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Homestead Storm Notes

February 11, 2013

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“Nemo” found us in the woods. We prepared the livestock housing and our own, then listened to the winds howl around the house. I heard trees cracking, snapping, crashing. Around 10 pm our power went out. I lit kerosene lamps, and the scent reminded me of nights spent in the belly of a schooner in Provincetown Harbor. I stepped outside my door to a covered alcove to feel the storm’s power. The screaming wind smelled like a school of oily bait fish.

It was bright Friday night, but too dangerous to venture out under the trees to assess the damage. I woke up Saturday filled with excitement like a little kid, eager to find out what snapped where and landed on what. That pic up top is our primary electric wire, or “the billion volts of death.” A 14-inch diameter pitch pine broke at the base of the trunk to take it out.

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If you look hard enough you can see two locust trees, one left and one right, with their tops torn off. It takes a powerful wind to rip apart 10-inch diameter trees some 30-feet up the trunk. I would rate that gust in the 80-mph+ range, from experience, but I’m no meteorologist.

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A week before the storm I marked off this area as a nice micro-climate for a little hoop house. Warm, not-too-shady, close to the spigot, sheltered from wind by the house and its location in the valley. I was too busy to get started, and lucky for that, as this maple tree would have flattened my work.

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This maple tree almost hit the doe-filled goat house. Instead it landed near the woodpile (out of frame to the left), as though it tired of standing and tried to leap into our stack, carefully avoiding any fence-posts along the way.

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The little chicken house on the hill is connected to a different power source and never lost it. The broiler birds (for eating, not egg-laying) are utterly dependent on their heat lamp, so I was very relieved. They all lived through the storm.

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The dairy does enjoy the spoils. They feasted on the top of a white cedar in addition to these pitch pine tops we gathered from down the drive.

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A little more minor fence-bending, plus a tricky drop inside the paddock – a white cedar fell into a big maple (out of frame to the right) and dropping it without taking out the fence will be difficult. As this photo illustrates, there are many tons of lumber yet to come down. I haven’t figured out how to take a good tree survey of the property, though it sounds like fun. I know there are hundreds. I figure if we have 300 trees, and lose 10 trees per two storms a year, it will take 15 years to clear the property. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. I’ve lived here for 10 years and have seen around 100 trees fall. Some trees are stronger or more protected than others. A whole bunch – maybe 60 – trees are weak, unprotected, 60+-feet tall and stand along our power lines.

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See that up there, down the driveway? That’s the light at the end of the tunnel. This was the first of two power company visits, followed by two tree tech visits, followed by two more power company visits before we were restored some 48-hours after losing power. We do very well with brief disconnections from the grid. I make a pre-storm list of to-dos and to-gets and after the storm a list of how’d I dos and what did I forget. We’ve gotten pretty good at it. Heating with wood is not a survival tactic – we’ve been heating with only wood for four years. My bedroom is the most removed from the open-floor plan living space, so when it is cold I awaken to a 45F-degree room, and I like it like that. Our generator has a dedicated panel, and I learned a few new things about it this weekend. We had a tankless gas water heater installed last year, and when our excellent electrician (Larry Winslow in Brewster for you locals) added the water heater to the generator panel, he reconfigured the it so practically the whole house is on there. I thought our original installers were being too conservative, putting a couple lamps on this switch and a couple on that. Larry hooked us up. I also discovered that although the pilot light for the gas heater probably draws about the same as the pilot for the old oil-heated indirect hot water tank, the fact that it is tankless means we get unlimited hot water in 90-seconds – the same amount of time it takes when we have electricity. Wash dishes, hands, hair during a power outage – I rest my case.

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We lost our power to a snapped primary wire on December 27, ’12, but it was a big deal then, with firefighters walking around in the woods taping everything off. As you can see, we have to be ready for outages. Our neighbor has a Generac 10kW natural gas stand-by generator under his deck, which is good for his house because he lives in CT, but bad for me because I now have an itchy case of generator envy. I could hear his baby purr when I shut off my loud portable. Our system works so well I remain grateful. For those of you thinking about getting some back-up, here are the important bits: Lowe’s sells a similar generator for $650, and our Pro-Tran 6-switch panel with install was $1,200 in 2005.

