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The end - A PIG’S TALE

Steve Buist, Hamilton Spectator, 2021.06.07

I left the Great Lakes packing plant on May 12 with four boxes of meat piled onto the back seat of my car. Piggy — my pig, the pig I had helped raise and care for — was packed inside those boxes.

Six months of his life, six months of my life, all reduced to four cardboard boxes on my back seat.

I drove straight from Great Lakes in Mitchell to Beach Road Meats & Deli, on Locke Street South in Hamilton.

Chris Newport, the store’s butcher and manager, had agreed to transform the larger primal cuts I brought back from the packing plant into the familiar smaller cuts — chops, roasts, ribs and sausage — that you’d find in your supermarket.

We carried the boxes into the store, then Newport handed me a large laminated sheet with a dizzying array of pictures representing all the various cuts of pork that were possible.

He explained which kinds of cuts come from which parts of the animal, we agreed on the best choices, then he repacked the boxes and put them in the store’s meat locker.

Piggy weighed two pounds when he was born on Nov. 22.

When he left for the slaughterhouse on May 9, he weighed about 240 pounds.

When his eviscerated carcass was weighed for payment purposes, Piggy was down to 190 pounds.

After processing into primal cuts at Great Lakes, he weighed 152 pounds.

Once Chris the butcher was finished with Piggy, I was left with 103 pounds of meat. That’s a little over 40 per cent of Piggy’s original live weight.

All together, Piggy provided enough meat to feed the average family of four for about 50 dinners.

There was one final step left to complete the journey from farm to table.

A meal, with Piggy as the main course.

It’s May 16. Time for the final meal. This has been the part of the project that seems to have caused the most discomfort for people around me.

Enough discomfort that I’ll admit I became a little apprehensive myself.

A week had elapsed since Piggy had been slaughtered. I’d watched his final moments with my own eyes, watched him walk into the stunning chamber, watched the doors close behind him.

How did I feel about that?

The truth is, I’m not sure how I felt.

From the start, I’d been careful not to become emotionally attached to this animal. This wasn’t a pet.

It was also important for me to remember that what I was doing was artificial.

A real farmer doesn’t develop a personal relationship with one pig, nor do pigs get singled out for special treatment, as mine did. And they certainly don’t get named.

For the most part, it was easy to remain detached — Piggy was one of thousands of pigs at Curtiss and Tonny Littlejohn’s farm, and let’s face it, pig barns aren’t the most glamorous surroundings.

Once in a while, though, the lines would get blurred.

Each time I was at the farm, I’d weigh Piggy to keep track of his growth.

When he was small, it was a simple process — I’d pick him up from the farrowing stall or the weaner room, carry him to the scale and place him inside.

As he got bigger, it was a little more challenging. I’d have to find him, catch him and then drag him out of the room by his back leg to the scale, then gently coax him inside.

When Piggy moved to the finishing barn in early February, weighing him became more of a chore. Now he was in a large open barn with about 600 other hogs, and the only way I could identify him was by looking for the one pig with a small plastic ear tag.

Some days, it would take up to half an hour just to find him, then I’d spray a line of paint down his back so I wouldn’t lose him in the crowd.

Then I’d have to convince one of the other farm workers to help me herd Piggy out of the barn using big plastic boards. Once he was in the narrow hallway, it was easy to get him to walk into the scale.

By the time Piggy was close to market weight, though, a funny thing started to happen. He would walk out of the barn on his own, with just the slightest bit of coaxing.

A couple of times, I managed to get him out of the barn on my own — no easy feat when you’re trying to manoeuvre around hundreds of other hogs.

He’d then hop into the scale, I’d record his weight, he would climb back out and make his way down the hallway back to the barn door on his own.

So when I watched him at the slaughterhouse, it was impossible not to feel the occasional twinge of — something.

Guilt? Regret? Complicity? Those are too strong. Let’s just call it a twinge of anxiety.

I wasn’t happy, certainly, but I wasn’t sad, either.

Piggy had fulfilled his destiny to become food, and I knew that would be his fate before I’d even started out on this journey.

Rather than a sombre event, I wanted the final meal to be a celebration of food.

After all, isn’t that what farming is all about?

Farmers feed people, and food is a central part of our daily lives. For many people, a shared meal around the family table at Christmas or Thanksgiving forms part of their happiest memories.

