Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pigs and "field trips"

I really enjoy the work here. Every day has its routines, as the pigs and cows need to be fed and checked on twice a day, but every day presents a new challenge. 80 percent of my work here is dealing with the pigs, which makes sense as we have 150 pigs and only a dozen cows or so. First the sows were popping out piglets left and right, then the snow knocked down the miles and miles of electric fence we have around various pig pens. Almost every pig pen is several acres, some of them up to 20 acres for no more than 15 full grown pigs a pen. The bottom line is that we are still repairing fences from the snow storm our first week here. It is frequent to run into pigs coming down the road as you're walking up the road to feed them and check on their pens. I quickly adapted to coming around a bend to find pigs playing outside their pen or tearing up a pasture, or to find a sow grunting on the side of the road as her litter of piglets attack her teats, each one vying for its share of milk.

While the fencing of choice is usually electrical, some pens are partly enclosed by chain link fencing and/or stone walls. With these two types of enclosures the pigs demonstrate their snout strength. They can move large rocks you pile up with difficulty to cover a hole, and they bend the chain link fencing to make a hole big enough to squeeze through if it’s not reinforced with cross beams or boards. This last example was the escape method implemented by over thirty pigs the other weekend (when I was on weekend duty of course). They roamed the woods and roads for a day, tearing up the forest floor all the way, before I could round them all up and herd them back to their pen. Talk about free range.

A few of our pigs have been getting sick recently- a cough here and some diarrhea there. Pigs are only supposed to stay on a patch of land for so long, otherwise the parasite levels build up and they are more likely to get sick. This presents a problem of how to divide up your pen space and time the rotations, so that each pen has enough time to rest after the pigs have come through and demolished the place. I have a better appreciation for the word "pigsty." It was an interesting few days figuring out where to move the pigs that had been in pens for too long, moving them to their new homes, plowing their old pens to plant fresh grass, and treating some of the sick piglets.

I like to think that I got quite good at snatching up two piglets at a time for the vet, although one time a sow wasn't happy that I had grabbed her squealing baby, and she chased me to an area we had closed off, barking all the way. It seems this sow remembers me, as another time after I had picked up one of her piglets, she cornered me, lunged at me and got my boot in her mouth. In a moment of panic, I yanked my foot from her mouth, wound up and sent her reeling with a blow across the face as she lunged again. When pigs get angry, they're not cute like Babe and go "oink oink. " They bark, snap and are terrifying. It kind of adds a new perspective to the Snatch line "pigs will go through bone like butter.” Work here is a never ending lesson on animal husbandry with a never ending supply of surprises, but despite the occasional mishap (which I’m learning to avoid), I love the pigs.

Things have maybe been a little busier too because one of the three animali interns was sick for a while. Noah got sick our third week here, and we wrote it off as a bug as a couple other interns got sick shortly after. But when the other interns got better and Noah continued to get worse, we called the doctor, and he sent Noah off to the hospital thinking he had appendicitis. The test results were mixed but they decided to operate, and low and behold, Noah had the biggest appendix these doctors had seen. It had curled up behind his liver, making it difficult to see. Since they couldn't get his appendix out through the initial incision, they had to make a much larger incision above to pull his appendix out from behind his liver. The recovery process went well and Noah has been back with us for a while, but he has an awesome scar that looks like an exclamation mark from the two incisions.

In addition to the 25-30 hours of work we have a week on the farm, our duties include rotating shifts for serving dinner (two interns per week), and being one of the animal interns, I have weekend duty once every three weekends. Work probably amounts to about 40 hours a week, plus we have another 15 hours of classes, field trips and group projects. While I enjoy serving dinner to a large group of people (one night we had 48 people), it can an exhausting process with setup, serving and clean up, which can go late into the night.

In terms of our educational activities, this is where the going gets rough. On Monday and Thursday afternoons we have an hour and a half Italian lesson, followed by thematic class. On Mondays it is by our educational director, and some of her classes have been on pasta, cooking, small engine mechanics (she showed us how a small engine works by taking apart a chain saw—the guys all loved it but most of the girls quickly lost interest) and wine tasting. On Thursdays, an intern gives a presentation, and some of the topics have been on honey bees, childhood obesity, permaculture and coffee. I gave my presentation on methane biodigesters, which can rapidly convert manure to clean, odorless compost or bedding, while capturing methane gas (natural gas) to be used for cooking, heating or electricity generation. They’re great mechanisms to generate renewable energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce runoff from manure, and reduce odor. While these are well suited and often cost-effective for industrial meat and dairy facilities where manure collection is easy (yet few utilize these systems), collecting manure from a forested 15 acre pen presents a number of difficulties.

