last sunday was hog harvest day. besides the occasional turkey or chicken, our pigs were the first two livestock we raised and harvested for meat by ourselves. people wonder how we can do this? why do we do this? because we want to take resposiblity for the meat we eat. we want to know that the meat we consume comes from cruelty free, chemical free, and hormone free animals. it is not easy. but it is a choice.
i'm warning you... this will probably be my longest blog post ever. it will also be graphic. vegetarians may not want to read.
let's see... where do i begin? i spent all day saturday crying. i cried for my two swine friends, dagmar & cocoa. i knew their day had come. this was their plan. they didn't know it. they had no concept of mortality. they lived to eat, run, play, and sleep. they lived a happy life. especially compared to what their outcome could have been. we purchased them from an animal auction. their brothers & sisters probably went to live their lives in pig pens with no grass, possibly no sunshine, to stand in their own filth, and to eat processed feed. dagmar & cocoa got to run free, to eat grass & flowers & bugs & whatever their noses unveiled. they went swimming in the pond. they played with the puppies. they never suffered one day since they stepped foot on our farm. even at the end.
so, how does one harvest a pig? well, first you need to wait until the temperature outside is cold enough. the meat will need to stay outside until thoroughly chilled. this was a problem for most of november & december. the weather had been totally erratic. but sunday, december 21st, turned out to be well below freezing.
next, you need a group of friends and family to help. you will be building a fire, hanging meat, cleaning, butchering, and packaging. it is quite an operation. your harvest team will be an invaluable support system. you will share things together that will bond you for life.
so, it's saturday. the day before d-day. and i'm crying my eyes out. i feed dagmar & cocoa their last supper. i play with them. let them rub their muddy noses on my pants legs one last time. i call it "getting pigged". there is no escaping the barnyard with clean jeans when there are pigs about. i say goodbye. i go back inside and try to keep busy by cleaning & crying. finally, i take a xanax and try to sleep.
the alarm goes off way too early. 5:30am. it's still dark outside. but i get up. make coffee. do some last minute cleaning before the harvest team arrives. sam & parents arrive first. his mom (cathy) brings us homemade chicken noodle soup, cookies, donuts, and a sub sandwich. his dad (gary) brings a truck load of supplies (tables, saws, tools, knives, pots, etc..). jason's dad (glenn)and uncle (george) arrive next. they are seasoned hunters. they bring guns & expertise.
i had previously decided not to be present during the actual slaughter. so cathy and i settle inside the house and keep the coffee brewing and watch the dogs.
step one: jason, sam, gary, glenn & george head out to the barn. they build a fire to keep them warm as it's bitterly cold. they get all their tools, equipment, etc.. in place. they lead dagmar into the pig house. let him drink some milk. while he is drinking, one quick bullet to the brain severs his spinal cord and drops him instantly. no struggle. no pain. his soul is free. he is no longer he but is now meat. the body is hung to bleed and to be skinned, cut in half, & gutted. the feet and head are removed.
the men bring the hog sides to the house and place them on a table outside. cathy and i wash the bodies with water and brushes.
the meat chills outside for several hours while butchering and packaging preparations are made. and the same process is repeated for cocoa.
ok, let's take a break. nellie (aka "little bit") gives us some levity....
step two: a side of pork is brought into the kitchen. jason, sam, and gary consult meat cutting guides (ala the navy's meat cutting book & an old farm journal magazine courtesy of gary).
they begin by removing the lard (white fat on the outside of meat). lard is placed in tubs to render later. then the actual cuts of meat are created. cuts are placed on plates and handed to cathy & i to package. i vacuum sealed our cuts in plastic using a black & decker freshguard. i know plastic is not the most environmentally conscious method. but this method can keep frozen meat good for up to 2 years and the plastic bags are reusable (save, wash, & boil). i just can't bear the thought of losing any of the precious meat we have been fortunate enough to harvest. that would be a wasted life.
the packages are labeled with the cut of meat and the date. then chilled for several hours in the refrigerator before being placed in the freezer. scrap cuts of meat are ground and saved for making sausage. the bones are either boiled or baked for soup and/or dog treats. the liver and other choice sweat meats are saved as well for dog treats. the heads are saved head cheese. and the feet (or trotters as the english say) are saved for either stew, soup or pickled pigs feet.
we are finished around 4:30pm. we split the meat between us and sam's family. sam's share fits into two coolers. he leaves his bacon and ham for us to cure. as well as the sausage meat. our share fits in our freezer. the balance (ham, sausage, & bacon) takes up most of our fridge.
sam, gary & cathy drive home. jason leaves to pick up my christmas present at a remote location several hours away (more on that later). i mop the kitchen floor which looks like a crime scene. then drive to my mother's house to celebrate an early christmas.
and that, in brief, is how one harvests a hog. coming up next... making your own sausage.
*** after re-reading this, i feel i have glossed over the process. it was physically and emotionally draining. at the end of harvest day, i was beat. and i questioned whether i wanted to go through this again. but after a few days of rest and reflection, i have no regrets. as long as we eat pork, we will continue to raise our own. i will continue to name my pigs, to treat them with respect, to enjoy their presence, and to cry when their time has come.