The opening line of our motto says: "Healthy, Heritage Hogs...", but just what does that mean - and how does it influence the flavor of the pork? In this blog post, I'll go over this topic in general, then focus on one of the breeds of heritage hogs we raise here on the farm. Subsequent posts will cover a few other breeds we have on hand.
Heritage hogs are a lot like heirloom tomatoes - they all taste much better than the store variety, but each breed tastes a bit different. And each breed has its own personality characteristics that were selected and bred for many, many years before hogs were kept in confinement houses. At our farm, we are trying to cross breed three stellar old breeds of hogs so that we can take advantage of their unique qualities while also realizing the benefits of hybrid vigor. It wasn't until the piglets arrived and I spent time observing all of the pigs on the farm before my breeding plan solidified and came into focus. One breed of hog that I had on hand, while a wonderful pig, will not be added to our breeding program. However, I fed up the two I had and they recently were the highlight of a well-regarded group of farm to table dinners at the Living Kitchen Farm and Dairy in Oklahoma. These two hogs were Gloucestershire Old Spots, or GOS.
I got these two gilts from my friend Kimberly, who has a farm just north of ours. She is a spotted hog whisperer; even her boar, Kermie, is a sweet teddy bear of a pig. These two had been raised on mama's milk, goat milk, pasture and some grain. They settled in right away and proved to be good grazers, taking some worn out fescue pasture that had been improved with lima beans, peas, squash, buckwheat and radishes down to the ground in no time flat. This was what I wanted, so that the fall and winter forages could get a good toe-hold. The big one, however, was a Houdini, or Hamdini, and would escape in order to steal food from the sows and their babies. No matter how often she got roughed up by protective sows, she was unable to resist temptation. That sealed her fate. She and the other hog, while sweet to me, were also kind of feed trough bullies. But they sure muscled up and fatted out just right, so off they went to Oklahoma.
So what's the big deal about a GOS? They are extremely rare, with fewer than 1,000 registered hogs in the US. Originally from England, the GOS were known as orchard hogs, because they would graze under fruit trees in the autumn and clean up all the fallen, bruised fruit. They are industrious grazers, for all that they have an easy-going, docile temperament that has also been described as "lazy". Not to be confused with the US breed of hogs known simply as "Spots" (actually a Spotted Poland China, a different breed of hog), the GOS develops a fat and bacon that is described as creamy, and the flavor profile of the meat is said to be Buttery, Porky, Complex, Fruity, Marshmallow, Stone Fruit, Sweet. Based on what we ate at the farm table dinner, lovingly prepared by Chef Lisa Becklund, the meat is certainly all of that, and more. It is moist, tender, succulent. The flavor was enhanced by what the pigs ate here at the farm, plus what their body does with it.
Old Spots became rare after the end of WWII, when industrialized pig production reduced the interest in the slower growing outdoor hog, and they almost became extinct. Now, through the efforts of the American Livestock Conservancy and farmers returning to a pastured hog raising system, the GOS is making a comeback. When consumers buy pork from someone raising these animals, or when they attend a farm table dinner such as the ones at the Living Kitchen Farm and Dairy, they are ensuring that old breeds like the GOS are being bred and raised in larger numbers - demand certainly does lead to increased numbers. And while I won't continue to add the GOS to our breeding program, I have a lot of respect for the breed and what it brings to the table. Kimberly certainly isn't having too much trouble raising and selling more and more of them; old Kermie stays pretty busy at her farm, at least when he isn't getting his belly rubbed.
I am a farmer, so worrying about the weather is a stock in trade. This time of year, we usually have a fair bit of rain, which is timely, given that we sow the seeds for the winter forages right now. Except there isn't much rain to be had. The last round of storms, predicted to give us three days of rain on and off, did not amount to much. And I had sown seeds. What's a farmer to do?
