Wednesday, March 24, 2010

These Little Piggies Have it Made (For a While, Anyway)

At TrueFields farm, Grey Face, Freckles and Girl ally vie for the attention of David Sanders, their human minder. David not only provides food in the form of outdated organic onions, carrots and other produce from area grocery stores. He also gives belly rubs to the 300-pound sows that live the good life on this organic operation.

TrueFields has been located on 850 acres near Hallsville since 2008 but is in the process of moving to a place northwest of Jefferson. My fiancĂ© and I managed to squeeze in a tour from David, who is both an investor in True Fields and an employee, on the last weekend before the big move with the landowners of the Hallsville farm, which is a larger operation. TrueFields is owned by some smart, energetic and fascinating LeTourneau University alumni — who also worked for the landowners full-time, running the latter’s organically raised cattle operation. Now the owners of TrueFields are striking it out on their own in Jefferson.

Coach, the lucky sole boar in charge of servicing those three sows, was the first recipient of a belly rub on a rare lovely Saturday winter afternoon, when the sky was actually blue and the temperature tolerable. Coach, a purebred Heritage Large Black, was stretched out underneath a canopy of oak and pine trees, his gray floppy, elephantine ears covering his eyes. Life was good for Coach as David rubbed his belly. He has three females at his service and a man with an IQ above average at his service.

Suddenly Coach jerked up and commenced to caterwauling, which scared us he had been shot or somehow seriously injured. Girl, in a fit of jealousy had sat on his tail. Once Coach jumped up and stalked off, Girl promptly rolled over so she could get her belly rubbed. Pigs are not stupid, unlike cows or chickens.

These are not your average pigs in a sty. They don’t really even smell that bad out in the open. I’ve been in high school locker rooms that smelled worse, or for that matter, teen-age girl’s bedrooms.

But these porkers aren’t pets, either. This is an ambitious organic farming operation. On its Web site, the mission statement says that TrueFields grows: “quality foods that are naturally, humanely, and sustainably grown. That means delicious, healthy, and fresh food provided to you as God intended: without hormones, GMO products, artificial fertilizers, or pesticides.”

Nearly two dozen piglets, the progeny of Coach and his harem, are running around in various shades of pink and gray. In less than six months, most will be headed to a processor to be turned into organic, free-range pork and sold to local consumers. Besides the expired produce, the pigs eat acorns, hickory nuts, roots, grubs and even grass, supplemented with a custom-made feed that is both corn and soy-free, according to David. I take a photo of a nine piglets stretched out inside a tent-shaped lean-to of corrugated tin that David built. They look more like a litter of puppies than pigs as Freckles, the proud mama of her week-old charges, stretches out alongside for a brief respite from suckling.

Earlier, we had met Mistress, a short-horned milking cow from Ohio, who was plopped on a pile of hay in a pasture. Mistress wore a lovely worn leather collar and chewed her cud contentedly as we approached. She had subtle burnt-orange and white markings, thick luxurious fur, doleful eyes and was absolutely the gentlest, sweetest cow I have ever encountered. She never arose as we approached. Remember, Mistress was neither confined nor tethered. She just looked up and smiled as all three of us stroked her head, rubbed her nose and said hello. A fat black-and-white barn cat came over to join the party, weaving in-between our legs — as cats do.

Having raised cows several times in my checkered past, I found this behavior quite remarkable, even for a milk cow. We brought no bribes of range cubes or other cow candy, just gentle hands and voices. Mistress just likes humans. Most cows, not so much.

David has posted a hilarious YouTube video of the Hereford bulls on the farm tearing into a round bale of hay that he had just placed in their pasture. It’s quite entertaining, further evidence that most cows really don’t have a lick of sense but can provide great entertainment. E-mail me if you would like the link.

I admire what the young folks at TrueFields are trying to accomplish, growing livestock without all that stuff that is injected into the meat we buy at the store or consume in restaurants. It is incredibly hard work, certainly a young person’s game. I wish them well.

For us, spending a winter afternoon watching the piglets and all of God’s creatures provided a lovely diversion.
Originally published March 7, 2010, my final newspaper column, at least until I land another job. Who could have known it would be about pigs?

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