Farm Journal: what to do when the pigs don't come home

Asa, with Sophie, perhaps weighing the pros and cons of animal and machine power. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton

Asa, with Sophie, perhaps weighing the pros and cons of animal and machine power. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton

This is part of a series of farmers writing about life on the farm , week to week, through the season. Courtney Grimes-Sutton is co-owner of Mace Chasm Farm in Keeseville. Read all of Courtney’s journal entries here. And you should check out her really fun Facebook page.

August 12

I took a little rest today after delivering meat & dairy shares to Juniper Hill Farm, when the five o’clock lull hit me. I laid down for five minutes, closed my eyes, and envisioned the rest of my day- and then got up and did it all as imagined, with fluid productivity. It was amazing! I wonder if it will work for me tomorrow. The quietness & lack of devices, lists, or co-workers in sight was restful, and my mind just organized & motivated.

It may have helped that a few of the tasks were fun, unusual things, like harvesting calendula & comfrey for salve & setting up the dehydrator, cutting the straw flowers that we grew for drying, and chatting with my friend & mentor, Jack Lazor about (among other things) the spelt that is glaring at us from the field. Jack is an awesome farmer. His family farm is called Butterworks Farm, and he just wrote a book about (among other things) growing organic grain in the northeast – published by Chelsea Green and soon to hit the shelves. I reckon it’ll be solid gold.

The boys mucked out the old piglet yard, at long last, where our piglets lived out their cutest era in early spring, before they went out on pasture. The very same gang of pigs has foraged its way up the middle of the farm to join the older pigs in the woods, now that they can hold their own among them. Just before the groups were joined this week, the younger crew took it upon themselves to have a walkabout – a coming of age journey perhaps, before being among their elders.

I think they ducked their fence line at the stream. There was no mess of fence – the line wasn’t disturbed anywhere, which I appreciated – but they were gone, all twenty-six of them. We noticed on Wednesday evening, and looked for them in the last, blue light of the day to no avail.  Maybe they’d be there in the morning at whey & grain ration time- but no dice.


Calendulas. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.

Our search was long on Thursday. Marina & I traded off with Asa when he was back from the slaughterhouse, and we headed to the butcher shop to twist up 100 lbs of sausages. Asa paused search to give a tour to a group of folks. I really wasn’t convinced that we’d get the pigs back to the farm – this area has had plenty of feral hogs that were escapees of a domestic ag life. A feral boar was found last spring, shot in the orchard just next door – the hunter had taken both hams, but left the rest for the coyotes. I was already processing the huge & stupid loss as we searched for them.

Asa was positive they’d return – and he was right. There they were that evening, charging back our way across neighboring hay ground, all together. Asa called me from the field, to joyously share the ambient squeals.

Cell phones – they’re a mighty convenient tool, eh? Sure, they’ve dashed our ability to commit to & follow through with social plans – every plan is topped with ‘Just call me later,’ – but in farming, plans shift as the weather shifts or calls are returned, and emergencies are plentiful – and it’s mighty nice to reach one another easily, so long as we’re modest in usage. I'm always worried about whether cell phones may cause us cancer or another kind of health risk.

[Editor's note: The scientific debate regarding the link between cellphones and cancer is very much alive and the subject of research. Find a good summary of that research here. Last April, seeking to revisit the potential risk, the FCC sought a summary of the research from health experts, as reported here.]

Ten years ago a friend developed a big lump in her ear, and, suspicious of the cell phone, stopped using it – and the lump went away! It is yet another majorly unhealthy practice that we humans just go for because it’s so convenient right now.

We don’t even talk about the implications of wireless stuff anymore. Does Verizon own that topic of conversation or medical studies the way that auto manufacturers & oil companies own highly fuel-efficient technology? What if we’d evolved with a much stronger ability to consider the future? I reckon our lifestyles would be pretty darn different.  Why don’t we possess that ability? (I took a quick minute to ask Google that question, and the results were weird.)

