Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dodging frosts and cursing pigs

We've had some changeable weather lately, after a three-week long spell of really nice sunny weather. I didn't get much use out of the nice weather since that was during the regular semester with fifty hour weeks and sporadic weekend work, but of course as soon as the semester was nearly done and I had things to get done around the farm, the weather changed for the worse.

The main difficulty this time of year is knowing when last frost will be. We have a fairly large chunk of our garden and hoophouse unplanted still, waiting for the go-ahead. Tomatoes, peppers, basil, and eggplant are not at all hardy, and couldn't stand a frost if we were to set them out too early. Statistically our last frost date is May 18th, but that would be down in Unity and Brooks, not up here in the "heights" of Jackson. Experience has shown that we can get a frost after May 18th, but recent years have also seen last frosts as early as the last of April. This spring, however, the jet stream has been doing weird stuff as a possible result of a negative phase of the arctic oscillation -- essentially weakening of the circumpolar circulatory winds -- giving us both the long warn spell (an "omega" block) and the recent frost warnings.

Last night was mild, but the two previous nights we had a mild frost, enough to hurt tomatoes had they been set out. Now the forecast has cleared up and the plan is for warm through the end of next week. Ordinarily, looking at a weather report like the one we have now, I'd be setting out those tomatoes, but I don't trust that the jet stream is done doing weird things, so I'm going to wait a while longer.

I'm pleased with our tomato starts this year, the result of some timely intervention, and some hard graft. Ordinarily we start tomatoes indoors in the den where there's a south-facing window. We make a shelf system with grow lights. After germination, when the plants are an inch or two tall, we carry them outside to the greenhouse daily, until the threat of frost is past.

Even so, they still don't get as much sun as they should.

This year we upped our game.

In the past we've used the small incandescent grow light bulbs, but this year we shelled out a hundred or so extra bucks for florescent strip lights and proper wavelength bulbs. Then I added floating row cover and plastic to our glass greenhouse in an effort to moderate the sunlight and seal up the air leaks. This old glasshouse was built using recycled panes six or seven years ago and hasn't held up well. The glass is cracked and leaks have appeared in the woodwork. The row cover and plastic would help a great deal.

The result of the new bulbs and the repaired greenhouse has been that the starts are much sturdier and less spindly than in recent years.

Even so, the glasshouse still gets too hot on sunny days and so we've carried the trays of plants out to the hoophouse every morning, each time the forecast has been for sun. During the warm spell we were able to leave them there during the night. The last couple nights of frost saw me worrying about the plants all over again. The first frosty night, Monday, I stumbled out there tired and late having given a late exam. Trying to save myself a job, I attempted to carry the kerosene heater out to the hoophouse, rather than carry the plants in to the glasshouse in the pitch dark, one trip rather than several. Of course I tripped over the plastic sheep fence and went sprawling, kerosene heater and all. A fine set of British military curse words rent the night poetically, scaring the sheep and the hoot owls. Luckily no oil was spilled.

The next night, although I had to give another late exam, I was a shade earlier and still had some daylight in which to carry the plants back, for which small mercy I was thankful.

My next opportunity for a good cussing came yesterday. Our annual pig-rearing efforts have been on hold for lack of piglets. There is apparently a major piglet shortage in Waldo County, the result no doubt of renewed interest in backyard pigs. Pigs are increasingly fashionable accessories, along with backyard chickens, these days. We've shopped the Maine Craig's List and Uncle Henry's classified advertisement outlets for piglets, as well as the local word-of-mouth networks, since March, trying to line ourselves up with the three shoats we Womerlippis and our friends and coworkers need for our pig club.

Eventually, after a bunch of dead ends and failed leads, vigilance paid off, as it usually does in such things, and yesterday morning at about 7.15 Zulu I was able to locate a litter of porkers advertised in Uncle Henry's that hadn't yet been sold. Operation "Piglet" was a "go!" But they were quite far away, the other side of Farmington, Maine, all of seventy-five miles. The furthest we've gone for piglets before has been Exeter, Maine, about forty miles.

Even so, I didn't want to delay too much longer because the garden weeds that our pig club pigs usually eat were beginning to pile up. I was worried about not having enough pig-assisted compost for next year's garden. Apart from the fun of raising young animals, and bringing home some bacon,  the compost is the primary additional benefit the Womerlippis get from hosting the pig club each year. Were it not for that wonderful gardener's black gold, I should think we'd just raise a pig or two for ourselves and be done.

I woke Aimee gently and told her what I was doing, loaded the second-smallest cage in the Land Rover, and drove off to get pigs. An hour and a half later I pulled up in the driveway of a nicely painted farmhouse on the western edge of Farmington, to be confronted by two Asian ladies, mother and daughter, only one of which had English.

Now this was not at all what I was expecting.

