Gardens and pigs are a perfect combination. Overgrown zucchinis? Retiring the bean plants? Picked piles of weeds? The pigs are more than happy to take care of that for you and transform the garden extras and rejects into delicious pork and fertile manure.
On our farm, we raise heritage Kunekune pigs (originally from New Zealand), which are short, round, jovial creatures. Their longer fur keeps them warmed in the winter, and their shorter snouts mean they don’t root as much as standard hogs. But, oh, do those Kunekune pigs love the variety of foods they get to enjoy on the farm!
When we harvest in the aquaponics greenhouse, we haul off of the plant extras (lower lettuce leaves, kale stems, salad mix plants that have lived their life and need replacing) and give them to the pigs. Even in the deepest of winter, these fresh greens are adored by our furry friends, who grunt and munch and sort through the pile for the tastiest pieces first.
From the kitchen we save the food scraps — peelings, hulls and skins, produce past its prime and more. There are no complaints from the porkers over an old muffin or a split tomato. They will even run around with them in their mouth like a roast boar with its apple. “Look at me, I have a treat!”
Throughout the season, there is always something delicious for them in the garden. Some of the crops are for people, and some are for the pigs — at least that’s how we like to think of the weeds that we grow. They’re not just weeds; they’re a feed crop for the pigs! Sometimes there are so many weeds, that we back the utility golf cart that I use for chores right up to the fence and pile the dump bed high with succulent weeds, trundling off to deliver the goods to the pigs.
They squeal when they see the golf cart coming, lining up along the fence like a chorus of singers. As we flop the pile over into their pen, they purposefully stand underneath and let the food rain down on them. If it’s more than they can fit into their bellies in one setting, they’ll make a nest of the greens and sleep on them. Laying atop the heaps like dragons on their horde of gold, they snore and grunt, as if to say, “This is mine, and I’ll finish it off when I get hungry again . . . mine . . . all mine.”
Autumn must be a favorite time of year for the pigs, however. There’s reject apples from picking season, all the frost-sensitive vines and plants that we laboriously haul out of the garden for them, and we even grow varieties of winter squashes just for their enjoyment. Remember the squash patch we planted in an empty pig pen by our garage? The one where the vines had grown over the top of the house and were spilling out over the fence as if ready to grab you as you walked past?
We harvested that patch last week, trouncing through the jungle in search of the orb-like treasures hidden inside. At first, we were concerned that the plants had infused all their energy into vines (this can sometimes happen when the soil is rich in manure) or that the drought would have dampened yields. But between our heavy mulching, strategic watering, and the hearty determination of the plants, we pulled out a huge trailer-load of blue, pink, green, and orange squashes, one wheel-barrel load at a time.
We piled them high on the trailer, sorting out the underripe fruits for feeding first, while letting the riper ones cure in the sun for later. Some of them were enormous, including the lumpy dark green one that had grown on the roof of the pig house! Another squash had grown right into the squares of the hog paneling and was entirely stuck. The pigs were going to have to eat that one out of the fence!
In fact, after we had harvested all the good squashes, we opened up the fence to the chorus line of gilts (young female pigs) that were next door and let them have the whole pen. They searched for the small or missed squashes first, munching and crunching, then began eating the vines. Within the week, what was left in the patch was entirely consumed, and those were some seriously sassy, happy pigs.
Yesterday, we finished harvesting the patches of winter squash that will service our member families all winter long, sorting them into crates for storage. We picked out any critter-chewed fruits for the pigs and then rolled up all the vines and hauled them off for the porkers to enjoy as well. This morning, there they sat in their dragon poses on top of their piles of vines, snoring away.
If I were a pig, I’d want to live on a farm like ours, where I could rustle in squash vine jungles and have personal deliveries of succulent tomatoes, salad mix, and cauliflower plants. While the pigs are likely pretty full this morning, it won’t be long before they’ll be squealing at the sight of the approaching golf cart once more.
See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. (715) 462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com