We have such strong protective instinct toward our loved ones, but fail to have real options that consider their future well-being, so we focus on present comfort. We’re so smart – it seems like we could rise to the challenge. It’s just that there are haves and have-nots, and as long as our values are locked up in that state, we won’t be able to use our incredible, collective resources to rise to the challenge- to serve future well-being. I guess I think about the mega-haves sometimes, and I think that they are probably driven by that same animal goal to protect their loved ones – only to them, that means ensuring their financial well being with gates and flashy cars and high social standing among their ilk – and that’s a humanizing thought for me. We’re just getting it so wrong in failing to design for collective well being.

So, back to cell phones. Maybe in an emergency, I should just madly ring the lunch bell that sits atop the farmhouse. I don’t know. A crew of friends, all of whom are farmers, got a smart-phone family plan together. I’ve heard that I text the most out of all of us. It’s just so convenient…

Farming with horses is not, however. Asa is hitching today to return the whey tank to North Country Creamery next door, and then will bring in the mares for hoof trimming. While compaction on fields is reduced, horses are improved through working and handling, teamster skills are preserved, and a good time is had by all (usually). It takes a much longer time out of this day than it would to use a tractor. It’s easy to see that.

The tractor- vs. animal-power questions pulls from the last couple of paragraphs, really – while a tractor may not need it’s hooves trimmed today, it’s tires are a much more daunting scenario in the long run; the cash expense of them, of course; plus the more complicated tally of their expense in sourcing petroleum & labor & transport, etc. Same goes for the rest of the tractor.

For me, the choice to work the horses is an environmental and experiential one, not a financial one, but it’s vital to us that we are supported financially by the work that we do. Systems for working horses can pencil out in various ways, but tractor work seems always to pencil out more profitably if you’re looking at the short-term toll.

We thought we’d figured out a pretty great crop for our farm to grow – green beans. Direct seeded & single row, which is perfect for horses to plant & cultivate, and then we’d pick with a mechanical harvester, since we’re a small labor force here – 2 to 3 people at any given time. Green beans earn a decent price, and we’d rotate them with grains.

In all the rain this year, we lost all the early and mid-season plantings. There are a few later plantings out there that we may bring in.

Drained ground will be a must if we continue to crop. Tillage is so much work and takes great risk and vulnerability to the weather. Is it worth it? We could just graze… We’re turning over these questions, and will be for a long time.

We’re happy with a tractor and a team of horses on the farm – but only if there is plenty of work for both. We’re still mixing and matching what we’d like to try to do on our farm, and coming to know this place.

Heading out again now. If anyone is looking for a boar, we’re about ready to sell Ricky, our registered Berkshire boar.  And if anyone is hungry this weekend, swing by the Saranac Lake or Keene Valley farmers markets for a grilled sausage sandwich with peppers, onions & arugula! I’m the grillmaster – and it’s pretty fun! The instant customer enthusiasm is gratifying, and I do like to cook.

Hooray for the nice, mixed weather!

Over & out.

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  1. I had a young pig run away once…he never did come back. I like to imagine him still out there, big as a Volkswagon, trying to find his way home.
    The grilled sausages sound like fun. How is it that you're allowed to do that at the Keene Valley farmers market, but we're not allowed to do anything like that here in Potsdam? Are the markets regulated at the State, or at the County level?

  2. Don't give up on the green beans. I think they are an idea that will work. Just an unusual amount of rain this year. My Provider beans did really well despite all the rain (6-7 pickings). Slight incline in the garden though, so water tends to run off a little.

    How 'bout an ear piercing whistle instead of a bell??

  3. Janet just came home from the Plattsburg Municipal beach, and tells me that they have a beer and ice cream bar at one end, and a grill at the other…
    So again, why can this happen at other places and not here?? Is the Health Dept of St. Lawrence County on some mission to prevent us from having fun?
    This seems to me to be an example of what's wrong with government over-regulation, and more and more, it seems to be closer to home than we think.