Fridays are fun days. Every other Friday is “Group Project Day,” and Fridays in between are field trip days. Our group projects have included a cooking class, cleaning a number of places around the property, and currently I have been working with my roommate Will (who is a carpenter back in Vermont) to build a blueprint rotating composter. The current composting system is very inefficient, and it seems to amount to filling a wire cage to large to turn with a pitchfork with food scraps and old straw, and letting it sit for a year in the rain. While I might be more of an impediment than an asset given my blank carpentry resume, I have enjoyed learning a lot and trying to myself useful, and Will has been a great teacher with an endless supply of patience. We should have the thing finished this coming Friday- I guess the summer interns will be the judges as to whether or not it works.

We’ve taken a few incredible field trips in between group project days. Our first trip was to visit another farm and vineyard and have lunch there, followed by an afternoon in San Gimignano, a hilltown famous for its skyline of stone towers. Our second trip we visited a biodynamic winery in the area, where we spent a few hours with the owners touring the vineyards and winery, and drinking wine in their yard overlooking a green valley. This was followed by a visit to an ancient monastery called San Galgano, where we had a picnic lunch made by our education director Katie. Another trip we visited an artisanal pasta maker and had a tour of his facilities and a lesson on the traditional way to mill grain and make pasta. He also talked at length about how pasta has changed in the last fifty years from being made from real wheat with low quantities of gluten and great flavor, to being almost exclusively made around the world with genetically modified wheat with much higher levels of gluten (we have a difficult time digesting gluten, and the number of people with gluten intolerance, different and less severe than Celiac disease, has risen dramatically in the last fifty years. When he showed us what real pasta was like, I had never seen anything like it. It was a little darker with a different texture, and has roughly five times the absorption capacity of conventional pasta (both water when you cook it and sauce when you add it). That afternoon was followed by another picnic in the hills of the Chianti region and a trip to a bar with 240 beers available from around the world. They’re probably the only bar in Italy that doesn’t serve wine, but I had an incredible chili imperial stout. Our most recent trip was to an artisanal biscotti factory, followed by a visit to a pecorino cheese farm where we stuffed ourselves with cheese and had another lunch made by Katie.

While each trip has been fun in its own right for obvious reasons, I have never met people who believe so passionately in what they make and want to share it. Rather than being dogmatic, they simply remain true to their principals and spread their message by example. Some of these products are more expensive (you can't buy artisanal pasta for fifty cents a pound), but some are relatively affordable, such as artisanal cheese at five dollars a pound, which is partly made possible by the large farm subsidies in Europe. I will digress. Europe has the largest farm subsidies in the world, followed by the US, but they are achieving an entirely different outcome than those in the US. The US pumps billions of dollars into our corn and soybean industry, which in turn sustains the fast food and processed food industries, and indirectly helps the oil industry as oil is used to replenish the fields that quickly lose their productivity from intensive monoculture. Europe in turn pumps billions of Euros into its farms, and from what I have seen and experienced here so far, this appears to be an investment in national health, nutrition and food security, as well as local/rural economies and communities. In Tuscany, and I imagine much of Europe, it has been a means of preserving the region’s history and landscape, as agriculture has historically been the backbone of the economy, and when you drive around the country, you see the effects of this. Those postcards or Google images of Tuscan hillsides that look fake are real, and my initial train ride up from Rome was all the confirmation I needed.

I'll stop there, but my next post will be much sooner, and shorter. It's getting warmer, and next weekend our entire group is going to Elba Island.


KL said...

Kath, Sam's mom here. He just sent a link to your blog. Fun hearing about your porcine adventures. Ian and I visited San Gilgano when we stayed at Montestigliano. Quite a setting. Easy to imagine it as a pilgrimage site.
Garden here is gradually getting planted. Got the onions in today. 14" of snow on Tuesday flattened the daffodils, then almost 80 this weekend.
Eat up and have fun! Kath

Jeff said...

Hey bro,
I finally got around to reading your post. I'm not gonna lie, while sitting in the coffee shop here on Williams, I laughed out loud several times with your pig encounters. I loved your references to Babe and Snatch (which made me cringe). Based on your writing and descriptiveness, you are clearly very enthusiastic about your pigs. I can't wait to hear more about them when you return.
Enjoy your final days there. While you may not (I wouldn't either), I do look forward to your return.