On Christmas day, Tony Rice died. Added to a list of musicians I admire who died this year, I was upset to hear of his passing. Tony’s picking is intricate and technical, and it was a bit above my head when I was first discovering bluegrass. I didn’t find his tunes as warm and approachable as other flatpicking greats, like Doc Watson, but I enjoyed them more and more over time. After his death, I started working through his discography again. In the middle of Church Street Blues I was struck by overwhelming gratitude for this man’s gift. He spent a lifetime, thousands of hours honing a craft and sharing it for strangers like me to hear. The beneficiaries, or listeners, didn’t ask Tony (or any other incredible musician) to work tirelessly to share his gift, and didn’t necessarily do anything to deserve the pleasure of hearing it. It's just out there forever for us to discover and soak in, because they were driven to create it. This led me to think about gratitude (which I was enjoying more than thinking about work). I read some Harvard studies (quick Google search) about how important gratitude is for mental health and happiness, and how people who consciously think about the things/people they are grateful for everyday feel happier and less stressed over time. From there my Sunday mental wanderings led back to something I know pretty well: hogs. Couldn’t escape work for too long.
Before getting into hogs, a quick note on gratitude - It's often discussed but less practiced, I think because it is not a showy, outward emotion. Kindness, generosity, courage, loyalty- we like displaying these laudable traits and getting noticed for it. Gratitude is more of an internal state of mind. It is certainly expressible, but the crux of the practice occurs in one’s head.
For example, when I spend the 45-minute drive to the farm everyday obsessing over my debt and cash flow, and the impossible to-do list for the coming day, I’m not thinking about the fact that I deliberately chose to start this business, and I’m literally living my dream every minute of every day. That is something I take for granted all too often. Which brings me at long last to my renewed gratitude for the incredible, edible pig.
I spend a lot of time fixing things hogs have broken, or chasing them around - again, easy to lose my positive frame of mind. I’m always in a hurry, and they are always determined to eat my time. But from another perspective, the wise old hog is the only reason I’m sitting behind a computer writing something a few people might be interested to read.
The hog also represents my departure from commercial row crop agriculture. My initial business plan was hog and only hog. Before I had a staff, a slaughter and processing facility, a website, a farm store, a logo, customers, beef, lamb, and goat, I had hogs. Everything sprang from the hog. My nieces and nephews point to hogs in story books and call them Uncle Marshall. My brother-in-law even convinced my niece that I was going to marry a hog (thank you to Katie for saving me from this fate).
Everyone wants to be a rancher or a cowboy, and cattle hold a revered space in our American identity. Cattle represented a status symbol and sign of wealth in agrarian cultures, and are iconic in our perception of the American West. Starting with my great great grandfather, we’ve also raised cattle here for 5 generations. I do love cattle- they are beautiful and peaceful, and their rumens are a marvel of nature, converting solar energy to delicious protein, and cycling nutrients on pasture. But deep down, damnnit, I’m a hog man. A muddy, shit covered, cursing, freezing cold or pouring sweat, hog farmer (the Home Place house band, The Comotions’, smash hit, “The Hog Song" addresses this topic in more provocative language).
I’m grateful for the hog not only because I built a business on his back, but also because to me the hog is a symbol of rural communities’ resourcefulness. They represent a “no waste” mindset. The hog would harvest a family’s food waste and anything else the family could scrape up (even the dirty dish water in some cases) for a year and convert it into pork. The family would then collectively harvest, scald, and butcher the animal in November, and the meat (salted, smoked, preserved) would see them through the winter. What a history, what a symbol for how we want to farm.
This winter is going to be long and dark, but I’m focusing on my gratitude. Swine can root and eat anything, and are endlessly edible themselves. Next time a hog pauses in front of 12 foot gap in a fence line I’m working him through, turns around, and charges right through me instead of walking through the gap, I will remember that this creature embodies rural life and my career, and I’ll try not to curse it as it runs by.
We are bringing on an amazing farm manager in a week and ramping up our grass finishing beef program. The new store/ restaurant is up and running and the plant is humming along. It's time for me to return focus on the creatures I started with: hogs. Over the next couple of months, we are going to do a much needed revamp of our sow program. Our feeder program in the woods, and finishing program in the pasture paddocks surrounding our barn are working well, but we need immediate improvements with our sows. Fences are down, feeders are broken, groups are mixed, and we don’t have a good enough winter farrowing system for keeping our girls and their babies warm and dry. Most concerning, we have over-pressured a couple paddocks and created too much mud. Well hear me now: my swine deserve better!
Which transitions nicely into a shameless pitch for our farm tours (these posts are, afterall, supposed to compel you to spend some money). The next one is Saturday Jan 16th- you can sign up by clicking here! You get to spend an hour and half walking the farm with me, hearing great stories, and learning about our history, practices, and animals. I can highlight, in person, the challenges, changes, and progress in all our animal production systems, and how they relate to each other and our mission as farmers. I may even join you for lunch and a beer afterwards- if no hogs are out.
Along with my gratitude for the great Tony Rice and the hog, I am also grateful to you for reading this and supporting our farm. Thanks for carrying us through a tough year, and cheers to a new one!