Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio
Sheep, at least their owners, call it lambing season.
Any idea what this rite of spring is when it refers to pigs?
I didn’t until last weekend when I visited Lover’s Leap, a heritage pig farm in Kinderhook, NY.
In fact, I realized my knowledge of pigs was largely limited to the fact that they’re the raw ingredient in great bacon. And I think we can all agree that the world would be a less interesting place without bacon.
But to answer your question, or at least mine, Curt Gobrecht, Lover’s Leap’s farmer and a partner in the operation with neighbor and businessman Heinz Grossjohann, told me this time of year is called farrowing season.
The population swells to as many as two hundred sows, boars and piglets in the spring and summer. They inhabit sixty acres of reclaimed farmland. Or rather farmland that Mr. Gobrecht is in the process of reclaiming with the help of his pigs.
It turns out they’re an ideal animal for grazing hilly and overgrown woods and returning them to a productive ecosystem for producing food.
“Our main goal is to reclaim the land,” he told me as we walked the property just off Route 9H, a busy road. “It was an orchard 100 years ago.”
While I may have known little about pigs that doesn’t mean I didn’t have strong opinions. They were based on sources ranging fron Saturday morning cartoons to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
My impression is that hygiene wasn’t a priority, but that they were the smartest animals in the barnyard. I also seem to recall that I played “Snowball” in a high school production of “Animal Farm,” an admirable porker modeled on Leon Trotsky.
For example, I didn’t know how many teats they had. To be frank, I hadn’t given their teats much thought.
But Mr. Gobrecht informed me that the number of teats on a sow is a genetic trait and something they breed for. He described it as “motherability.”
Nonetheless, I was impressed to learn that fourteen nipples are about average and that one of their pigs gave birth to eighteen babies. Though she was an outlier and they had to take turns nursing.
Mr. Gobrecht, who offers tours by appointment, said that a typical litter among heritage breeds – his include Tamworths and Berkshires – is eight to ten piglets.
He sells his antibiotic-free animals, they’re raised on pasture and forest with local hay, whey and grains. The farm also does pig roasts, either on or off site. They already have five scheduled for this summer.
And the animals lead a good life, the farmer describing them as the “1% of pigs.”
They get to forage in their natural habitat. That means the woods that overlook the fields where they were hanging out on the blustery early spring afternoon that I visited.
Part of the allure of pig farming besides being his own boss for Mr. Gobrecht (he has a masters degree in teaching) — is that he grew up on the property, partly owned by his family, making tree forts and playing in its creek.
We made our way to the farrowing barn where a sow (forgive me but I didn’t get her name) flopped on her side so that her babies could nurse.
Most of the structures at Lover’s Leap are produced from trees cut on the property, as well as the cedar and locust fence posts.
“She’ll actually sing to them,” Mr. Gobrecht said.
I didn’t find the melody especially catchy – it sounded more like rhythmic snorting – but then again I’m not a piglet.
“If they’re out in the field,” the farmer went on, “she’ll start doing this sound. It’s calling them to nurse.”
In the summertime, they’ll give birth in the woods. And one of the signs of a good mother is that she’ll construct a well-formed nest from bushes.
A mountain lion was spotted on the ridge one evening in September with a chicken in its mouth, solving the mystery of where the farm’s poultry was disappearing.
Yes, a mountain lion. Not a bobcat. Mr. Gobrecht said he got a good, sustained look at it from about fifty feet away.
But he added that pigs have little to worry about from predators, even mountain lions. Since they’re ornery, weight close to 400 lbs. and surprisingly fast on their feet.
They’re also herd animals, alert at all times, and highly protective of their young. “Rarely will you see one pig wandering by itself,” he said.
Or as Mr. Gobrecht put it, predators that might be considering adding pork to their diet, “Can smell the strength of them.”
I smelled something else. But found it reassuring, nonetheless.