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Here’s my sweet security blanket, or savings account. This is pre-storm from October, after I finished stacking 7 cords. It’s never really finished, because I scavenge wood from tree jobs year ’round, and we continue to lose trees from storms. There are always stacks of wood waiting to be cut, piles of log-length wood waiting to be split, and split wood wanting to be stacked. It looks messy, there’s no cleaning up this part of the yard for lawn parties, it’s close to the house to ease the bringing-in all winter and we love it. Good thing, too, because “Nemo” dropped a few more cords for us to add to the stack.

Steamed Winter Littlenecks

January 19, 2013

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Surprise! Yes, dear blog, it’s been a while. While I haven’t been staying up late with you, I’ve been getting up early to extract kids from their beds and sometimes take one or the other to school.  I’m still taking care of livestock – carrying water when the spigots are shut off, rotating pens like some labor-intensive do-see-do, and the almost-daily collection of pre-consumer waste veggies and bread (see bottom of link for photo.) When it’s nice out we get into the woods for hiking and tracking, and we play on the beach, now empty of everyone but the occasional dog-walker and the hard-core winter surfers. If it’s above freezing and the ice is off the flats, we go clamming. It’s almost more fun this time of year, knowing how difficult it is to get anything else from the inshore waters for dinner. I say almost because if your hands get wet the party’s over. Use elbow-length gloves and caution.

Our gardens last summer produced far too much food for us to consume at harvest. We ended up putting away some 300-pounds of tomatoes, for example – those and the cukes and zukes ruled my life. As if the work of getting the food to harvest weren’t enough, I was then tied to the hot stove on hot summer nights, canning and pickling and thinking about how our advances in agriculture and [trade] have freed us to work on and enjoy other things. I venture that it has freed women in particular. The next time I pick up a jar of pickles at the store, I will have a huge grin on my face, thinking, “I didn’t can that!” Yes, there is great satisfaction in knowing exactly where our food came from, what went into it, and what it looked like when it was a baby and when it was picked. But some of this food, like a big, ugly-type Brandywine tomato, is just so much better fresh. I haven’t completely made up my mind about this, but I think we may throw some veggies up on the roadside with our eggs this coming growing season. Or maybe give some excess to the food pantry, like I used to do with eggs when I had 60-layers going.

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This does have something to do with clams, I promise. See, we grew almost 300 heads of garlic last summer. That’s a crazy amount of garlic for us. The days are getting longer and the garlic baskets in the root cellar seem to be just as full, in some kind of bottomless-cup homesteading fantasy. I will have to do something drastic like roast and can a whole heap of heads. In the meantime, we have been just-short-of-frivolous with our surplus, even making garlic tea to fend off colds (simmer 5 or 10 cloves in several cups of water until “cooked”, drink water, eat garlic if desired.) Our winter favorite has been littleneck clams steamed open in garlic and wine, and it happens to be the easiest dish to make.

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First, get the fresh clams, enough to fill a frying pan in a single layer, or as many as you want to eat. Littlenecks are perfect, cherrystones are okay, but save the bigger ‘stones and the chowders for, well, chowder. Place in a colander and scrub each clam with a brush under cool running water to remove sand. Do not submerge saltwater clams in tap water. Peel and smash 6 to 10 cloves of garlic and add to several tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan, then cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Add half-a-cup of white wine and the clams, then cover and simmer until all the clams open. Sprinkle with a handful of chopped parsley. Do not salt this dish, as saltwater clams have plenty of their own. Serve clams in the the shell in shallow bowls over small cup-shaped pasta, perfect for holding some of the juice. This is broth not sauce. It will not cling to your spoon or coat your pasta – for that, you will want to make a more involved white clam sauce. This one is just simple, easy, fast, and delicious.

Foraging for Fall pears

November 4, 2012

We’ve been gathering windfall pears from an abandoned tree. Until a week ago the ground beneath the tree was alive with hundreds of yellow jackets chewing on the fallen fruit. During October, I filled three 50-lb grain sacks with pears from the ground and fed them to the pigs.

