Out and About: My Week Working on an Organic Pig Farm

By Abigail Robinson

I decided to get out of NYC this summer and experience America.  What better way to experience America than on a farm…or a suburban strip mall…but a farm sounded like an adventure.  I also wanted a better understanding of how food is produced.  So, I logged into the WWOOF-website (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), found a farm suitable for NY girls like me, and signed up for a week.  Then I went back and noticed it was an organic pig farm…oh well, too late. Then I told my Jewish mother.

Day 1:  Located in the Alleghany mountains of Central PA, Clearville is located 4.5 hours from NYC and 30 minutes from the nearest town (there were so few cars there, you wave every time one goes by).  Clearville was close enough to drive, but far enough that I felt like I was getting the true “Pennslytucky” experience.  I decided to drive instead of take the train so I could make a quiet escape if it was too hardcore for me.

I was greeted by Farmer Dan and the other WWOOF-ers and was shown to the WWOOF “cabin.”  The word “cabin” is an overstatement. It was a garage full of tools, guns and dead snake skins on the wall.  No bathroom, and that was fine until it was 3am during the night in the pouring rain and I did not want to go outside. After putting down my bags, I was quickly whisked away for a safety talk on pigs and guns (two things that there were a lot of on this farm).  I learned some basics such as never directly face a pig because they think you are a threat and may charge at you and always stand at an angle.

Day 2:  As it quickly became apparent I had no useful farm skills, I was put to work pruning tomato plants.  Perhaps this is where they banish all volunteers with no useful farm skills. There were a lot of tomato plants, and some of them were engulfed by weeds. Tomato plants are pruned to give the tomatoes better access to sunlight (to maximize photosynthesis) and to prevent the spread of disease. I actually enjoyed pruning while listening to  books on tape, it was quite therapeutic.  The fun part was starting out with a plant that you could barely see any tomatoes on, and ending up with a piece of art.

Day 3: There are about 30 pigs at the farm. The pigs live together in groups of 5 or 6 in large wooded areas. They are known as “happy pigs” because they interact all day with other pigs and spend time with humans. There is even designated “pig socialization” time. It’s important for pigs to be happy because they are easier to handle when sent to slaughter. Supposedly, happy pigs make for tastier bacon (they ate bacon with every meal on the farm). During my first “pig socialization” session, I was pretty nervous because the pigs are fast and have large teeth. By the end, I learned how to best stand around pigs. I became pretty comfortable and even gave some tummy rubs.

Day 4: More pigs and tomatoes

Day 5: On Thursday night, everyone on the farm went to the local bar, appropriately called the “Rock Box.”  It was everything you would expect a rural bar to be including mullets, t-shirts with motorcycles and 75 cent-beers. I asked the girl behind the bar if they had a salad on the menu.  Indeed they did not and I went through the menu and asked item-by-item “is this fried?” Everything, including the broccoli, was fried.

Day 6: I love chickens. Chickens are the last animals I ever expected to like on the farm, but they are fascinating creatures. Not only can you eat them, but they provide fresh eggs every-other-day! Here are a few things I didn’t know about chickens:

  1. The rooster is the man. There can be anywhere from 3 to 25 hens per 1 rooster. (If there are two or more roosters, and not enough hens, they may fight till the death).
  2. The rooster has a very strong protective over his ladies.  About a year ago at the farm, a dog came onto the property and attacked the hens. The rooster stepped in and gave his life to protect the hens.
  3. Chickens are not creatures of the night, and choose to go into the coop for safety. One hen, Sweat Pea, was quite a bit smaller than the rest of the hens and was ostracized by the group.  She choose to sleep in another coop while the rooster and the other 8 hens slept together.
  4. Chickens have many different calls they use between themselves to alert the flock of a danger or food.  There’s a call for danger in the sky, ground, and more.

Day 7:  There were WWOOFers at the farm for anywhere from a week to a year. I could have learned the intricacies of pig farming (or even gained enough muscles to pick up the feed container) if I had stayed there for a longer period of time. I think though, for my purposes of gaining an appreciation for where food comes from (and how many man-hours are required on a sustainable diverse farm), a week was enough. Never again will I look at a $2.99/lb apple at the farmers market the same way again. But I smelled awful, and it was time to go home and take a shower.

 

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