Here's some of our seed mix - winter peas, swiss chard, mangel beets, clover, beans, daikon radish, hairy vetch. I added a lot of oats, forage wheat, and buckwheat to that, and the turnips and rye that we let go to seed this past spring are already sown, courtesy of the pigs. If the seeds germinate and take hold now, the pigs will all get forage that should give them nutritious greens through the winter and early spring. It's a big deal. All of these good things bring health, wellness and vitality to the hogs during the winter, as well as contributing to the feed options. It is also one of the reasons our pork tastes so good. So I did what needed to be done. I gathered up every hose I've got, grabbed a sprinkler, and turned on the water. A good, deep watering at each spot has been just the ticket. Thank goodness for well water, and that the hoses reach out in the feeder pig pastures. The sows still need to pray for rain; I don't have that much hose. Here's a look at our current rotation: Here's paddock #1 right after we moved Big Lil and the babies a couple of weeks ago. Looks pretty stark.
Lil does a great job of utilizing her forage, and her babies are following in her footsteps. After a few days of rest and the bit of rain a week ago, this area was rebounding.
I am always surprised by the clover. It rebounds well as long as the rotations are of a duration of no more than 4 weeks. Here's the paddock after a bit of reseeding and watering.
Meanwhile, here's a look at paddock #2 when we opened it up for Lil and her pigs. Pretty lush and plush with summer growth, lots of squash and pumpkin.
Now, almost 2 weeks later, this same area looks like this. Lil and her industrious piglets have eaten and rooted and cleaned this area up pretty well, too. We'll move them today or tomorrow.
When they leave this area, they will have made contributions to the reseeding project. They have been getting whole bob oats and forage wheat added to their daily ration. Utilizing only 20%, they have deposited the rest of the intact seed in a handy pile of fertilizer. I'll add more of the seed mix, and move the hoses and sprinkler again. And they will be heading to this spot, to repeat the cycle.
In the meantime, I'll be sowing, repairing hot fence, and hauling water around. And praying for rain.
I love this goofy sow, and I love looking at her goofy, friendly face. And I hate that we have to let her go. I know Pistachio has many fans. What's not to love about a sow that enjoys soap bubbles as much as she does? But she really struggled with this pregnancy, and the lameness that afflicted her in mid-pregnancy has not resolved, despite poultices, biotin supplementation, or anti-inflammation injections post-weaning. The loss of weight did not help, either.
A hog being lame is a serious condition. If it is unable to heal, the weight that is shifted to three legs begins to break down the structure of the healthy legs. A hog is meant to stand four-square and strong on all legs. Everything was so hard for her because of it. Hard to move quickly enough not to step on her babies. Hard to move from the barn to the wallow to cool off and then back again. Hard to even stand long enough to eat and nurse.
I would have probably had to make the same decision based on her less than stellar performance - only 9 piglets born in her second litter and two of those stepped on or rolled on and lost, the uneven udders that did not uniformly feed her babies, even the false pregnancy last year. But the lameness is not something we can put aside. I cannot see her in pain just so we can get another litter, nor can I keep her just because I love her so much. I can't let her struggle and break down slowly with ever-increasing levels of pain.
So she has been weaned from her piglets and, now that her udders have dried up, she is being fed like a queen: pumpkins, apples, walnuts, acorns, oats. And Monday, I will say my prayers of gratitude to her and load her up for her last trip down the road. It was pretty easy to take the mean sow to the processor; it is unbearably difficult to do so with the sweet one. But that is my duty to her, to make sure she doesn't suffer and that her life is not wasted. She will feed many others, including patrons of our local food bank. And somehow, I think she would be understand feeding little ones who are hungry. She was a great mom that way.
I could have made this decision and taken this trip with Pistachio and not said anything. It's more comfortable that way, I guess. But all of you are on this journey with me and the hogs and the farm, and I trust that you will understand the transparency and honesty of this post.
Pistachio's legacy will live on at our farm, and that makes me happier. Her daughter, Amaretto, will be staying with us. She is healthy, inquisitive, a natural forager, and has 14 evenly spaced teats, indicating good mothering ability. In a year, we will be watching her babies come into this world and onto our farm.
