An often-mentioned strategy for converting virgin territory into garden soil that actually does work is the use of pigs: here is an animal that provides both meat and manure, and at the same time excavates your garden for you. We only ever kept one pig at a time, and to accommodate them I put together a movable pen six feet square with a base made from saddle-notched logs and a superstructure of four poles and hog wire. I could push or pull this rig from one spot to the next. A piglet would stay in place for days, whereas three months later he would tear up fresh ground in a matter of hours.
Soon a hog could graduate to moving the pen along by himself by snouting underneath one of the bottom logs and lifting and shoving forward six inches. A pig is quite a savvy critter. He learns and responds and relates. It wouldn’t be long then before he would be lifting the whole thing far enough to rummage right out and commence to run around chortling and whistling. However, a bucket of grain in hand would bring him trotting along behind and back in the pen. But I knew the game was up once they had figured in their wily little piggy brains that this was the way to get extra treats during the day and it was time to think about slaughtering.
To get a pig to do something for you, the best way is to make friends with him so that he will follow you anywhere, and the best way to do that is not necessarily to scratch him behind the ears but to bring him special treats. You can’t tie a rope that will stay anywhere on a pig’s body except around an ankle and you can’t push or pull a pig any distance whatsoever; he just won’t go. You can get him to move short distances—but only backwards—by putting a bucket over his head. He will vigorously try to back out of it, and if you’re good at the game, you can maneuver him this way and that to where you want him. But you can see that you would much rather have him trotting along behind you. I learned from a farmer in Ecuador that it is possible to stake out a pig by tying to a back ankle. That is the only place on their bodies where there is enough angularity to keep a rope from slipping off. This farmer, however, didn’t use rope but rather a rubber strip cut out of an inner tube 2 inches wide and 20 feet long. He didn’t knot it either. He cut a slit close to the end long enough to push the strip back through thereby forming a loop which was then pulled tight and left on the leg the whole time so that the pigs trailed these behind moving from place to place.
I learned this but didn’t practice it when I should have once, bringing a pig home from the auction in the back of 2-Ton Tony. She was supposedly tied to the headboard of the old Dodge but as we chugged up the last hill before our driveway, she sailed out over the three-foot tailgate and disappeared into the woods. That is when she became the famous and fabulous jumping black pig of South Washington. Tony’s bed was three and a half feet off the ground; add to that the three feet of the tailgate and the declining slope away from the back of the truck and you have an approximate seven-foot drop.
When we finally caught up with her after a week of feral wanderings and excited neighbors, she looked as if she might as well have sprouted wings. Totally black she was, except for the twinkle in her little piggy eye, and when we boarded her into a pen to keep her close, she jumped out over the top. I kept adding another board and she kept jumping over (or was she flying?) until she eventually gained the status of myth and legend in the family. I took that pig for a ride one day and haven’t heard the end of it since. I had heard of someone in the environs who kept a boy pig for breeding—a boar—and that gave rise like a bubble in the bathtub to the “why not?” idea of grounding our flying pig with a collection of piglets. A litter of piglets offers a riotous, rollicking presence to your homestead. They are a careening bunch of little destroyers, enjoyable enough until they quickly grow past their charming phase.
I threw the jumping pig into the back of our old Jeep and set out for the boar. The Jeep was of that variety which had two seats up front and a small carryall section behind, with a tailgate and floppy plastic windows. No sooner were we on the high road than she decided that the back was not suitable to fully enjoy a ride in the country so she squeezed between the seats and set up like co-pilot next to me. She hung her head out of the window like any dog might and enjoyed herself mightily—queen of the road! Things progressed just fine and we got to the boar all right but, navigating as a team, we lost our way en route. We turned into a farm to ask directions, and as we approached I noticed a man standing in the driveway acting strangely. He was pointing and gesticulating, jumping up and down and laughing his fool head off. What was the matter with this guy, I wondered, until I realized that the butt of his joke was us. Man and pig out for a little jaunt in their automobile.
