Field Trip: Buying a Pig

One of the most memorable Field Trips we’ve taken was to Karl and Anita Schibli’s dairy farm. As we walked down the lane to see the cows, we were introduced to a pig that their son Harry was raising for meat. During a more recent visit to their neighbours, Sosnicki Organics, Jessie Sosnicki told us that she had recently received their own butchered pig from Harry and couldn’t brag enough about it. After learning that Harry had ramped up production and now has, at my quick count, just over twenty at various states of maturity, I was quick to put our name on one.

But these aren’t the standard pink breed you assume your pork chops come from. They’re a heritage breed known as Berkshires. The breed originated in England over two hundred years ago, and because of their exceptional flavour, came to be the pork of choice for the royals. As the twentieth century came along with industrial agriculture and promises of a new and better way of food, the Berkshire’s slower growth and fattiness pushed them into the background. They have barely survived as meat marketing boards push fast maturing breeds to bland, ultra-lean extremes. It sometimes seems they’re trying to turn a pig into something it is not.

While the most daylight some industrially-raised pigs see in their lives is on the way to the slaughterhouse, Harry’s Berkshires spent the summer roaming 10 acres of pasture. They are now in a “smaller” one-acre field that was full of turnips, which they have slowly dug up. They are now topping up on hay silage and a small ration of grain for the winter. The only indoors these guys will ever see in their lives are the small huts Harry built to protect the sows as they feed their piglets, which they are never separated from.

Meat is a huge part of most Canadians’ diets, usually the main feature on the dinner plate, yet it’s the part with the least understood origins. Try seeing any indication of a cow or any other animal imagery at a fast food chain. The average person is subtly pushed to forget that the meat from their hamburger had any origin in something living. I’ve seen beautiful, pastoral images on tray-liner paper, and I would put money on the fact that nothing in that $1.69 hamburger ever saw anything that scenic. And if any customer became actively curious, they’d probably be in for a very scary surprise.

I’m not sure how you feel about looking into the face of something you are going to eat while it’s still alive. I’ve written about it before when we visited the cows on the farm next to my parents’. But we’re very comfortable with it. In fact we’re beginning to feel like it’s the best way to rebuild that respect for the animal that you’re going to sustain yourself with.
Which is why we try to put a lot of thought into what we eat, especially meat. In the past few years we’ve made a conscious effort to avoid bringing any untraceable supermarket meat into our house. I’ll admit, we’ve been in a bind and picked something up on the odd occasion, but we can count those times on one hand, and by buying a whole pig for our freezer, we hope to make desperate food days history.

When we leave the butcher in a couple months, we’re going to have everything–hams, pork chops, belly for bacon, and even the fat to render into lard for our pie crusts and use as a basic cooking oil. It all sounds very decadent, and I’m sure you’re imagining giant pork roasts for dinner each night, but that’s not the case. This pig is going to last a very long time.

It’s simple. When you have to buy a massive piece of meat to feed a family of five, it’s hard to not focus on price. But when meat becomes a smaller player on the plate, you suddenly have room for another nice criteria–quality.

9 comments

  • Nicely said, and love the top photo. I've cut many a Berkshire, and now see substantially all of the animals we eat in their environment before we butcher them. I can't imagine another way to be aware of quality than to see how the animal's raised with your own eyes. I also agree that it brings some respect and proper context to the situation for us as consumers of other living things.

  • Thanks Kevin. Some meat eaters might find visiting an animal too much to handle, but I find the “out of sight… out of mind” of conventional meat a bit too much.

  • Hi there, I am so thrilled to have just found your blog! We recently moved to England, and one of my favorite things about living here is that we can do most of our shopping directly from farms. We can actually spend time with the animals there when we go, and it is really wonderful. I also love having an organic butcher around the corner, who knows the sources of all the meats he sells. There seems to be a much greater respect for the meat-raising process here, a social conscience for animal welfare.

  • Great post!
    I am trying to put my own thoughts and feelings with regards to this topic for an upcoming blog post.
    We are buying an organic cow from my dad for the same reasons.
    Enjoy your blog very much!
    e.

