When our family first arrived to Jack’s Shop in September 2015 we were ready to farm. We had read everything we could- Salatin, Coleman, Berry. We felt just about as educated as one could be, without ever having farmed before. A crazy endeavor, but we were excited. Keen as mustard!
Our first purchase outside of a few laying hens at auction (not advisable) was six piglets from our friends at Landon Farms in Etlan, VA. A cross-litter between Mulefoot and Berkshire, I found them foraging and rooting in their woods. They were happy, and you could tell.
After transporting and acclimating them to our farm, we put them out to pasture on what would be 12 months of pasture and woodland rotation. We supplemented their diet with a non-GMO grain feed from Sunrise Farms in the Shenandoah Valley. They had full access to as much as they wanted to eat, and in no time at all, we had full grown hogs on our hands.
Before I knew it I was on the phone with T & E Meats scheduling a processing date. As the date with the butcher was fast approaching, we worked them back through the fields and close into the barn. Loading day would be a breeze.
A week or so before, my wife came in from morning chores to tell me that the pigs had gotten out of their paddock. I had been on my back for a couple days, having tweaked my neck digging in the garden. I didn’t have much concern that the pigs were out of there containment as they were within a larger field that was fenced and gated. I figured I would just corral them back closer to the barn, once I was upright again. The next day, when my wife came in, again out of breath, exclaiming that the gates to the larger paddock were wide open and the pigs were nowhere in sight, panic set in. I pulled myself off the couch, popped a handful of aspirin and jumped into the UTV.
It was a hot September day, and we were out searching for its entirety. We sweat; we sweat a lot. By sunset, our otherwise indomitable egos were battered. Not only had we not found the hogs, we hadn’t even seen a trace of them. Six hogs, all pushing 350 pounds, up and vanished. The second day was just as futile. By the fourth day the whole neighborhood knew Jack’s pigs were out. I got a call from our neighbor farmer that afternoon. One of the largest cattle farmers in the area, he wanted to let me know that he had seen some black hogs on his property, more so, to let me know they were probably in his corn field. He did not sound happy.
I grabbed our border collie Jacksie, ran over there, and jumped into a random corn row. Jacksie and I spent the next hour running frantically through rows and rows of 8 foot high corn. We would stop, and kneel, listening for any grunt or rustle. Finally we came upon some tracks and Jacksie pinned one. Behind the one, I saw more, but how many? As I got closer they would scatter. Was it all six, or just a couple, I couldn’t tell.
I called in reinforcements; brothers, friends, neighbors. As they arrived, we linked up and spread out every 5 rows or so, building a human chain to walk them north into our woods. Wishful thinking. They ran around and scurried through us like the Harlem Globe Trotters. This carried on for hours, until we found ourselves at the edge of the corn field. Unfortunately, it was at the complete opposite end we were aiming for. They had led us to their wallow in a creek just off the south corner. A creek, mind you, I had walked by many times in the 4 days prior. Now thankfully out of the corn field, we decided to herd them along the creek, through the woods and into the back field of my neighboring farmer’s house. I knew of a nice clearing we could access a trailer from. We hoped he would be hospitable upon our unexpected arrival, if for nothing else, too see the hogs out of his corn field. Our improving enthusiasm was, quickly diminished when we realized we only had 4 hogs, two were still in the corn field. Never mind, we claimed our gains and carried on. The farmer was surprisingly in good spirits. Perhaps 5 young guys chasing 4 hogs around was lively, evening entertainment. For trailer access, he suggested running them down his driveway to the main road. He gave a good chuckle and hopped on his 4-wheeler to follow.
Did I mention we don’t have a trailer? I called in a favor to our other neighboring farmer and in 5 minutes he was there, backing up his stock trailer at the end of the drive. We had a couple pig gates, and with 7 of us now, we hoped to coerce them, lovingly and affectionately, into the trailer. Wishful thinking, again. After many failed attempts, and having to gather them back up again each time, we took them across the road where we could pin them against a fence. The farmer drove his trailer around to meet us and backed it up to one of the gates from the other side. With 7 of us, two 16 foot farm gates tied together, and the fence line, we pinned them. We could see the end in sight. One of the farmer’s yelled at the pigs “Come ‘on now pigs, you’re cutting into my bedtime”. It was then I realized it was dark, and had been for a while. I couldn’t believe I had 2 of the area’s largest cattle farmers messing about with 4 hogs at 10 o’clock at night. We were exhausted and dehydrated. As we walked them down the fence line, to the opening of the trailer, they were still impervious to our efforts. I jumped over the gate, wailing and screaming profanities, and practically rode them into the trailer. Phew, it was done!
We drove them back to the barn, poured them a nice cold bath and called it a night. As I lay in bed, so tired I couldn’t sleep, it hit me. There’s still TWO out there!
The next morning I had to work at the restaurant. Just as I was leaving I spotted 2 black silhouettes on our far field towards the barn. I ran out there as fast as I could, but they were gone. I spotted their tracks and followed them. As I turned the corner of a honeysuckle hedgerow, there I saw them, hams in the air, snouts in the feed bin, just outside the barn. They had come home.
Needless to say it was a relief to get them to the butcher the following week. On the ride over, I reflected on our first farming experience. Other than the stinging irony I felt in the fact that we had invested so much in the best feed we could, only to have our pigs fully satiate themselves on GMO corn for 5 days, I still felt proud. Perhaps because I had won the battle of wills, man vs. beast. But most certainly that when I acknowledged, as I must, that those hogs did whatever the hell they pleased the whole time, could I then fully embrace my role in raising them. Simply a steward of an otherwise inherent and natural circumstance.
We did rebound from our pig escapade. We are back in the hog business and just as excited as when we first arrived. Getting a few dozen cases of perfectly packaged pork primals certainly helped. Oh, and that mustard we were so keen on, it goes great on our pork chops.