Lord Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise

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This is not the blog post I had intended to write about pigs. I had hoped the rain would offer me a chance to crank out 500 words or so about my feelings about pigs: their intelligence, raising them, butchering them, hunting them, moral conflicts, and the like. Instead, this is a story about what Alex Hitt, at Peregrine Farm, calls Type 2 fun.

Some definitions are in order:

Type 1 fun: Fun at the time

Type 2 fun: fun or funny after the fact.

This, hopefully, will someday be felt as type 2 fun.

On a Thursday morning in March, I took the rainy day as an opportunity to take my truck into town for much needed repair…in fact, about $2,000 more in repairs than I had planned. The rain, the soon to be repair bill, and my textual companion, Straw Dogs, by John Gray, made for quite the depressing mood. As the rain came on stronger, though I was grateful that the din drowned out the Fox News discussion of the Republican race on one T.V. and “Hot Talk with Wendy” on the other. The rain continued strongly for an hour or so, pooling in the flowerbed outside of the repair shop window. Then, over the course of 30 minutes the gutters on Poplar Avenue began to overflow. I thought it might be a good idea to have Claire, who had taken the day off, run down at the next break in the weather and look in on the pigs who were recently moved outside of the main pasture and into the woods.

About 45 minutes after that initial call, my already queasy stomach transferred its nervous energy upwards to my lungs and heart as a full-blown panic attack. The lack of confirmation that “everything is okay” surely meant that it most certainly was not. Confirmation came that Marilyn, my new sow, was out of the fence and deeper into the woods. By the time I got home the water was up to the bottom of the electric fence (6 inches). Of course, anything (the other pigs) or anyone (Claire) was being shocked roughly every 4 seconds by standing in the nearby water. Claire, like a champ, had not noticed. The pigs, like the observant creatures they are, had noticed, and began making their way, one by one, out of the fence and into the woods.

If you read my post about the birth of Melian, our first dairy goat born on the farm, you will be expecting me to panic at this point, and I am man enough to confirm your suspicion. I will certainly admit to throwing a minor tantrum as well as a bucket and part of an electric fence that Marilyn had managed to rip apart in her escape. However, having experienced my share of panics over the last year, I had planned for contingencies on the drive home. Unfortunately, option A (see if my presence would be more enticing to the pigs) and B (coax Marilyn back with dog food: her favorite treat) failed. Option A, admittedly was a stupid one, while Claire had already attempted option B, resulting in the broken fence.

Thunder in the not-far-enough-distance meant it was time for what I considered the nuclear option, and with a deep breath I made a run for my truck. Throwing the still semi-broken vehicle into 4-wheel drive, I hydroplaned and fishtailed through about 10 inches of water, hooked up the 16-foot stock trailer, and forded the growing river that used to be our pasture. I quickly dismantled the portable fencing and, getting the whole system as tangled as possible, tried to make a shoot (which is how we move the pigs pasture to pasture) with the electric netting to the trailer. With the aid of more dog food we managed to coax the loose pigs out of the woods, while the others literally swam out behind. However, to a wet, grumpy, hungry pig, higher ground with fresh grass is apparently considerably more enticing than wet, mushy food in an old stock trailer. Thus, three pigs escaping became 15 loose pigs on fresh, damp, almost-ready-for-spring-grazing, pasture. As we stood in calf high water, the lightening started. Having already had a close encounter with lightening in 2015, I went into full survival mode and, with resignation, shouted, “That’s it, get in the truck” to Claire. Hardly speaking to one another, we fishtailed our way back to the road and the house.

As we pulled off and emptied out our wellies, I really thought the farm was done for. The pigs were gone for good. Our farm contains nearly 100 acres of woods with a good bit of relief. Aside from the topographical difficulties, these pigs had been on the farm less than a month, meaning they weren’t yet trained to the trailer (as evidenced above). Thus, they weren’t likely to fall for that trap. Worse than potentially losing all of that revenue; worse even than not being able to afford to buy new pigs, was the task that would come next if I couldn’t get them back. You see, I would be faced with the reality that I had directly contributed to the South’s wild pig problem. Unlike any other farm animal, domestic pigs can revert to their feral state within just a few weeks if they escape. Damage to agriculture and the environment by feral pigs is conservatively estimated at $1.5 billion dollars annually. I’ve seen it first hand on other farms. As we began to shut down the farm, I would have the terrible responsibility of trying to literally hunt these pigs down before they caused irreparable damage to the surrounding area and interbred with the growing feral population.

As is often the case, I became more rational after this rock bottom realization. And, over the course of 4.5 hours, Claire and I again braved the rain, watched, waited, and slowly, methodically corralled the pigs into a permanent fence that we normally reserve for introducing new goats to our herd.

With a few weeks distance from this experience, I don’t want to overstate its importance. That is, I don’t recount it to tell you how it transformed my personality and made me stronger. I wrote that post last year. That’s not what happened here. This experience was emotionally and physically draining. While I am proud of our ultimate resilience, I wanted to tell this story because this is, more and more, the reality of small farming. We’re not the first people to have this type of experience as new farmers. A veteran farmer recently told me a story of losing nearly her entire laying flock in a windstorm. Another farmer, looking at my photos from the event, summed it up to me brilliantly, “Welcome to my world.”

Pigs are going to get out. Animals will die at a time when you cannot afford financially or emotionally to replace them. Storms will happen. As climate change intensifies, they will get worse. Two years ago 7 inches of rain in 3 hours saw the levee on our pond breech and 5 acres of water spill into the woods. We had 18 inches of standing water on our farm this year. As I edited this post, we had dime sized hail and a torrential downpour for about half an hour, followed by yet another flood watch. This afternoon, I heard the phrase, “cannot rule out isolated tornadoes” as part of tonight’s forecast. We are hardening ourselves and making a plan for a more resilient farm business because it will get worse, not better.

I really do not fully understand why anyone does this work. I say that with a genuine sense of amazement. I’m not sure I have every met a farmer that does understand it. It seems almost a type of religious faith, or maybe more accurately a fanaticism that made me want to get up the next day and start assessing damage, untangling fences and doing health checks on our animals. All I can say is that I do it because I can’t imagine not doing it anymore. Sometimes you love it, sometimes you just hope that time + farm tragedy = type two fun.

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