  • Dislike. There is no reason for humans to consume animals. Quick internet “research” will show you how much better our world would be if more people were vegetarian or vegan: our environment would improve drastically, we could eradicate hunger, and we'd be healthier. Pigs are as smart as dogs. Would you eat a dog (for no reason, assuming you're not starving)? I'm glad you'll be treating your pig humanely, but what about eating some quinoa and beans instead? I recommend Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent book, Eating Animals, if you are interested in this topic.

  • Hi Becky, thanks for your comment.

    I completely understand the vegetarian and vegan perspectives, and I do own Eating Animals.

    It sounds like you're suggesting that we don't eat quinoa or beans, but we do. And, as I stated in the post, we eat very little meat. If you go back in our blog, you'll note that nearly every post is about fruit, vegetables, grains and legumes. In fact, we try to not eat too much quinoa because it generally comes from the opposite side of the equator with a lot of its own ethical baggage. Eating locally is tough to do year-round. Especially here in Canada.

    Although there is truth to the idea that vegetables are easier on the environment than a horrible beef feedlot, I'm not sold on the idea that shipping vegetables further than I've traveled in my life is better on the environment than eating a pig from just down that road that eats grass and forage while fertilizing and ploughing a field for this coming planting season.

    We, like most Canadians are omnivores, and we started this blog to help the average person make a better choice about what they eat. A leap to vegetarianism might be a bit much for some people, but hopefully they'll at least make a better choice about the meat they're going to eat. If some people start to think about how their meat is raised and decide to forego it completely, then that's great too.

  • Ok – point taken. I also see your point about the “pig down the road” thing and get it – after all, your blog (which I love) is about eating locally. My own veganism is about much more than environmental or locavore politics, but includes (among other things) concern over animal suffering.
    I didn't mean to insinuate that you don't eat beans or quinoa (or anything like it)! After all, you have photo evidence to the contrary! I think I was trying to emphasize how in our privileged society, we do not have to eat meat – we have the substitutions for everything.
    Truth be told, I had more than a glass of wine that night and came off a bit defensive. Ah, living up to the militant vegan stereotype. Sigh.
    I only wish all omnivores would think about meat the way you do.

  • No problem, and I totally support your food choices, but we try not to present too many absolutes in our blog. Meat consumption is in a scary place. It's not even for the privileged anymore. It's prices are disturbing, and it's totally linked to the conditions that animal experienced. What's especially scary is that major parts of our world are aspiring to become more western and in their mind, that means a lot of meat consumption. How about this: we'll help get people thinking about their meat in the first place, and then you can get them thinking about a next step.

  • I think that it's important to evaluate the costs of all commercially sourced food, meat or otherwise. Bees are a constant unpaid workforce in the production of fruit and vegetables (and although many vegans refuse to eat honey, they will still eat the 'fruits' of their labour). I understand their argument, and why they would not actually want to ingest a direct product of bees, but I think both sides of the story should be recognized.

    Also, there are many other issues in large scale, especially single crop farming which plagues food production globally. Granted, this blog shows the opposite side of that, by focusing on smaller scale, diverse, local, and organic gardening/farming (wonderfully I might add). But there is still much to think of, deforestation for farming is one of them. Another is the human cost, this video from the Guardian illustrates what is happening in Europe:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/video/2011/feb/07/food-spain-migrants

    and this article does a good job of illustrating what's going on in our own backyard:

    http://www.folksgottaeat.com/2011/03/ontario-third-world.shtml

    That being said, sourcing local, ethically grown foods is obviously a much better environmental, personal, and ultimately global decision, and in no way am I advocating a meat heavy diet – but sometimes we have to evaluate the cost of consumption holistically. A recent trip to Costa Rica really opened my eyes to the costs (especially human) of banana, pineapple and mainly sugar production, organic or not. Does this mean that I'll never eat these things? No, probably not, but it will give me a deeper understanding of what goes into my food, and eventually into me; it will make me think more about how I eat, and inspire moderation too. But mostly it will give me awareness, and allow me to make more educated decisions about what I choose to consume.

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