It has been a while since we posted anything to the farm blog. Our apologies - but it has been really busy here! The red hogs finished up and were taken to the processor, and from there to the people who will be enjoying the pork from a healthy, humanely raised hog. Pistachio had piglets on August 7 and Big Lil had hers on the 23rd, each a litter of 7 live babies with 6 barrows (males) and one gilt (female) in each litter. All are healthy and thriving, and it is a lot of fun to sit down now and then and observe them as they grow and come into life on the farm.
The teen pigs, Widgie, Doodle Bug, Anise, Basil, and Cardamom, are all growing into fine animals. I've been using them to knock back the fescue and Bermuda in their part of the pasture so that I can plant the oats, cowpeas, beans, and mangel beets for winter grazing. You can see the difference between the right and left sides of the pasture in this picture. They went after the Johnson grass first thing (candy!), then they ate the fescue and Bermuda (broccoli). If the rain that is forecast comes through, we'll be sowing the seeds today or tomorrow, and that brown area will be green and lush in a month, well fertilized by the teen hogs. It was sweaty work putting up more hot wire on a hot day, but worth it to see their enthusiasm for fresh grazing.
Pistachio's pigs are three weeks old. They have found a space under the fence, courtesy of the red hogs, where they can get out. I wasn't too thrilled at first, but they are staying nearby while they explore the bigger world around them. They are starting to eat greens, have learned that the teenagers aren't welcoming but that they are intriguing, and that the hot fence nips little wet snouts. I have turned the gap in the fence to our advantage by using it as a creep area - a place I can put milk replacer and some soaked feed out for the little ones where mom can't get to it. They have learned pretty fast to come running when they hear the feed pan rattle, and the smaller ones, who are not on a generous teat (they stay on the same faucet the whole time they nurse. The smaller ones don't usually get a good location), are getting as much milk as they like and are starting to gain more weight.
Lil's pigs are doing great! This was her first time to farrow (have babies), and she has sailed through it all with flying colors. She delivered in less than three hours and was careful and protective of her babies. Fortunately, she trusts me enough to let me check on them, though she keeps an eye on me. She is making lots of milk, and the pigs are growing fast and evenly, which means she's making good milk and each teat is a generous one. At less than one week old, they are venturing forth. Above, they are snoozing by the pool (aka wallow) and later they went out for a field trip with mom into the pasture, all the way to the back, exploring, rooting and grazing a little on grass. Looks like they inherited Lil's good foraging habits. I am excited by this litter, which is half English Large Black and half Hereford; they look to be long and deep like Lil but with thickness of bone and muscle from their sire. At this point, they look like they will be a rich brownish black mahogany color with white markings - handsome pigs with all the right attributes.. We couldn't be more pleased. My reward at the end of the day is sitting in a lawn chair with a cold drink, watching piglets and letting them get accustomed to me and to the world. It's a pretty good perk.
I'm not really very fond of summer - the heat, the humidity, the extra long days. The hogs don't like it a lot either. They rise early and go work out in the pasture, sleep in the afternoon in a cool spot, hit the wallow later in the day, go out to forage in the cooler late part of the day, get fed, go back to sleep. The Hog Days of Summer. But the greenness of the paddocks, the lushness of growth and the variety of fodder is mind blowing, and I quite delight in it. And I'm seeing lots of varieties of this plant all over the place.
Huge squash and pumpkin plants, loaded with fruits. The sows have already figured out that there is treasure beneath the canopy of scratchy leaves and harvest their own quite efficiently. We have all sorts of pumpkins, patty pan squash (which I have never been able to grow well in the garden), gourds, even bizarre squash crosses. All are delicious in the hogs' eyes. They like to wait until the fruits are kind of seedy, which works well for me. You see, I didn't plant any of these. They were free, resulting from a great haul I made last autumn.
This is the pickup load of squash, pumpkins and gourds I got from a garden center last fall, right after Hallowe'en. The feeder hogs and the sows loved them! They got generous portions every day for almost 3 weeks. They would have been pitched in a dumpster if I hadn't hauled them off. And since a hog can only digest about 20% of the seeds it eats, the rest come out the other end in a pre-packaged, pre-fertilized seed bomb, which the hogs are kind enough to deposit in any place they wander. The seeds slept through the winter and spring, but wakened with vigor once the weather heated up.
