Thursday, February 18, 2021

Piglets before Sugaring?

It is February up here in snowy Upstate New York. In years past, it would be sugaring season but alas, like so many other things, spring has decided to make us wait just a little longer. Perhaps it is a pause we all need, a longer hibernation, a reminder of days when winters lasted just a little longer, and we all just needed a little more time to snuggle in and surround ourselves with family, fire and comfort food.

January and early February usually send forth a couple of 50 degrees days, bringing exciting cries of joy and brilliant smiles. The kids produce shorts and shorts sleeve shirts (I swear I packed last fall!), while parents exclaim "It's not summer! Grab a sweatshirt!" or "put on some shoes!" I can already see my kids running away or reciting "Mud" by Polly Chase Boyden in an attempt to make me forget they are trying to run out the door with bare feet. Alas, it is often in vain and really, who wants to dampen such pure joy. When did we as adults lose the ability to look at these small gifts and think only of even warmer days? Many of us homesteaders, just smile and enjoy our coat-free walks to the barn to milk. We smile at the sky and whisper words of thanks. We trudge through the slush and peek at our beehives. Are the bees making their cleansing flights? We won't know if they will make it until spring but if we see them, it is a glimmer of hope, visual proof that they are still hanging on just like us. 

This year our piglets arrived a month or two early. I have a strong preference for the Tamworth breed. Tamworth is a bacon breed and every year that we have had Tamworth we have had a great harvest of bacon. Our first year with piglets went fantastic, we enjoyed our mix breed piglets both on the land and in the pan. Somewhere over the next two years we had a mix that we did not find delightful and it started a bit of snobbery on my part. If they weren't Tamworth, my answer was no thanks. As a result, we always had plenty of bacon. Unfortunately, they do not have large pork chops. There is always a trade off and this was one I have been willing to make. 

Last year, through a small miscommunication, we ended up with purebred Berkshire piglets. Have you ever whined to yourself over small mistakes? I mean, really, lamented a situation where it wasn't called for? It was a complaint born from fear - fear of no bacon and fear that I hadn't learned from a previous mistake and never would. So I berated myself in my mind and joked about my mistake with others. All the while, I forgot to be thankful that in the winter, no matter what happened, we would be fed. I forgot the be thankful that our well had enough water for all our animals. I forgot to be thankful that these were the friendliest, least aggressive pigs we had ever raised. Guess what happened? We ended up with almost no bacon but huge, beautifully marbled pork chops. 

I had to butcher in the middle of summer because they were ready and the pig food was pretty much gone. A friend who was going butcher with me, sold her house and had plans of moving. Summer? For butchering? Mild panic set in. What about hanging? What about flies? I cannot control the weather. (Please contain your shock!) We considered working with an awesome local butcher and paying for slaughter and hanging in his aging room. We considered the root cellar/cold storage room that we discuss yearly. We put it off a week, then another couple of days.

And then... one of the pigs learned to escape the Premier netting fence we bought. With a sigh, I knew it was time to butcher. Ask and you shall receive. July provided a couple of nights with a high of 45/50 degrees. My friend and I slaughtered as the sun went down. We butchered starting at 6 am. We were done by 10 am, 10:30 with the packaging and 11 am with our EQ measuring and curing. Then we did it again a day or two later. The following week, the other two were finished as well. It was exhausting. I skipped making sausage and cut everything into pulled pork bags. I even said yes to not one but all four children (including the five year old) who wanted to help cut, chop and bag. As I continue to pull our meat out for dinner, I smile at the cursive of my six year old or eight year old. Being in complete control was not an option and I am a better person for it.

This year, I stumbled upon Tamworth/Mangalitsa mix. They would be ready in February. This time, I wasn't too worried. These pigs will take a bit longer to grow so starting earlier will be necessary if we don't want to be butchering during hunting season, which is closely followed by birthday season around here. I emailed about for four. They were ready to pick up Feb 1st, two weeks earlier than I expected. Now insert whatever can go wrong... oh wait, I am learning that "what can go wrong" is not the best approach to life. This may not go as planned - a broken hand (not mine), a mix up at the feed store, a huge snow storm -  but the adage about a door closing means I need to get better about looking for the open windows. 

Homesteading, farming, life with animals and any other name we give it is always a learning experience. It is always a growing opportunity. I would love to say I am a motivated girl who loves being outdoors every chance she get but I am not. If I didn't have to milk my amazing cow Cocoa, I wouldn't go outside many days in the winter. Once I am outside though, I never regret it. Now one of my sons, he is an outdoor-every-chance-he-gets kind of person. The world needs these people. They also need people like me who want to stay in and read or cook or make cheese. I, on the other hand, need the world where animals need daily care. I need to get outside my comfort zone and grow. Some days that is so easy, like spring mornings as I walk past the daffodils or fall pre-dawn to go hunting. Other days, it is raining or really hot with flies that bite. I need all these days and all these reminders that life is not meant to be easy, it is not meant to be flat. Life needs to be felt in order to be a life well lived. 

So while sugaring season hasn't started, I need to look forward to a few more days of warm comfort soups, good books and remember my limitations physically, my skills and the amount of free time I possess. As many parents know though, if you give a homesteader too long a winter, she is going to dream of spring and summer. And if she is dream of spring and summer, she is going to spend too much time perusing the seed catalogs. And if I spend a lot of time perusing the seed catalogs, I will probably forget all these things... I mean other homesteaders, not me, I am learning from my mistakes. Mostly.

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