This weekend we targeted the last of the fruit, which was still impossibly hanging onto their stems after the powerful gusts of Hurricane Sandy. We brought a 12-foot bamboo pole and some friends and took turns knocking fruit out of the tree and scrambling around capturing them as they rolled down the hillside. A few were caught as they fell. More than a few came close to nailing someone in the head. It was a rather inelegant way to harvest, but it was easy and fun. The once-quiet forest was alive with whoops, cheers and laughter. 40-pounds of pears later, we left with no yellow jacket stings, no bruised heads and only a few damaged pears. At home the wood stove warmed the house as we prepared a quick meal of venison tacos, then lingered over pears baked in maple syrup and butter served over vanilla ice cream.

Crisp fresh pears baking

There are still pears out there, 20- to 30-feet high in the old tree. They will eventually fall and become treats for deer, raccoons or skunks. We’ll make the most of our free, organic fruit, and enjoy it in gratitude for whoever planted that tree and cared for it many years ago. As we plant and care for our own fruit trees, it’s pretty neat to think that some day, long after we are gone, someone might happen upon a gift of peaches or apples or maybe even pears.

Maple-Baked Pears

adapted from The Rodale Whole Foods Cookbook

6 pears, cored and sliced

1/4 cup maple syrup

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 Tbs butter, plus more for the pan

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Arrange pear slices in the pan. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter with vanilla extract and maple syrup, then pour over pears. Bake for 15-minutes, stirring frequently, until the pears are tender. Serve immediately or chilled over yogurt or ice cream.

Footnote: Foraged food, like home-raised food, does not always grow in the perfect shape, nor arrive in the perfect state of ripeness. Many local consumers are not accustomed to imperfect fruit, as those specimens are disposed of (composted, given to livestock farmers, or just thrown away) at the farm, the distributor or the grocery store. Raising pigs has made us very appreciative of these discards, while raising gardens has made us willing to work with whatever the plants give us, bad spots, funny shapes or what-have-you. The untended pear tree gave us fruits in a variety of sizes and states of ripeness. Many suffered dents from growing too densely on the limb. When we knocked down our first pears our 7-year-old helper picked one up, said “YUCK!” and threw it back on the ground. She didn’t like the dent, but quickly learned to overlook this imperfection after watching the other bags filling.

delicious dented ugly pear

Garden vegetable tomato sauce

August 21, 2012

The plants in my vegetable garden are pumping out ripe fruit at a frightening pace. When I blink tomatoes turn from green to orange and red. While I’m sleeping cucumbers stretch longer and new ones appear suddenly making for big harvests and big batches of freezer pickles and fermented dills. The zucchini I was making freezer pickles from is slowing down but still producing, and the Little Fingers Asian eggplant is making bunches of slender shiny fruits. It is a perfect time to make garden vegetable pasta sauce.

I use several different recipes, depending on what and how much is ripe. Peter Berley’s The Vegetarian Option offers a recipe that includes zucchini, eggplant, tomato, red onion, garlic and basil, all of which we have coming out of the garden now. (The recipe can be found here. I’m not sure if the site has stolen his content, but you should buy Berley’s book anyway – it’s filled with excellent recipes, both healthful and flavorful, that are of great use in an active kitchen whether you are a vegetarian or not.)

If your veggies are going all Little Shop of Horrors like mine, you’ll want me to cut to the chase and give you that recipe for a chunky garden vegetable pasta sauce I teased you in here with. We have discussed throwing clams, mussels, blue crabs, lobster, chunks of striped bass or bluefish, and maybe some cherry stones (small quahogs) into it along with some fennel bulb and saffron and just calling it a bouillabaisse, but then it wouldn’t can or freeze well or for as long.

Garden Vegetable Pasta Sauce

3 T olive oil

2.5 Cups diced onion

3 sweet peppers, seeded and diced (green, yellow, red, what have you)

6 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed

2 Cups diced eggplant

3 carrots, small dice

3 Cups diced zucchini

8 oz shiitake sliced and cut into inch-long pieces

1/4-Cup fresh oregano, minced

1/2-Cup fresh basil, chopped

1/2-Cup fresh parsley, chopped or minced

salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a dutch oven. Add onions and cook over medium heat until softened. Add the garlic, peppers and carrots and cook until the vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Add zucchini and mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30-minutes, stirring occasionally. Add herbs, salt and pepper, then cook for another 5 minutes. Serve over pasta.