Ever after, when I would run into that man, he couldn’t help but say to me something like, “Hey, it’s the guy whose pig takes him for a ride in their Jeep.” However, to get back to the topic of pigs in general, I feel that they are not actually a good fit as a homestead food source. They will eat grass somewhat, and especially clover, but basically they eat what you eat, only a little less fussy, and are correspondingly expensive to raise. The exception would be if you could find an alternate, free-for-the-taking food source like one neighbor who collects all the out-of-date dairy products from a local company. He runs the cartons and plastic containers through the rollers of his hay conditioner to squeeze out all the milk, yogurt, butter, cottage cheese, cream etc. into a vat and uses that to raise a bunch of pigs every year.
One other negative about pigs is that they are well-nigh impossible to slaughter by yourselves on the homestead. We had to hire someone who came with a crane to lift the pig off the ground, a large tank capable of holding 100 gallons of water, a propane flame thrower to heat that water, a bench to operate on, and the specialized tools used to scrape down the skin. As opposed to other large animals that are skinned when slaughtered, pigs are left in their skin, only scraped clean of scruff and bristle. That’s how you get your cracklings. Ourselves, we didn’t actually keep that many pigs and soon stopped with them. To this day, I refuse to eat pig meat. I feel that there is a little known being locked inside that porky body which unfortunately the whole world looks at and sees only meat. The pigs are trapped inside their own delicious meat and are trapped by their own voracious greed.
Fertility is the end-all and be-all of growing your own. Fertility in the vegetable garden, in the fields, in the berry patches, and in the orchards. How you get there has been pretty well documented. It is compost and manure, manure and compost, and all the organic material you can import and parcel out either as mulch or just as stuff to throw around. The bible on this subject (I should say: one of the bibles) is the famous Farmers of Forty Centuries. The question there to be answered is: how did people in China, Korea, and Japan farm the same land for 4000 years and provide for themselves year in and year out while Europeans who arrived in America left behind played out soil after sometimes a single generation? The answer of course turns out to be the truism—feed your soil and it will feed you. In those places, absolutely nothing organic was wasted and everything went back into the soil. Farmers would build outhouses along the highways next to their fields inviting travelers to please stop and deposit their contributions. They dug out the muck from the bottom of irrigation canals and drainage ditches to throw back onto the fields. They pollarded trees for the leaves and twigs to tramp into the rice paddies. They even pulverized the carbonized mud bricks of their old stoves and put that into the gardens.
We personally have yet to smash up any bricks but we have taken the basic lesson to heart. All the organic material that is either produced on the homestead or imported in the shape of hay, straw, food or fiber stays on the homestead and nothing leaves that isn’t sold as a finished product. For instance, we have managed to keep a raspberry patch flourishing since planting it soon after our arrival by mulching. Every fall we rake and dump quantities of maple leaves in there, but furthermore we relegate all our discarded fabric and clothing to the raspberry patch. No synthetics allowed. All cotton, wool and leather go in and disappear. Holey socks, used up leather gloves, old sweaters, and bags of sheared wool all go in. Sheared fleece takes quite a while to disintegrate, but it supplies plenty of nitrogen in the process and makes a terrific smothering mulch if you want to use it in other places. I have used it around young apple trees and it is generally free for the asking.
Another advertisement for the power of organic material to bring about change is seen in the area around the cider mill. We built the cider mill up against a steep bank in a cut-out next to the road. That setup allows you to come in at the top and go out at the bottom. The cut-out was created years before as a result of the town road crew excavating for gravel and fill; the area was basically an old gravel pit with nary a blade of grass to be seen. It is now bright green with plenty of clover and several fast growing apple trees. This transformation was accomplished through no fault of my own. I did nothing except throw apple pomace around and sluice the mill floor with water which runs out the door onto the (now) greensward. Quite a tonnage of pomace has come out of that cider mill over the years both from our own apples and the squeezings of many others. Pomace was thought by the ignorant to sour your soil and not be useful as fertilizer but that is clearly not the case as is shown by all the clover growing also in the field below the mill where I fork it about every cider time.