butchers in Ware, I would never have had the knowledge or confidence to do this. He really helped me every step of the way. From explaining cuts and joints to how flexible he has been to accommodate the lack of experience. I’m also grateful to Derek, our farming mentor; always there to laugh at our mistakes and when that’s finished, offer us some solutions learned through his own many years of experience. I’m grateful for all the advice and encouragement we have received. It is hard being a new entrant to farming, I hope to be able to advise other one day in the not too distant future.