The big, broad, sprawling leaves shade the rest of the ground, giving the clover and alfalfa a cooler spot to grow. The cowpeas and lima beans are getting a leg up and adding their nitrogen-fixing contribution to the hog manure that allows these cucurbits to really grow strong. This is very exciting to me, as we make a point of letting forages go to seed just so the hogs can eat them and distribute the seed bombs. It adds to the tilth and sows seeds all in one swoop! In time, we will have to sow very little seed, benefiting from an endless loop of nutrition for the hogs.
Look at these patty pans - some weigh over 3 pounds when I pick them for the sows and the hogs, and I might pick 5 from one bush, and five more days later. Really big, really seedy, and so delicious to the hogs. They come running when I start lobbing these over the fence. If I sang while I did it, this would be their version of the ice cream truck, a tasty treat in the middle of the summer time blues. And their joy lightens my sweat-soaked spirits as well. Guess we're both enjoying the squash loop. PS they are busy sowing seeds for next summer. Lots and lots of them.
It seems like it was only yesterday when the red pigs joined us, and tomorrow is the day they leave the farm. In their honor, I offer this tribute.
The little Red Wattle x Berkshire piglets arrived in early springtime, newly weaned, and a little scruffy. One was a runt (surprise!). We got them settled into a stall, where they could get used to their new home and be trained to electric fencing for a few days. They learned to love the self-feeder (buffet open 24/7) and devoured field greens that I tossed to them. They were wormed, bedded down in thick straw, and safe. And they were named after the Herb of the Year - chili peppers. Aleppo, Cayenne, Dundicutt and wee Hatch officially became part of our farm family.
After 5 days, they started their life on rotational pasture grazing. They took on the job with gusto. I was amazed by their zest for foraging. They also were getting fermented feed to provide probiotics and to assist their gut in digesting the plant material that they consumed with great relish. Pretty soon, their bristles became glossy and thick.
The runt, Wee Hatch, started to gain in size with his sisters, eventually catching up and even surpassing a couple in size. He was the little red pig who could - and did.
The red pigs grew fast and strong, with a vitality that has been, sometimes, a bit overwhelming. At 300# and their backs as high as my hip, armed with a lot of curiosity, inquisitiveness, and determination, they have had some days that were challenging to this farmer. But I also love the way they approach me for a scratching, or to gently nuzzle up a treat of cucumbers or melon from my hand. Many times I have sat on the stoop of the barn in the cool of the evening and watched them run up and down the pasture, playing tag. Joy seems like a pretty simplistic word, but they have it in plenty, and it is genuine. With the heat of the summer, they have made a big wallow of mud and water to stay cool (Hatch made his own - he really doesn't like to be touched). Sometimes, they seemed to know I was hot, too, and thus decorated me generously with their wallow mud. I might not have always appreciated the sharing.
Yesterday was the company picnic, complete with lots of watermelon. They enjoyed the heck out of it (Wee Hatch is not in this picture - he grabbed a quarter of a melon and ran off to eat it by himself. I did mention that he caught up in size with the others?!) As a matter of fact, they have enjoyed the heck out of almost their whole lives on this farm. That's why I am always so grateful for the people who have chosen to buy their pork from us. Their purchase of a whole or half hog allows me to raise pigs the way that I do. They pay a premium above what grocery store meat costs, but they get flavorful heritage hogs that were raised out in the open, on pasture, in the mud, if they liked, and with lots of good things to choose from and to eat. They live 2 months longer than most hogs. And tomorrow, they will have only a few bad moments. As lives go, it's pretty enviable. Thank you, red hot chili piglets.
Rain is forecast for the next week or so, which is this farmer's cue to get out there and plant seeds. The pigs were all moved a week ago and some seeds were sown then, but a week long cycle of showers is too good an opportunity to miss. Pictured above are some seeds I got at the dollar store, 4 packets for a buck. There aren't a lot in there, but when it comes to melons, squash and pumpkins, not much is needed. The cowpeas came from the grocery store for $1.38, less than I pay at the feed store for a pound. The buckwheat that they are resting on was purchased in a 50# bag at 0.97/lb, which saves me 0.30 above the bulk price. More on that later. I had work to do!
