One Bad Day
By Cheryll Mellenthin | Photos By Cheryll Mellenthin 0
The sun is just rising on another perfect day in early June on my small farm in Verona. The layers are out of their barns and busy scratching at the moist dirt looking for the usual worms, insects, and bits of left over garden compost. I make my way to the pigs’ pastures, just past the bee boxes and tucked into the apple orchard bottomland. I’m a little late this morning and they’ve heard me greet the layers and doddle with full buckets of organic raw milk and spent beer grain. The pigs know the routine as well as I do, so snorting and running along the fence lines as I approach is their way of communicating that breakfast is late.
Seven Red Wattle pigs share two pastures. They are the piglets from our two sows now living at another farm. The smallest four are together and get tended to first. There’s milk poured into the organic feed we mix on the farm. Most days there’s also early summer squash, cucumbers or greens. The other three pigs are larger yet also calmer. They seem to wait patiently as I make my way to their fenced pasture with the same breakfast. These are my favorite morning chores.
Small scale animal farming is a second career for me. It has been a grand rollercoaster of learning on the job, and pigs have brought the most joy and challenge. On warm summer days, I fill their wallows and they get a gentle shower from the hose in the late afternoon sun. On a long stretch of rainy, cloudy days and nights, the pigs are in their element. No need to make wallows—their pasture-digging means small ponds are plentiful. Powerful pig snouts dig and dig, searching for grubs and roots, challenging the infrastructure meant to keep them safe in the pasture. Some mornings I think the only thing keeping them in for the night is knowing that they need to be home for breakfast.
As summer turns into fall, there is a huge variety of vegetables from our garden as well as from farm partner Vermont Valley Community Farm. The tree branches heavy with fruit bend in the breeze and fill the pastures with windfall apples, an easy dessert all day long. It’s been a warm September, so winter squash is ready and massive pumpkins fill my farm wagon waiting at the ready just outside the pig fences. The light is changing, meaning chores start later as the pigs are content to spend early mornings in their shelters. Some days I fill their bowls and toss over the vegetables and they stay snuggled in a huge pig pile-up.
October weather turns chilly, thus time to fill the pig shelters where they spend the cool mornings with fresh straw. They’re quite large now and feeding time is more a meander than the insistent rush to be the first to the bowls. At this size, the pigs are surprisingly docile. I love going into their pastures to scratch behind their ears and pat the big roundness. Their moms allowed me to rub their big bellies, help them with birthing, and stay in their shelters to retrieve wandering piglets. That’s a farmer’s dream for me.
It is now late October. I know the day is near when our happy, healthy and huge Red Wattle pigs will go to market. Going to market for a farm animal is a delicate way of saying they’re leaving the farm in a livestock trailer and going to a processor to become food on the table for us, the farmers, and many happy, satisfied customers. After five years of raising pigs, this day is never easy. However, the saying goodbye part should be hard because it means I’ve put a lot of myself into their care.
The important goal of ‘knowing your farmer’ expands into not only knowing where your food comes from, but also knowing how your food is raised. This awareness motivates me to do everything I can to make the time our animals live in their pastures as pleasant as possible. It also makes it easy offering my customers a farm visit to meet our animals, see how they live, and know they have a good life.
The most frequent visitors to the farm are my daughter and grandkids. They help with chores all season, farm sit when possible and spend time in the pasture with the pigs. The little kids understand that one day the pigs will be gone. So the day before the go-to-market-date is a somber yet important day for a last visit. We sit in the pigs’ shelter, offer a little scratch behind their ears and the well-known visitors get to say their goodbyes. My daughter has also raised pigs. We both believe that when you raise animals with the care and reverence as we do, our animals have only one bad day.
My final goodbye is a last peek in the livestock trailer after the door is bolted. Any sadness is tempered by my belief that if I’m going to eat meat, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I raise happy and healthy animals. I honor them and all they bring to my life as an animal farmer.