Usually pig breeders in Maine are of obvious British-Isles extraction, from obvious yeoman-peasant stock, and occupy one of the obviously lower rungs on the socio-economic ladder of Maine agriculture. This isn't prejudice. The signs are unmistakeable. We've had some interesting anthropological encounters in our pig-finding travels over the years. Aimee routinely considers our annual piglet shopping a small subsidiary branch of Animal Rescue. The average Maine pig breeder's farm-let is a cash-only operation completely unbeknown to the USDA and the IRS, whose Head of Operations greets you in smelly sweatpants or dungarees and leaky mud boots, among a yard full of rusting ancient trucks and rotting farm equipment, his head buzzing with pet blackflies. He (always a he, never a she, women being generally too smart for this pig lark) nevertheless catches the squirmy piglets quite easily for you as they run freely in and around the junk cars and piled trash, while drinking coffee nonchalantly with one hand, and gesticulating to accompany a wicked storm of chat about the weather and the flies and the price of pig feed with the other.

It's a retirement lifestyle I quite aspire to, no doubt the the brave tradition of generations of my own ancestors. Aimee, of course can see the writing on the wall and is putting up a brave fight against the slippage of standards. We'll see who wins. Gravity, of course, among other forces of nature, is on the husbandly side. But wives are a force unto themselves.

But these ladies, as well as being Asian, were clearly much more middle class than the average, and possibly just a little out of their depth in the pig business. Neither, apparently, were qualified pig catchers, so I would have to catch my own piglets. To boot, the piglets were somewhat unattractive as piglets go, with red eyes and dirty coats, signs of overcrowding, lack of bedding, and a dirty pen. Finally, I discovered that the males were not yet castrated.

Now I'm sure that your average  Chinese peasant woman can catch and castrate a pig in her sleep, so that was the clearest indication that these fine gentlewomen were more of the bourgeoisie.

Either that or they were just trying to save themselves some work on both counts, and I, as usual, was the patsy.

By the time I discovered that testicles were still firmly attached, I'd already decided to take the pigs, substandard health or no. I didn't have time to drive all the way back home empty-handed and start pig-shopping again the next day, and they'd be healthy again in just a few days in the clean and breezy barn at our farm.

"How hard can it be to castrate a pig?", I asked myself. No doubt another fun-to-read blog post will be the result of me finding the answer to this question.

I like to provide my readers with suspense.

I'd already agreed the price over the phone with the husband of the house, a hundred bucks a pig. There was no point dickering; I could see I was outgunned there. One fat six-foot two Englishman versus two five-foot nothing Asian ladies, one elderly, all in Chinese? No contest there, not even worth a try.

So I counted out my fifteen twenties one at a time in the proper legal international way, no translation needed, to the full and obvious satisfaction of the recipient. After just a little trouble finding just the right spot in the pen to trap them I caught each pig by the back legs, just the way the owner's manual says, and loaded them in the cage in the back of the Land Rover. All this effort was of course to the tune of a non-stop barrage of Chinese commentary, and the squealing of outraged piglets. I wished I'd had a tape recorder handy, dear reader, so you might hear this cacophony for yourself.

The drive home was about as smelly as expected but the piggies were thankfully quiet. A quick stop for grain meant a two-hour ride home, but I was supposed to be in a meeting at college by 12.30pm.

Long story short, I pulled into our driveway with the pigs safe and sound around 11.55am. Only five minutes to unload, wash up, find some lunch and get on to work!

Still, all would still be well, if the unloading went well.

Of course, the unloading did not go well. To save time (save?), I decided to gently pull the crate off the back of the Rover into the barn, pigs and all, shut the barn door behind me, and then lure them quickly into the pen with some feed and Bob's your uncle, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, the crate got caught up in the barn door and would not be freed. I broke the plastic floor of the crate pulling on it. The pigs were squealing again, and I was fit to spit.

It was at this point that another stream of pure British military invective rent the air for the second time in as many days. I cursed the Asian ladies, their husband, their piglets, their piglets' intact bollocks, the committee whose meeting I would be late for, and most of all my wife for not sharing this fun family outing and for not being there to hold up her end of the jammed-up pig crate.

This last of course was the most unfair of all, since she did have to go to work that day, but she got a proper withering nevertheless. As I explained later, "All's fair in love and war."

Besides, she wasn't there to hear. No harm, no foul.

Of course, other than make me feel just a little better, cursing did neither me nor the pigs any practical good at all, nor did it save a second of time. But improvisation did. Even though the cage was now all broken and messed up, I was able to free the pigs by bending on the wire a little here, a little there, and by sticking a handy hay bale in the remaining gap in the barn door. I shooed them into their pen, jumped in the Ford, raced to college, parked up, hiked briskly across the lawns, and still got to my meeting on time, albeit smelling a little of pig poo, and way too bad-tempered to be of any help to rational decision-making.

And so, to misquote Orwell, "such, such are the joys" of pig-rearing in modern Maine.

All's well that ends well?

We'll see, after I've looked for YouTube videos on pig-castration.

How hard can it be?

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