This is paddock #5, and at a casual glance, it looks unimpressive. As a matter of fact, except for being greener, it looks a bit like it did when we moved here. The pigs don't visit it in the usual rotation. It is reserved for overflow or to rest the other paddocks if we need it. It also serves as the last rotation for the month before the hogs go to be processed. It has nut trees and good shade. I plant extra special things in it, like lima beans, cowpeas, melons, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, and buckwheat. In a month, this area is going to look very different. The trailer is already there, so it won't be a strange thing that they see on the day. They get a fair bit of exercise walking from here to their stall or the water tank or the feed trough in the evening. There are thistles there that they will kindly root out for me and they will enjoy eating the root. They will fertilize it well, too.
Part of the challenge of sowing seeds for a diverse pasture is thinking ahead. It is springtime, but my sowing schedule projects 1-3 months ahead to the heat of the summer. .Meanwhile, seeds planted earlier this spring and some even planted last autumn are showing up out in the field. The peas are using the spent stalks of rye and turnips as a trellis. Pumpkin and squash seeds, undigested by the pigs last fall and nestled through the winter in their fertilized nest, are emerging with the warmer days. Turnip seedlings, tiny and green, are popping up all over.
This latter bit is important - the plants from last year have reseeded and are carrying forward to fill the pasture this year. I won't have to buy turnip seed or clover this year. I don't have to sow much squash or pumpkin, either. Last year's plants had their seasons of growth and fruiting, faded and died away, only to return this spring.
Promoting this cycle is an important part of the system of farming here. After 2-3 years, very little sowing will need to be done because the plants or the pigs have done it for us. After that, sowing to fill in bald spots or to add some other plant to the mix will be all that is required. Allowing the plants their full cycle benefits the soil (added material for the tilth in the form of plant matter, manure or nitrogen fixing by legumes), the plants, and the hogs (who are actually rather picky about what they eat when given the choice. They will eat a plant at its peak of flavor and/or nutrition rather than just eating it because it is green and available)..
It's good for the farmer, too, because it helps the bottom line. Feed costs are a major demand on the pig raising budget. Sowing seeds helps offset how much concentrated feed the sows and hogs require. I make a point of trying to save a dollar or two a day by improving my farming practices (but not at the expense of the pig). This offsets, just a little, the days that I spend $100 or more on feed or equipment or fencing. Call it a game, if you like, one that challenges me to improve my farming skills.
In the examples in the opening paragraph, I buy seeds from the dollar store because I don't require many of those to serve the purpose needed. You can also buy seeds like this when their usual gardening season has passed and the packets are marked way down, or go through the seed stash, if you are a gardener, and throw the out of date seeds into the pig pasture. The black eyed peas, which are indeed a cowpea, are needed in slightly larger quantities. I can buy them at the grocery store (make sure they are pretty fresh), same with the lima beans, which provide much needed lysine to our pastured pigs. If I bought these in bulk (by the pound, not the bag or bushel) from the seed store, I'd pay a lot more. If I bought them in 50# bags, there would be more than we could use. and the seed would go to waste. The buckwheat is sown generously in all paddocks and across most of the growing season. The pigs love it and eat it before it can seed out. It makes sense to buy it by the bag because it will be used by the end of the season and it is discounted. (You may have heard that buckwheat isn't good for pigs. It causes white pigs to sunburn, so it is fine for our black and red pigs. Don't sow much of it if you have white, spotted or blue butt pigs)
As I write this, there is thunder and rain outside. The plants in the paddocks will take off on a growth spurt thanks to it, and the seeds will sprout. In due course, they will feed the hogs well, and the hogs will fertilize the soil for the next round of planting. In another month or so, the red hogs will go into the fifth pasture and finish their time on this farm eating and living well before they fulfill their purpose feeding the families who have purchased them. As farm cycles go, it's something I can feel good about.
This is a story about Wee Hatch, and a bit of a caveat emptor confessional from your pig farmer.