So on the evening of May 16, six of us gathered to celebrate the life of Piggy.

We chose his two tenderloins and a centre loin-cut roast, complemented by roasted potatoes, asparagus and salad.

I carved the meat, the plates were filled and then five sets of eyes were on me as I raised a forkful of roast pork to my mouth.

It was a strange scene, to be sure, and an even stranger feeling for me.

I can report that Piggy was delicious.

AFTER NEARLY six months of care and feeding, here’s what my pig’s life was ultimately worth from a cold, hard financial perspective:

$124.66.

On May 9, the day Piggy was slaughtered, that was the going rate for the 190 pounds his carcass yielded.

It doesn’t seem like much money in exchange for a life. Less so when you consider the effort it takes to raise a pig from birth to table.

Still, it was a better price than I thought I’d be getting when this project started.

Had Piggy been born four months earlier and gone to market in mid-January, I’d have received just $72.21 for him.

Imagine that — $72 to the farmer, for an animal that had grown to 240 pounds. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?

It was now time to complete the balance sheet and figure out whether I made or lost money on Piggy.

The cost of feed alone was $94, so the prospects for a profit didn’t look good right from the start.

The trucking cost to the Great Lakes Specialty Meats packing plant in Mitchell was $3. The Ontario Pork marketing fee was $1.75.

Drug injections when Piggy was a baby: $5.14. Artificial insemination, and the necessary equipment: $1.62.

Piggy’s share of the farm’s utilities: $5.13. Labour: $13.71. Manure disposal: $2.44.

And on and on it went as I calculated all of the per-pig expenses for the six months he lived at the Littlejohns’ farm.

The final tally?

It cost me $161.04 to raise Piggy.

I lost $36.38 in my one and only attempt at pig farming.

From a business point of view, that represents a loss on investment of about 22 per cent, which is rather dismal. Not many businesses would want to endure sustained losses of more than 20 per cent for any long period of time.

And my loss could have been even worse.

Hog prices in Ontario have risen sharply through April and May.

Between January and mid-May, hog prices increased by about 65 per cent, though they remained below the cost of raising the animals.

Had Piggy gone to market in the second week of January, for example, I would have lost more than $80 on him, based on the hog prices being paid to farmers at the time.

Of course, the financial hit I took pales in comparison with the plight of a typical Ontario hog farmer.

On the day my pig was shipped to the Great Lakes packing plant, there were 173 other hogs on the transport truck from the Littlejohns’ farm.

One died in transit, which is the worst possible outcome for the farmer because he gets nothing back for the six months invested in the pig.

Assuming the same losses applied to all the other pigs on the truck, the Littlejohns lost $6,41802 on that one shipment of hogs.

“TELL ME what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”

Those are the words of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin — a French lawyer, politician and noted lover of food — in his 1825 book The Physiology of Taste, considered the first formal study of gastronomy.

Would I really want to know Brillat-Savarin’s assessment of me?

I ate my pig, a pig that I had helped raise from birth, a pig that I then watched walk up the slaughterhouse chute to its death.

What does that make me?

In search of an answer, I called Jeff McMahan, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Last winter, McMahan published a provocative essay titled “Eating animals the nice way,” which explored the ethics of meat-eating from a philosophical perspective.

He coined the term benign carnivorism, which he applied to the concept put forward by others that “animals that are raised to be killed and eaten would never have existed if we had not created them in order to eat them.”

It’s a concept he rejects, even when it’s carried out under the most humane conditions possible. There is no nice way to eat animals, he concludes.

McMahan’s point is we may have known that this pig was destined to become food right from the outset, but Piggy didn’t know that and Piggy didn’t consent to it.

Nor would it be possible, he argued, to get an animal to agree to such an arrangement in advance — you get to be born and live as comfortably as possible, we get to shorten your life and eat you.

“Whatever good the practice has bestowed on animals up to this point cannot be cited as credit from which the killing can now be debited,” McMahan wrote.

“The animals’ interest in continuing to live outweighs the human interest in eating them,” he added.

I explained my project to McMahan and told him I was about to head to the slaughterhouse with Piggy, and then a final meal featuring my pig’s meat would follow.

“What should I think of myself?” I asked him. “Am I a bad person?”

“Your case is an interesting one,” McMahan said. “There is this one pig that you have called into being, that you go to visit and take care of, and you’re going to take its life and consume it. In some ways, that particular pig is your responsibility.

