posted by Susie Middleton
It started innocently enough. I was simply looking for a few good pigs to eat my leftovers. I’m here on Martha’s Vineyard writing a vegetable cookbook, and I can eat only so much roasted cauliflower and stir-fried string beans. I thought this might be a good way to recycle and to start supporting local farmers.
But I had no idea that feeding Harley, Sally, and Penny would be the first step in my livestock education. Hog 101, anyone?
I hadn’t counted on the kindness of Liz and Jeffrey Thompson, the farmers who own my taste-testers. By day, Liz and Jeffrey run the SBS Grain Store in town; by night, they do things like deliver lambs and piglets. They’ve been really patient with my wide-eyed city-girl naiveté.
At first I ventured no farther than the hogs’ cool wooded pen. It’s close to the road, so I normally pull my red Honda inside the gate, and Sally and Penny (followed by Harley) come running down the hill when they see it. If you’ve never seen a 500-pound hog jog, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Then one day Liz beckoned me up the hill to see something really tiny. Piglets had been born two days before to a sow named Happy. I begged for details, and Liz described her night of midwifery, how she’d scooped up the scrawniest runt and raced out of the barn and up to the house before Happy could protest.
"Her name is Pebble,” said Liz's 9-year-old daughter Lucy, as I peered into a comfy box by the woodstove. "Want to hold her?" Did I ever. Squealing and sniffing, little Pebble shuffled over to me. I crouched and held out my hands—she was about as big as my two palms—and held her for a moment. I was completely in awe of this perfect miniature version of a grown-up hog. For her part, Pebble was most interested in the smells of cooking that permeate my clothes after a day of testing.
Pebble died two days later. I was crushed. Jeffrey explained that runts often have internal problems, and if they die young, sometimes it’s for the best. Nature taking its course. Got that, Susie? If that wasn’t bad enough, a week or so later Liz discovered the lifeless body of one of the other piglets. Accidents happen. Happy is mighty big, and there’s a whole lot of scrambling for teats at mealtime. Jeffrey told me that factory farms prevent accidents by penning the mother into a cage that she can’t even turn around in; then the piglets have only limited access to her. Ugh. Nature starts to make more and more sense.
The rest of Happy’s piglets are doing fine and will soon be gone, sold for $70 a piece to a waiting list of islanders who want to raise a pig (and not as a pet). And just this week, Penny (who had a supplemental diet of vegetables while pregnant!) had a litter of copper-colored piglets.
But yesterday, I had to have a talk with my friend Sally, who’s playing hard-to-get, despite Harley’s best efforts. She’s got a job to do if she wants to earn her keep (a sow can have two litters a year), and I’m not yet ready to face the day when she’s not around to greet me.