Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Sus scrofa of Shushan

     Seen any flying pigs lately? Ok, that may depend on what you've been smoking or drinking. Way more than I need to know. Or it could be a matter of where you've driven. If you've gone down Sutherland or Dobbin Hill Roads chances are good you have seen the porkers of Flying Pigs Farm. They're out in the pastures rooting and oinking and making pighood look like a good career choice.

Flying Pigs Farm

     I've often passed them on a running loop I'm fond of. From Shushan, across the Battenkill and down Sutherland, then back on Co. 64 to the Georgi for a post-workout swim. (It's been quite a few years since I opted for the Dobbin Hill variant, scenic but way steep.) In any case, I'ld jog past the animals smiling at their antics but more focused on the sandy beach and cool water that would soon be my reward. Truth is, any outing on rural Washington County roads turns into a barnyard tour with cows, goats, sheep, horses and chickens being common sights.

Pigs Eye View of the Taconics from Dobbin Hill Road

     But you don't see as many pigs as you used to. I can remember every farm keeping a few, feeding them waste milk, garden surplus and table scraps. Our hog barn was situated between a corn crib and the ice house. It was a simple structure, slate roofed and red painted. A row of pens were on the right side, each with a small door to outside yards. That was the side where, as a young boy, I slopped the hogs and they grew fat and seemingly happy. On the left was a heavy wooden bench with knives and saws hanging above it and the back corner was filled with a bricked up firebox cradling a large iron kettle. That was the side for when the growing was over, if you get what I mean.
     We never actually slaughtered, scalded or butchered in the barn even though it was efficiently designed for that purpose. In the late '50's when my family bought the farm, times were already changing. And we only had hogs for a few years that I can remember. They would always be rooting and getting under their fence, creating a "Pigs are out!" emergency. Then there was the circus of trying to load a 250# beast into a pick-up truck for the trip to Nestle Bros. and processing down in Easton. The animals were perfectly satisfied with their accommodations and quite unwilling to leave.
     Finally, after a summer filled with attempted escapes and a loading ordeal of squeals and swearing, our pig raising days came to an end. There were cows to take care off and bacon was cheap in the supermarket. Now all that is left of the hog barn is the iron kettle which, unfortunately, was damaged in the demolition. I want to plant flowers in it and hang a sign proclaiming our place
"Cracked Pot Farm". So far I've been voted down on that one.

     I suspect a similar scenario played out on other farms because it went from everybody having a few pigs to almost no one keeping them. Big agribusiness could do it better and cheaper. Or so we were told. But then something curious happened. A few back-to-landers wanted to be self-sufficient. Michael Pollan wrote a book called The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Alice Waters pioneered the idea of restaurants serving locally produced food. Temple Grandin challenged the way industrial ag treated animals and Joel Salatin developed an integrated farm model that functioned liked a natural ecosystem.
     People became interested in how their food was produced and where it came from. Some questioned whether the Monsanto - Merck - Tyson Foods path was the way to go. Farming began to catch the imagination of young people who saw it as a viable career where they could meet their economic needs while honoring their values and ideals. Even Washington County, with a long history of traditional agriculture and rather conservative attitudes towards change was affected.
     You can find all kinds of farming here - organic and conventional, crop and animal, large and small. Dairy still seems to be most prominent with everything from several thousand cow operations, to people milking a few goats and making cheese. Seth McEachron's Battenkill Valley Creamery up towards West Hebron has been successful at processing their farms milk and directly distributing it, while the Argyle Cheese Farmer business developed by the Randles family is expanding. Go to any area farmers market and you'll see a bounty of locally produced vegetables, fruits, honey and maple, eggs, cheeses and meat. The Washington County food scene is diverse and vibrant, which brings us back to the pigs (Sus scrofa is their scientific name) of Shushan.

     A book called Pig Tales by Vermont food writer Barry Estabrook opened my eyes to our curly-tailed neighbors. It came out earlier this year and drew quite a bit of attention, with the author being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air  and also appearing on VPR's Vermont Edition with Jane Lindholm. The book is divided into three sections with the first being an introduction to pigs and their long relationship with humans. The middle part is a disturbing look at Big Pig - the industrial, warehouse model of pork production. Finally, the last few chapters offer a hopeful alternative with Flying Pigs Farm of Shushan serving as a model for how great tasting pork can be raised in a humane and environmentally sensitive way.
     The book touches on many issues including antibiotic abuse, animal rights, social justice, food elitism, heritage breeds, sustainability and more. It's upsetting, thoughtful and encouraging by turns. We can be grateful that a small farm here in Washington County is showing the world a better way.

Wild Watch
     There are life lists and bucket lists. The first is a tally of wildlife sightings and the second a collection of experiences you hope to have before that final kick. One thing you do not want on either list is seeing a wild boar. At least not in Washington County.
     These guys are the terrorists of the animal world. Nothing but trouble while paradoxically being the same species (Sus scrofa) as our friend, the barnyard porker. Taxonomically they are in the order Artiodactyla (Even-toed Hoofed Mammals), family Suidae (Old World Swine). While many ungulates (hoofed mammals) are herbivores and ruminants, pigs are omnivores with a simple stomach and do not chew their cuds. One notable characteristic is canine teeth that grow thru out life, protruding to form four very formidable tusks. The boars use these for rooting and defense. They've ripped open many a dog and even been known to kill bears! See why you don't want them around?

     Boars are native to Eurasia and were one of the first animals to be domesticated some 10,000 years ago. They grow quickly, eat just about anything and have large litters of up to 12 piglets. Columbus brought some on his second voyage, turning them loose to multiply and provide fresh meat for the sailors. Austin Corbin introduced 11 wild boars from Germany to a game park in New Hampshire in 1899. Some escaped, as they always do, and these may be the seedstock for New England's population.
     According to DEC's website it is illegal to possess or hunt Eurasian Boar in New York State. Ecosystem destruction, crop damage and disease transmission are cited among the reasons for the ban. At the same time there are hunting preserves in Washington County whose sites advertise wild boar hunts! I've heard anecdotally (from "reliable" sources) of boars breaking out of the preserves.
A "What the ....?" situation if you ask me.

     * One final note. Got up at 4:00 am this morning to look for Leonid meteors. Clear, cold with a sparkling sky of bright stars and Jupiter, Mars and Venus lined up between the constellation Leo and the horizon. Some years this shower turns into a storm with hundreds of shooting stars visible.  Maybe not this year though. I didn't see a single streak in fifteen minutes of shivering. But here's the good news - I didn't see any wild boars either.

Doing lunch at Taproots Farm - photo from their website

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