Gadzukes! Freezer pickles and hodgepodge

August 16, 2012

Zucchini are gifts that keep on giving, but they are also like a tedious guest who refuses to call it a night. Knowing this I planted a mere three zucchini plants this year. To date I have harvested about 70-pounds of the fruit. From the garden fence, if I squint, I can just make out their dark green profiles through the tall grasses and other bountiful weeds. A very busy summer with kids and other fast-growing things has provided us with more than our share of overlooked and overgrown zucchini. (I’ve pulled about seven baby baseball bat zukes out of there this season.)

How do we make good use of such a prolific provider? We started off strong, as always, breading and frying thick slices in olive oil; hollowing out and stuffing with rice and meat then steaming or baking; chopping and sauteing with garlic, onions and various herbs; making Carl Goh’s zucchini bread from James Beard’s classic Beard on Bread – a favorite from childhood on which I am constantly dialing-down the sugar.

When we inevitably tired of zucchini I started preparing it for the freezer. I shredded larger zukes, excising and excluding the seeds, and put them in a colander. After sprinkling with salt and tossing, I let it drain for an hour or so, then rinsed, squeezed out excess water, vacuum-sealed and tossed in the freezer for adding to winter breads or stews. I also diced zucchini and sauteed with onions and garlic in olive oil, then sealed and froze.

If only the tomatoes were ripening in force when the zukes kicked in with authority, I could have used them together to make and can or freeze garden vegetable pasta sauce. With 283-heads of garlic harvested, red, white and yellow onions curing, 19 pepper plants beginning to produce, and a bazillion tomatoes swelling on the vines, I tucked some zucchini away in the freezer until all the ingredients were available for sauce. I diced the zukes and blanched them in boiling water for four minutes, then drained well and vac-sealed for the freezer.

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So much cooking, and still the zucchini piled up on the counter every couple of days. I turned to freezer pickles long before the first cucumbers were long enough to pick. Zucchini make great pickles, and not having to run a water bath for canning during the hottest days of summer is greatly appreciated. Freezer pickles have caught my eye in recent years, and they reportedly stay crunchy for a minimum of six-months. I’ve never made them before, but I am interested to see how that claim holds up this coming February. I use a recipe very similar to this one, but I cut the sugar down by a quarter-cup or so and add three-to-five cloves of crushed garlic to the sliced zukes and onions before adding the cooled brine. I also double all the amounts, and still have enough zukes, onions, garlic and dill to make a batch every three days. I’m now alternating batches with the great number of cucumbers coming in from the gardens. A container or two evade the freezer and are consumed fresh. These pickles are very good on burgers, in sandwiches, with fish or straight out of the fridge as a snack.

These Japanese cucumbers grow long and sweet, rather than fat and bitter – really helpful when you are at risk for missing a fruit or two here and there.

Piglets!

August 4, 2012

Tony called it. “Is there a moon coming up?” he wondered aloud. For two weeks we’d been watching our expectant mama pig’s teats filling  in preparation for farrowing. (That’s pig farmer lingo for giving birth.) Tony thought she’d farrow around a full moon, as our goats tend to kid on the moon. Sure enough, on the eve of the full moon, our gilt became a sow. That morning I observed her return to her hut to lay down after a quick breakfast. She would normally spend more time out in the paddock browsing, rooting and napping in the open. I took note of her uncharacteristic behavior and made a point to look in a few hours later.

Upon my return I found nine teeny, tiny, wiggly piggies. They were sleek, shiny, and black with big heads and skinny bodies, and they tumbled over one another searching for teats. When they found a place to nurse they latched on in earnest and even seemed to fall asleep with their mouths attached to the teat! I had learned that piglets have “needle teeth” – very sharp little daggers that can pierce a human finger. After watching the piglets latch on the first day, it occurred to me that those sharp little teeth help the newborn piglets hang on to the sow’s teats as she heaves, grunts, and shifts her weight around. By comparison, we humans have it easy with toothless young, but we are also not blessed with tough pig hide.