When our sow had her false pregnancy earlier this year, I had already started taking orders for autumn pigs, so I found a farmer nearby that had pretty nice looking Berkshire x Red Wattle crosses. When I called to buy pigs, I asked if he had any barrows (castrated male pigs). "I have one left." I didn't ask why, I just said I'd take him and three of his sisters.. When we went to pick them up, they were in a small pen, and liketty-split, they were loaded in a large dog crate and brought home and unloaded in an area away from the other hogs. OK, I was desperate. There just weren't many heritage piglets available in our area. I didn't practice due diligence.
That's Wee Hatch to the right of the feeder. He's the only one with slightly droopy ears. They were all a little rough coated and scruffy, but he was a fair bit smaller, and scruffier, too. Probably why he was the only barrow left, and I would have appreciated a heads up before buying him. Caveat Emptor. But he wasn't a true runt, an animal born small and one which never thrives. I accepted that he was my error in judgement and I would deal with it in a way that we both could live with.
I correctly guessed that the scruffy coats and his ravenous appetite was an indication that they needed to be wormed. We do use a commercial wormer here on the farm when we get new stock, then the pasture rotations and some of the things they eat keep them healthy, so this wasn't an unusual step to take. I wormed Wee Hatch and his sisters twice, got visual confirmation that they needed it. They also got access to a good, balanced pig ration in a self feeder, so he could finally get all he wanted to eat without being pushed aside by his bigger sisters. They got warm oat mashes and yogurt to soothe their digestive tracts. They got tender spring grasses and greens in plenty. They got rotated to another pasture a couple of days after the last worm treatment so they wouldn't be re-infested.. I rubbed them down with vegetable oil. Things started looking up for the little man.
Wee Hatch responded well. His coat started to grow and become a glossy, coppery red. His energy levels increased, and soon he was the ringleader in games of Tag in the Pasture. He became the first one into a new paddock when we switch them over, and he's busy to work from the get-go. His appetite and his personality became healthy and large. Things were really starting to look up for the pig we now sometimes called Not-So-Wee Hatch.
Almost overnight, something happened. I went out one day and was quite amazed to see that, not only had Wee Hatch caught up with his sisters, he had surpassed them. He is a little taller, just as long, and is absolutely muscular and thick through his shoulders and loin all the way back to his hams. He's actually deep and burly! He is going to end up being the biggest hog we raise out of this bunch. Wow. I really was not expecting that kind of outcome. He's a contender!
There are so many things to learn from Wee Hatch (who is stuck with that nickname, no matter how big he gets). To ask questions. To check stock over before coming home. To refuse any animal that looks less than optimal. We really got off lightly on this episode. Worms are easy to control. That being said, I don't think things would have gone well for Wee Hatch if he hadn't come to this farm. Here, he was treated for what ailed him. He was given an opportunity to get food without being run off by the other pigs, and it is high-quality feed. He has paddocks full of good forage, and many of the plants are rich in vitamins and minerals, and many are also tonifying to the pigs' digestive system and to their over-all health. Our diversified pastures give the pigs the opportunity to eat plants that support their systems for health and growth.
While I didn't expect it, Wee Hatch has become something of a poster boy of what makes our farm special, and I am grateful. He's a scrappy little guy, and I'm a stubborn woman, and between the two of us, we wrote a success story.
Ah, springtime! The whole world seems to explode with a lush ripeness after the sleep of winter, and it is no different at our little farm in the Ozarks. The grazing areas are full of tender plants, the turnips have bloomed, bees have pollinated the flowers and turnip seed pods are forming. The little red pigs are frisky, and the two leading ladies, Pistachio and Big Lil, are feeling the allure of the season, too. They dream of motherhood, and they have certainly been letting me know about it. Their springtime reproductive cycles have been particularly strong and emphatic. Who am I to refuse such a plea?
In response, I bred our beauteous Berkshire sow, Pistachio, to a Berkshire boar named Super Stroke (honestly, I do not choose these names....) a few weeks ago. If she were to return to heat, it would be today, and there are no signs, so I can announce, with cautious optimism, that Pistachio is in a piggy way! The sire is a well muscled guy with a length and depth I prefer to see in a pasture raised hog. These hogs will be growthy and have good sized loin eyes (e.g. bigger pork chops). So here's hoping that Mr. Stroke (below) will do the right thing by our lovely Boss Lady.
