Porcine Cleanup Crew

If pigs have a favorite time of year, it would be autumn. As the temps cool, they’re much more comfortable, and their glee in the harvest season is visibly apparent.

Throughout summer, they’ve munched on overgrown zucchini, damaged tomatoes, and weeds, but as the seasons change, so does their diet. Spent cauliflower plants and green bean bushes with overgrown pods attached are forked into their pens and duly munched to nothing. Leek trimmings and carrot tops are also snarfed down like candy.

Frosty mornings and the necessary winter squash harvest include sorting underripe or damaged orbs to offer the pigs, who chase them about their pen like tasty soccer balls. After a patch is picked, we then fence it in and release the pigs directly into the patch. Like kids on an Easter egg hunt, they first hurry and scurry, ears flapping as they hunt for any squashes we may have missed or left for them, then the munching of the vines ensues.

It wouldn’t seem like spiny, fibrous squash vines would be a taste treat, but the pigs love them. The vines and leaves of a patch can vanish into the gullet of the pigs within just a few days—impressive! Where do they put it all? Any uneaten parts are churned into the soil under their hooves, where it will decompose along with their manure to regenerate the soil for next year.

Our pigs are heritage Kunekunes, a smaller breed of pig with a short snout and longer hair that originated in New Zealand. They come in a variety of colors: white, black-and-white, red, or red-and-black. Their short snouts make them ideal for grazing and munching things like the squash patch without rooting huge holes like the standard hogs we used to raise.

They are also remarkably friendly and good natured, grunting happily to themselves as they rustle through the piles of garden leftovers. The snapped off tops of the brussel sprout plants? Bring them on!

This year, Grandma’s apple tree and its attendant crabapples outdid themselves with blooms and became loaded with apples. The long autumn allowed them to fully ripen, and a few were falling off. At the end of one of the oddly warm October days, we picked and picked and picked, as I climbed up into the branches and handed down bag-fulls to Kara below.

Mom picked a large bin of crabapples for making jelly and adding the lustrous pink hue to homemade applesauce, but this was only a drop in the bucket compared to how full the trees were of fruit. They were so ripe, as she picked they were falling off of the branches, pattering into the grass below like large rain. The warm weather had brought out the hornets and lady beetles, which were feasting upon the downed fruit, so we weren’t feeling inclined to pick them all up by hand to take to the pigs. What to do?

Instead, Kara brought the pigs to the trees with her electric mesh fence. At first, the pigs were suspicious about venturing so far from their usual haunts, and she had to coax them to follower her with her chipper “Here pig, pig!” call. They’ve learned that this means treats are present, and they began trotting behind her, their little chin waddles wagging and ears flapping. It didn’t take them long to figure out that the apple trees had sweet, hidden treasures beneath, and it equally didn’t take them long to munch them all up.

After just a couple of days, Kara moved the fence again so the pigs wouldn’t have time to hurt the trees, and the hornets had to find something else to eat.

In the aquaponics greenhouse, we also save all the plant scraps—the base leaves of lettuce, the stems of retired kale plants, etc. I pack these “cull” parts of the plants into garbage bags so they can easily be carried out of the greenhouse and hauled off to the pigs, who happily munch and crunch and eat them all up. In our kitchen, we keep used tubs and containers for food preparation scraps, which are also duly saved for the pigs. Last night’s gratin yielded butternut peelings and seeds, tomato tops, herb stems, and kale stems from the salad we fixed with it.

When folks with cabins up north ask me what we do about the bears getting into our compost piles, the idea can surprise me at first. But then I remember that our compost piles are manure and bedding from the barns and coops (not really exciting to bears) and that all our food scraps go to the pigs. Essentially, the pigs ARE the compost pile, taking the transformation from plant to soil much faster through their digestive system, with the addition of raising delicious pork.

We’ll be picking more winter squash today, and I’m sure that the porcine cleanup crew will be more than happy to help us with their share of the spoils. See you down on the farm sometime.