Words and images by Allie Hymas
I am sitting on the grassy hillside in the upper pasture of our family farm; my tired joints have soaked up the afternoon sunlight and I can’t seem to move—not that I mind. My husband and I just finished framing a turkey tractor that will house our heritage breed Bourbon Reds. When they’re big enough to live in this mobile coop, we’ll move them in slow procession across the field like a delightful conveyer belt of new bugs and worms appearing under their feet every day. These creative animal accommodations are part of a whole new farm philosophy we’ve been learning during our first year farming in the rolling foothills of the Klamath National Forest. In this wilderness paradise, we are raising heritage pork, turkeys, chickens, Icelandic sheep, and a market garden.
My mother-in-law has released the pigs; their floppy ears splash against their faces as they lope across the pasture. They gleefully invade the area designated for the pasture chickens: snuffing about the winding roots of a cedar tree and poking their long snouts through the pine needles, hoping the chickens left behind some of their lunch. An Old Spot pig has lowered himself into a watering pool, sloshing, and sighing. Pigs are indulgently sensuous; they spare themselves no luxury and relish the smallest comforts with an eagerness that I envy. I’m a recovering modern, and it’s hard for me to stay mindful while the world around me moves at breakneck speed. These pigs are my teachers.
A while ago I made the mistake of staying up late, arguing with someone on the Internet about the ethics of raising animals for food. I can’t really convey in 140 characters the mutuality of sacrifice between us and our animals: the lengths we go to give our animals a life of freedom and contentment in exchange for the food they give to us. Our relationship with our pigs, sheep, turkeys, and chickens is a symbiosis that restores the microbiome in the soil, enriches the vegetation of the land, elevates the quality of life for animals and humans, and ultimately provides families with clean, ethically raised food. It would certainly be easier to keep all these animals in a metal, concrete, enclosed, medicated, dark environment; but doing that is not only awful for the creature’s health and well-being, it severs us from of the cost of our consumption. Eating pork costs the pig his life. He deserves something from us in return, and we deserve to be the kind of consumers that care about this and do the right thing.
My internet troll argued that pigs want to be free, that our pigs would be happier released in the wild. That might be true for a day—our pigs have escaped the upper pasture and torn through the flowerbeds like naughty children. They certainly enjoyed that. But animals are not like humans. It’s only anthropomorphism that makes people think pigs would rather be totally autonomous, free to move to New York and pursue a Broadway career. I’ve seen what a pig wants: she wants to munch my leftover herb bread while lounging in a muddy drip-hose wallow in the shade of a fir tree, surrounded by fencing and a ferocious bearded guy with a .22 who will keep the predators away. Wild pigs would be rather jealous, and they are equally slated for becoming reabsorbed into the ecosystem.
All of us will die someday, and the day our pigs are harvested is very emotional. The first time I saw a farm kill, I was deeply troubled by all the time I had previously spent eating meat and ignoring this reality. Twenty-five years of agnostically unwrapping packages were over in a flash as I watched the butcher disassemble a pig from a living, feeling being to something I recognized from the store. I don’t feel that I have the right to eat meat unless I am connected both with the death of meat animals and, more importantly, their whole life. I want to nourish and sustain the animals that do the same for me. Not everyone can farm, but most of us live within driving distance of someone who has integrated their lives with their animals in this way.
The pigs may argue with me on this point, but I know I’m still getting the better end of the deal because caring for animals has changed me. So many of my past years have been hectic and fragmented, filled with good activities, but things that always seemed to conflict with the life-sustaining rhythms of eating and mindful rest. Animals ask me to be consistent, persevering, patient, and empathetic. They challenge my frenetic habits and insist that I become a more selfless person. I am turning into somebody who can enjoy a long meal with the people I love, or just sit on a grassy sun-soaked hillside. I’d be lucky to be more like a pig.
Allie Hymas is a first-year farmer, writer, and textile artist in Northern California. She and her family are raising heritage pork, turkeys, chickens, Icelandic sheep and a market garden with sustainable, ethical farming practices. Follow Allie’s farm on Instagram @placesharingtable or visit their website.