It will be a couple more weeks before we know if Big Lil is also piggy. She is a gilt (hasn't had a litter yet), and it has been hard to always be sure when she was at the right point in her heat cycles. I also figured that she was cycling more rapidly than the standard 21 days. But she has been very vocal and demonstrative, and I figured out her timing, so last week she had her hot dates with the mail-order boar Let's Ride (see what I mean about the names?!). He's a Hereford boar that will add muscle and thickness to Big Lil's length and depth. Also, we will probably get red and white pigs with black markings. Spotted red pigs hit a button for me - I just adore the way they look. And the prospect of Big Lil being a mama with a bunch of them almost makes me swoon. There, I said it. I have a weakness for red pigs and floppy ears.
It's easy to get excited about upcoming litters; indeed, it is what will support us in our goal to have a closed herd and have pigs that are from this farm the whole span of their lives. But there's also a saying that you don't count your pigs till they are weaned. The first step will be having healthy litters from both our ladies in August. But like any farmer, the exuberance of springtime invites us to dream of life, and I invite you to join in a particularly piggy kind of dream.
It's a lovely Spring here in the Missouri Ozarks - just enough warmth, but not too much, with just enough rain. And all of our grazing areas for the pigs and sows are a riot of glorious, golden yellow. The stalks are tall enough so that the plants sway gracefully in the wind. The scent of the flowers is subtle, and it is a joyous sight to spy our gold-filled hills from the highway on the way home.
To diverge a bit: I will tell you that originally I had planned to name the farm Meadowsweet Farm of the Ozarks, after the herb, meadowsweet. It is a beautiful plant, more subtle and regal than the plants you see in our fields right now. It is also named Queen of the Meadow. It eases pain and soothes the spirit. But when we got here, it just didn't feel like a Meadowsweet Farm, and I opted for the more sturdy name we use now.
This plant is a workhorse. No one would confuse it with royalty. But it thrives here, and the land and the pigs benefit from it mightily. And, as you can, so do the pollinators. Most are honey bees, but there are also bees so tiny you have to squint to see them. And the fields hum with industry if you pause and still yourself long enough to hear it. The honey bees are thick on the flowers, which just seem to keep blooming and blooming. These winged workers have 'britches' so loaded up with pollen for their hives that they look like bloomers. They will take the pollen home to their hives and feed the next generation of honey bees. And the bees will return the favor by pollinating these plants.
This magnificent, generous plant is ....a turnip. Sown last summer, they provided fodder with their leaves, and when the frost had made them sweet, they fed the pigs through the winter. In January and February they still endured, often growing back from a partially eaten root, and they were the only green things in the field, and the hogs enjoyed them.
Now Spring is here, and the plants shot up, began their everlasting blooming in order to make seeds. At this point, most farmers would have tilled them under or cut them back. The pigs won't eat a plant that has grown so bitter. But we are letting the turnips have their full cycle, and here is why. The roots have loosened the soil, and for the first time since moving here, we are seeing lots of fat earthworms. The long roots also bring much needed minerals from deep in the soil into the upper root zone. They shade and cool the legumes, and the cow peas use the stalks as a trellis. As the seeds set and ripen, the hogs will eat the mature seed heads, which are rich in healthy oils. The hog will only digest about 20% of these seeds, resulting in the other 80% being distributed all over the grazing areas by the hogs in the form of pre-fertilized seed bombs. I won't have to buy turnip seed this year, and the seeds will sprout and continue their generous cycle for another year. The hogs will trample the old stalks and those will rot and add to the tilth of the soil. The turnips make a year long and vital contribution to the system that sustains the land, the plants, and the pigs, and, eventually, those that eat our pork.
And these are the reasons why the humble turnip, a hard-working peasant of a plant, has become the true queen of our meadows. Hail and welcome, dear queen. Long may you reign.
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.