“To deal with this pig in some way other than eating it would be pretty problematic for you,” McMahan continued. “Suppose you decided after talking with me, you said: ‘I just can’t do this. I have to take care of this pig.’

“The pig is now dependent on you. What are you going to do? You can’t bring the pig home.”

“But aren’t we animals ourselves?” I asked McMahan. “Does that absolve us of responsibilities, or does that put more responsibilities on us?”

“I don’t care whether I’m ultimately biologically related to other animals or not,” said McMahan. “I don’t think that matters for what I’m permitted or not permitted morally to do. I also don’t think it’s particularly relevant that my ancestors acted in a certain way or that animals act in a certain way in relation to each other.

“I don’t think that we should think of nonhuman animals as our moral guides,” he reasoned. “If they kill each other, they’re not moral agents at all. They don’t have the capacity to reflect about these things and to act on the basis of reasons.

“They don’t deliberate about what they ought to do or think about how they ought to behave. They just act.”

“So am I a bad person?” I asked again.

“If it were me, would I eat it? No, I wouldn’t do that,” he said.

“Do I think you ought not to do it? Then I guess I would say yes, you ought not to do it,” said McMahan. “But I don’t know what you ought to do instead.

“I’ll be the little angel on one shoulder scolding you, OK?” he added with a gentle laugh.

I didn’t rescue Piggy, obviously, despite McMahan’s delicate admonishment.

But I have thought a lot about food over the past six months.

I’ve thought about how food arrives at our table and the people who get it there.

About how our resources are allocated and about policies that, for instance, seem to favour sticking corn in our gas tanks rather than our bellies.

But mostly I’ve thought about how little we think about food and how we assume that it will be cheap, safe and plentiful.

MY CAREER as a pig farmer has come to an end.

I escaped with a net loss of $36.38.

Real pig farmers, of course, can’t walk away as easily or as cheaply as I did.

We finish this journey where it started more than six months ago, at the farm of Curtiss and Tonny Littlejohn in the hamlet of Glen Morris.

Like many other Ontario hog farmers, the Littlejohns have endured near-catastrophic financial losses over the past year.

“I could show you the balance sheet,” Curtiss said. “It’s scary.”

Over the past 12 months, he said, their family farm has lost more than $600,000.

“How do you survive that?” I asked him. “How do you cope with that, not just in an economic sense but in an emotional sense?”

“Emotionally, it takes its toll,” he said. “At the end of the day, you just make a personal decision that you are going to get through this.

“Unfortunately, there are people who will weather a storm in any industry and come out the other side different. I don’t know about stronger. Just different.”

This isn’t the first storm the Littlejohns have weathered. There was a similar downturn in 1998 in the pork industry, but the current one is worse.

“I was through it in ‘98, and it was only three years ago that I took down the form on the wall for farm debt mediation,” Littlejohn said. “Every day I’d go into my office and look at that form. It was always there reminding us how bad it could be.”

“How long do you figure it will take you to make this back and erase the damage?” I asked.

“No idea,” he said bluntly. “It took us six years to pay back what we lost in ‘98.”

As the chairman of Ontario Pork, Littlejohn must worry not only about his own future but also about the future of the pork industry across the province.

In 1979, there were more than 20,000 hog farmers in Ontario. Today, there are fewer than 3,000 left, and Littlejohn said he expects the province to lose, on average, one hog farmer a day for the next year.

Yet he remains stubbornly optimistic that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

It all comes back to simple economics — the law of supply and demand.

Right now, the cost of production is higher than the prices that farmers are receiving for their hogs, and that will eventually lead to less production.

That’s already happening in Canada, with the federal government’s announcement of a subsidy program to reduce the number of breeding sows.

At the same time, there’s still strong demand for pork worldwide, so prices will begin to rise.

That, too, is happening in Ontario, with hog prices rising about 50 per cent in the six weeks from the end of March to the middle of May.

“I guess the thing that’s really been impressed upon me is the absolutely cyclical nature of farming,” I said to Littlejohn. “You really have to be built mentally to be in a business where you know it’s constantly going to be a roller-coaster of ups and downs.”

“This is not a business for the faint of heart,” he replied.

“No, it’s not,” I sighed.

“No, it’s not.”


Posted by Admin on July 23rd, 2009 :: Filed under Canada, Consumers, Farm life, Pork
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