My entire life has been shaped by the farm, but nothing stamped it quite as much as pigs. They greeted us loudly each morning, snorting with hunger; perfumed our farm with their fragrance, strongest on the most humid of summer days; and got first dibs on the generator when power was out during winter blizzards.
I remember so clearly one morning, Dad’s yell woke us all. “Pigs out!” We tumbled out of the house in our pjs and attempted to herd the sows out of Mom’s garden. Ironically, my sister, brother and I would tease Dad every April Fools with a cry of “pigs out!” Too often, it was the truth.
Although the pigs were a source of much work for us, they were a comfort too. We farrowed to finished pigs for most of my life. I spent many lazy afternoons strolling past the hog lots and then down the aisles in the farrowing house checking the sows and piglets. The farrowing rooms lined with crates (these are different from gestation stalls) gave sows a warm, clean place to birth, care for and nurse their litters. Those rooms were the warmest places on the farm in the winter, and the coolest in the summer. And so quiet, except for a few low grunts or angry squeals from the piglets burrowing closer to their sisters and brothers.
The hog lots, sitting just west and south of the farmhouse, were our playground. Covered on one end by low-lying open-ended sheds, we spent much time scaling the gates and fences to get by the pigs and into the sheds where cats hid their kittens and we built clubhouses from straw.
Evening farm chores always started at 4 p.m. After finishing our chores, my siblings and I would wander to the feed room where Dad was grinding pig feed.
The feed room was a dusty place. Corn rolled out of the silo into the mixer where Dad emptied bags of minerals before it sifted into the grinder. The pallets stacked high with feed bags served as our stage for musical performances never to be seen on Broadway. I don’t think Dad minded our antics. The grinder was so loud he couldn’t hear anyway.
In those days, Dad hauled feed to each lot in a metal bushel basket and two five gallon buckets. He’d hoist the basket up to his left shoulder; grab both buckets in one hand and shuffle to the lots swinging the buckets then himself over the gates with ease.
In the mid-90s my Grandpa Ray passed away suddenly, and my sister and I were headed to college. My parents partnered with a neighbor and began feeding pigs for him. Now, instead of boars, sows and piglets, our farm was home to market pigs. The work was more manageable for one man and his son – my brother, who at the time was a very involved high-school student.
This morning, forty years after my parents’ pig adventure began Dad pulled on his black rubber boots, gray-blue striped coveralls and shuffled out to the finishing house to load the last group of pigs for market.
His story isn’t one of tragedy when the farmer loses his animals to the bank, leaving the farm wife crying on the front stoop watching their livelihood leave the yard. This is a story of a farmer who cared for animals much of his life and has decided to take some well-deserved time off.
When I began writing this post, I asked my mom for pictures of Dad, the pig farmer and described to her the images in my head so vivid with color, smell and sound.
Dad’s slow early dawn shuffle out to the lots; the same path trod every morning and afternoon, his boots crunching the gravel just so.
The evenings after dinner we would hang on the gates and watch Dad sort pigs in the dusky light of the sun.
The nights we’d squeeze close to the fire pit, listening to the clanking feeder lids and the comfortable grunts of the pigs settling for the night.
My mom chuckled as I recounted so many seemingly mundane scenes and said, “I remember those pictures too. They are our memories.”