“If anyone else were to tell me this story I would say they were full of shit, but not you. You got luck like that.” was the first response to telling the story.
The thing is that although this is a story about farming, I am not myself a farmer. I am a guy with some land and a desire to connect with my own existence. I try and get to the bone, blood and sinew of life, to feel the rain and dirt in my hands and if not actually sustain myself at least pay tribute to those who could, to obtain one fraction of the skills that most people a hundred years ago took for granted. Some of that is growing plants and some is growing meat because that is the way we eat. Each year is an expansion and each expansion is a volume of lessons usually learned by scratched knuckles and new curse words. This one is no exception.
Some days I know things are just headed sideways from the start; usually a combination of too many commitments and too little for sight are the main culprits that allow Murphy in with a saws all and wrecking bar to lay waste to all my poorly laid plans. Age has allowed me the ability to foretell these days but not yet the wisdom to prevent them. So when last Wednesday came and I had ten hours of work, 7 animals to get to the slaughterhouse and a hundred miles of driving I knew there was not much in the way of room for error. Also I knew that using a borrowed trailer was a problem, as the pigs are suspicious new things. A pig is not like the goats or sheep we mostly deal with; weighing nearly 200 lbs. all of it near the ground and sharp teeth you can’t make a pig do something like you can a goat or sheep. Also they are a lot less docile; get most goats or any sheep pinned and you can pick them up and carry them. Pigs keep fighting if you try and make them go anywhere they don’t want to go. Their weakness is that they are indeed gluttons. I have never seen a pig refuse food no matter how much they had already eaten so I thought that I would use their love of food to convince them to get into the trailer.
My first glimpse of Murphy’s hammer was that the day I had scheduled to take them to slaughter turned out to be my stepson’s awards ceremony night at the swim team. I had been counting on James because as the pig’s regular caretaker they were more trusting of him than anyone else. They liked me well enough but they loved him. Slaughter schedules for the small people (like me) are based around the real farmer’s needs, my four Guinea Hogs were nothing compared with the several dozen commercial bacon makers scheduled the same day. There was no rescheduling and not showing can cost you a hefty fee and would build bad blood with the only USDA meat packing plant within an easy drive of my farm so it just had to be what it was; me seven animals and one trip to the big house. My father in Law offered to help and I thought despite the fact he hasn’t been well I could use him to open and close gates which should be safe enough.
I decided to start with Trouble, the lone whether goat whose mother I had sold off simply because she raised such a difficult child. Trouble had destroyed many fences, was a aggressive and bullied the pregnant sheep enough I worried he would make one abort. He was also smart; at the first sign of hood trimming, worming or vaccinating he would take off for the brush and hide for days. And unlike the pigs no food would lure him out. So I got him into a kennel in the back of the truck before the trailer even arrived. True to his nature he charged me twice before I got him and one of my castration failure lambs into the kennel. The last ramling would have to go with the pigs. The sun was just setting and the air was warm and everything seemed quiet and peaceful. Well I thought I just might get some sleep tonight. Too soon it turned out.
Somewhere in the goat wrestling I managed to short out the tail lights in the truck, which I discovered when I went to turn the trailer on. The trailer lights weren’t working all that well either but its hazards would flash when I put the right turn signal on. Good enough I though and headed out to the sty to get the pigs. My first year I raised four and they were for the most part pretty gentle animals. They were stubborn as a bunch of mules Three of them were easily lured into the trailer but the 4th had more severe reservations and bolted when went to shut the door. I ended up getting him roped and basically dragging him onto the trailer as he screamed bloody murder the whole way, which seemed justifiable given the circumstances. When Steve and I went to close the gate he misjudged the overhead clearance and knocked himself hard on the trailer and started bleeding. Two other pigs escaped at the same time and it was now dark. Wild pigs may be nocturnal but I knew these four hated wandering around in the dark. If they got back in their pen they wouldn’t come back out.
This is the moment I lost it. I yelled, kicked and cursed the day I decided to try pigs, cursed never having bought a trailer to feed them in like everyone recommended. I swore I was selling the farm and buying a boat because pigs supposedly cannot swim. But the reality was I needed to calm down. The two escapee pigs were larger than the one I had carried on and there was no way they were getting in that trailer any other way than of their own free will. Walking back and forth chewing on my desire for a recently quit smoke while spitting on the ground until my heart quit pounding, I grabbed more food went to the pigs. Swallowing my bruised ego, we started over with dribbles of food every few feet until they were at the edge of the trailer, then a large pile poured just out of reach until they were, whether from greed or resignation I do not know. Finally loading up the last lamb at eight o’clock I was off. With no lights to the slaughterhouse.
