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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Small farm new math: If (chicken tractor), then (pig plow)

A couple of weeks ago, I drove to Sedro Woolley, a small town north of Seattle. It's beautiful farm country there, literally at the foot of the Cascade Mountains. I visited Woolley Farms, a lovely organic farm, to buy some Tamworth pigs to add to the two we've been raising this year. The 11-week-old pigs were somewhat bigger than I expected; it was a challenge getting the three of them into the two dog carriers I had brought, but finally they were tucked in and settled for the three hour drive home. Like the first two times I've brought home Tamworth piglets, these cuties slept pretty much all the way home.

Last year we decided to diversify our small farm by adding two pigs. Although I had done quite a bit of reading on the subject, I felt just about as ignorant as I had prior to starting with poultry. I was also excited, though; it was something new and different.

I had heard that the Tamworth breed was particularly noted for its rooting ability. Never having been in close proximity to pigs, other than at the county fair, I had only a hazy idea of what that actually meant in real life. Well, as far as the Tamworth is concerned, it means they will plow up pretty much everything in reach of their long, strong snouts. Watching our first two weaners, we were amazed at how quickly and efficiently such little pigs turned a grassy pasture into loose soil.

We haven't had our rototiller out of the shed since.

You might be wondering what pigs have to do with poultry. Well, as I said, our first motivation in getting pigs was to diversify our farm operations, a major factor in the success of small farms. (I also love to cure prosciutto, pancetta, bacon and other cured pork products, and at least in our area, there aren't many choices in commercially available pork.) We figured, if chicken tractors, why not pig plows? 

David and I decided that, since these pigs wanted to root all day long, by golly, we'd put them to work doing what they love. There is a large area to the east of our main house, between the shooting range and the large peat bog; in the summer, this area is 7 feet deep in reed canary grass. It is also the largest plot on our property that could potentially be turned into good pasture. The water table is high there, making it essentially self-watering. It's flat, gets good sun in summer, and unlike most of our 40 acres, it has no trees. As we watched the piglets happily tossing large clumps of sod in the air, the wheels started turning. What if we could transform this previously unused acre or so into prime grazing land?

We just moved our two older pigs off of this area, as it has gotten fairly wet down there with the rain and snow we've had lately. They have done their job beautifully, though, and have left behind an expanse of thoroughly tilled, peat-rich soil' all it needs is a bit of leveling and it will be ready to plant. With the water table being high there, I will probably opt to plant ladino clover and possibly timothy, both crops that can deal with having wet feet at least some of the time. We are looking forward to seeing that field transformed into lush pasture over the next season or two.

In the meantime, the pigs are happily plowing up their new yard. The three little pigs (I know, I know) are in a separate yard temporarily, while we train them on the electric fence; they also are enthusiastically rooting and grazing. They all look happy and healthy, and appear to be enjoying their typical routine: Eating, rooting, grazing, and napping.

Such is the cycle of Tamworth life.

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