All the piglets were very small – I’d heard their size compared to a can of soda – but one was noticeably smaller than most, and this runt could not seem to find a place to nurse. It wandered around blindly, even meandering outside just hours after being born. I debated scooping it up and caring for it in our house, but decided to let nature take its course. That course lead to the runt being dead by the following morning, and while it is a sorry thing to see, it is a part of life and of farming or homesteading. We’ve had sufficient practice dealing with the failure of the unfit to survive, so we focus our energy and excitement on the blessing of the eight remaining piglets.

The piglets nursed almost non-stop for the first couple of days. I was so worried about the sow crushing them I stayed on watch after feeding her, cringing as she returned to the hut, stepping around in the hay then lowering her considerable girth in what looked like a completely careless flop. She must be more careful than she looks, because none of the piglets have been flattened. She spent her first two days as a sow in repose letting the piglets suckle. When I quietly approached to take a peek, she rhythmically grunted as she breathed, her fat side rising and falling, and the piglets squirmed around and nursed away. Now, on day four, she is up and active more frequently, gathering the fuel she needs to feed the hungry litter. I rigged up a heat lamp on the high side of the hut ceiling to give the piglets an area to gather and get warm while the sow is out and about and they’ve found that warm spot. At this point, they cluster there after nursing even when the sow is sleeping in the hut. I’m hoping this technique will help to prevent the piglets from being crushed and maybe it has. I imagine that the very warm weather is also helping to prevent the piglets from wiggling in too close to the sow’s heft.

We will sell some of the piglets to folks who want to try raising a small, slow-growing, heritage pig for meat and lard. The rest will go in our freezer after growing for a year. There is no capitulating on this matter; right from the get-go we know we’re not keeping any as pets. We have kids – hell, we have hobbies – we don’t need to fall in love with adorable little piglets and find ourselves naming them or keeping them as 200-pound dependents. If you want to join us in celebrating both the incredible cuteness of brand-new pigs and also the exciting prospect of good, honest eating in the future, I offer you a few piglet pics taken in paddock this afternoon.

Coming and going

Hi Mom!

Lend me an ear…

Our rare, heritage lard pigs

July 26, 2012

                                                     

I first encountered American Guinea Hogs at a homestead in my town. They were friendly, cute and squat, with long black hair. I was told they consumed very little grain, were easy to handle, and grew slowly – taking about a year to mature to butchering size. They seemed the perfect fit for a small homestead, but without any good leads on breeders selling feeder piglets at a reasonable price within a reasonable distance, I gave up on the idea of being able to raise this breed.

The Guinea Hog is listed as critically rare by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They were once popular in the American southeast, and confirmation of their importation from West Africa dates back to 1804, as recorded by Thomas Jefferson and other Virginia farmers. It’s possible they are also related to an English breed, the Essex, which was common in the southeast in the 1800s. They were crossed with other hogs and ceased to exist as a distinct breed by the late 1800s. Pockets of breeding continued, however, and genetically distinct individuals were eventually discovered, beginning the process of breed recovery.

Guinea Hogs are excellent foragers and were reportedly sometimes kept in penned yards around Appalachian homes, where they ate snakes and provided a safe area around the house. They are also traditional lard pigs. They were an important source of fat for cooking, soap making, and all manner of salves and lubrication. Well marbled meat was also regarded as being more flavorful and more conducive to long-term meat storage, in the form of charcuterie. For a chef’s take on Guinea Hog meat, check this out. Chef Craig Diehl has a bunch of posts about his experiences with this pork, so look around if you’re interested.