Taking the drunk way there cost me an hour of time, along the river and over the hills with the windows down to clear the smell of sweat and animal fear off me the clear, crisp smells of fall rolled in which was probably the best part of the evening. Briefly each fall Oregon smells like New England until the rains come and turn the just-turning leaves to rot on the trees and leaving the world smelling of mud until the next April. This night was dry and cool and with all the extra time I thought back to driving the mostly unpaved roads of southern Vermont with the moonlight through the oaks and maples. The moonlight dappled through the trees and the asphalt looked like water; I felt that the worst of the night was over and all that was left was to get the beasts unloaded and head home. Somewhere in the truck bed though hid Murphy, monkey wrench and claw hammer close at hand, waiting for the right moment.
Arriving at the plant I backed up and offloaded all the animals without drama until the end when Trouble made one last charge out of the kennel at me, and while I was pinning him down the lamb with him ran off. So there I was in a strange town at ten PM with a lost ram and a car with no tail lights. After an hour of searching it was time to quit before the cops showed up and I had to be at work the next morning anyway. I felt a message with the night plant manager about the ram and made one last check on the remaining animals. Trouble tried to bolt, the lone sheep cowered but the pigs came up to me and laid around my feet like they did in the yard all the time. Scratching them each in turn I told them they were all good pigs and that this was the one bad day.
Their water can was for cows so I scrounged around to find one they could use and filled it up before I left. Raising animals to eat is a decision on my part to not look away from the reality of my dietary choices. I could skip this moment and just go to the store, but the truth is these 4 pigs had it pretty good right till the end, and the price of avoiding this sadness is inflicting a horrid life on some other animal. Maybe I would never meet that pig, but it would grow its entire life in a pen and head to slaughter never knowing the feel of grass of the joy of destroying my yard to make a wallow. I don’t like that moment when I leave an animal to its fate, but I would rather take the sadness for myself than cause more suffering to avoid it. So I just tried to be kind to my future dinner and tell them I wasn’t mad, I would have fought like hell too.
While loading up I heard coyotes howling not far off. I guess someone is having leg of lamb tonight I thought and rolled off into the darkness.
Well I got home at nearly midnight and left the trailer attached to the truck. Despite the success of the day, making ten hours of wages and getting 6 out of seven animals to slaughter I felt like a failure. Losing and animal is poor stewardship, and a waste of two good legs of lamb. The lost lamb was one of two that I had messed up during castrating; one of his testicles had slipped back up into his abdomen and if I kept him he would be knocking up his cousins and sisters. I had bottle raised this one as part of a set of triplets and his sisters were two of my more promising ewes. So he had to go.
My wife was inside and asked how my evening had been. I sputtered through the whole sordid tale until I got to the part where the lamb ran off. She asked me which one and I told her the brown one with white spots.
“Chocolate?” she askes.
Oh hell, it has a name I thought. “Yeah I guess that’s what the kids called him” I replied.
My wife looked sad. After the triplets mom died I had to travel for work and she bottle fed them through the first hard days when they would only drink a few ounces at a time. I promised her I would get him back and went off to shower the smell animal smell I was bathed in. From what I had heard I was pretty sure that the Coyotes were having Chocolate lamb for dinner but I figured I wouldn’t share that right away and hope for better news.
Halfway through the next day I get a call from a woman who lived near the slaughter house asking if I was the owner of a one nutted brown ram. I said I was and she said she had him in a pen near the slaughter house and I should come get him or she could drop him off to get processed. “No I said. It has a name now. I don’t know what to do with it but eating isn’t and option.” I had a session meeting after church and I might be late, but it seemed to me that if you are going to be late for church, looking after a lost lamb is a probably as good a reason as any. So back up the Marcola road I went to get Chocolate, who wanted nothing to do with me or the truck surprisingly. He had to hang out for the church meeting in the kennel, and seemed genuinely shocked when we drove back up the road to the house. He even let me pick him up over the fence without too much of a fuss.
Of course now i have a one nutted ram intent on going all European royalty on my sheep herd, but I will figure that out next. One problem at a time is about all I have time for anymore.