We raised Berkshire pork and an industry standard “white pig” (think Wilbur) one year. The more fatty Berkshire pork won hands down in all taste tests. Diners compared it to steak. The meat was deep red, well marbled with fat, full of flavor and succulent. Our woodland-raised white pig was better than store-bought pork, but not that much better, and it was completely inferior to the Berkshire pork. Boston foodie Helen Rennie describes her experience with Berkshire pork, or Kurobuta, here.

an example of nice, fatty Berkshire pork

I had become frustrated with aspects of raising standard pigs. They grow very fast, reaching butchering size in six- to eight-months, and in this tight time frame they consume a tremendous amount of feed, unless you are able to provide a substantial amount of nutritious pasture – something we could not create – and a constant supply of free food, like milk or whey. We supplemented with fruits, vegetables, seafood (cooked fish racks, crab and lobster remains) and a little bread, but it did little to lessen the feed bill. In addition to being expensive, the big pigs’ size made home butchering complicated. Hanging them would require engineering, and scalding seemed out of the question. Finding chiller space to cool carcasses before making cuts was another issue. The worst part of raising standard pigs was always loading and hauling them to the slaughterhouse, a job I found stressful to both the pigs and their caretakers – but it was their meat that would end up on the plate.

Last year I renewed my search for a more sustainable solution for our small (5-acre) homestead and contacted Sullbar Farm in New Hampshire. A few emails and a couple months later I had two male piglets in a large dog carrier in my Saab. Getting the carrier set up in the back seat was the hardest part of the pick-up, although they did give me quite a shock when they started conversing at high volume in the very close backseat as I was negotiating heavy traffic in fog and rain south of Boston.

We set them up in a large pallet pen on woodland suffering from invasion by bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, wild rose, privet, green brier and wild blackberry. It took them from November, when we brought them in, to April to eat all the above ground forage and start a little rooting. They didn’t make great rototillers, but being less destructive than standard pigs could be a bonus in some settings.

rotating pigs to a new paddock

I liked the longer, leaner conformation of one of the boys and started pondering the idea of getting a mate for him to breed. Sullbar came to the rescue again, offering a female feeder already seven-months old. She was very fat on arrival, but I had been sufficiently warned. This is not their registered breeding stock.

We have a lot of barnyard action on our land, with the dairy goats and poultry, so I planned to move the breeding couple to a friend’s place in another town. One afternoon I glanced up the hill and saw a low dark shape move across the yard. My favored boar was out of his paddock and heading in the general direction of the road, and, beyond that, the regional middle school. My mind raced, having had a very complicated pig capture in the past that I will one day get around to recounting here.

I ran outside, grabbed a bucket and some grain and headed up the road, only to find him wandering in my direction. I tempted him with the food, offering the bucket and shaking it around. He had something else on his mind. He rounded the corner of the goat house and moved forward sure-footed like a dude on a mission. As he approached the door to the female’s paddock, I skirted around and ahead of him and opened the door. And he went right in.

the honeymooners: Bigby, boar, on left and Bella Swine, gilt, right

He was caught and she was on her way to being bred. I didn’t have a solid plan at that moment, other than preventing a car accident, but in those few, quick moments, I figured she was almost old enough, certainly old enough if they had been feral pigs, and I’d get them into their new home STAT.

We watched them but didn’t see her “stand” for the boar, pig breeder lingo for letting the boar mount. They were moved to their new digs soon after the honeymoon, and it became less likely I would be able to put a breeding date on the calendar. I used a pig gestation calculator to come up with a variety of possible due dates. This week I noticed her teats swelling with milk and began readying for the imminent arrival of piglets. I may have to set up a tent and camp out near the pigs, though that might impinge on my morning goat milking duty…and my parenting of the human kids in my house.

I have been told the first litter can be dicey. A sow can roll onto the piglets and crush them. Having extra heft seems to increase that risk. No farrowing crates here, I will do what I can to minimize loss, but I am planning to let nature take its course and keep the piglets with their sow. If she starts snapping and biting at them, I will remove them if I am there for the birth. In that case she just might become dinner, but I won’t hold rollover accidents against her.

The remaining boar will be butchered sometime this fall. He is a year old this week, the most common butchering age for this unusual breed, but I’m waiting for colder weather. I’d fatten him on apples, but we’ve been doing so all along, thanks to some great produce from a distributor not too far from my town. As it turns out, too much fruit really can be fattening, so we’ve cut back on the fruit and provided more vegetables and grass.

Too many treats? Pay no attention to the bagels in the rear.

Bringing some pasture to the pigs.

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