Burton on the Bay:
Hog Futures Down:
Time to Put Some Ham in Hamburgers?

Seeing that pig farmers are enduring tough times, to enhance the dismal market perhaps it's time to put ham in hamburgers.

But no solutions are that simple. Do that and think of all the fuss from those who can't get good prices for their beef - and who, like all farmers these days, have tough rows to hoe.

Farming never was easy. It's something akin to being a commercial fisherman, though worse.

The farmer spends as much if not more for tractors and other machinery than watermen do for their boats. There's land to buy or lease his land - and taxes to pay on it - while counterpart on the brine fish, crab, oyster, clam and such on public waters, where, also, I might add, the catch is the property of the public.

But let's not get into an us-against-them hassle. Both those who farm and fish for a living don't have it easy. Most of the money that passes between hands doesn't end up in the pockets of the harvesters; it's the greedy ones in-between who don't get the calluses on their hands who hog the profits.

But I see by the papers that pig farmers find business pretty lean, and that's putting it mildly. They're actually losing money on each pig they sell. You see, pigs have to eat.

No way can a pig be fattened for market for the price a farmer gets - last month's price on the hoof was 15 cents a pound (the lowest in 50 years) - which of course wasn't reflected in the tab at retail stores. It rarely is for anything that comes from a farm. Such is the life of a farmer. And consumers like us.

To market, to market to buy a fat pig, Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.

No one knows who wrote those words once read regularly to youngsters, and farmers would like to know who's going to market to buy their fat pigs.

Even the pigs aren't benefiting in this hullabaloo. The bottom line is the same for them: a trip to the slaughterhouse, maybe even worse for some pigs as farmers decide no sense in waiting to fatten them up when only about half the cost of doing so is recouped.

It's not like the old days when much of the diet of many pigs was from slops, which isn't a delicate word. But whatever was left over from the table, from the crops, from anything, went to the hogs through a soupy mash poured into troughs a time or two a day to round out their diet - and add pounds.


On the Farm

Fifty years ago, when I was still living in Vermont, pig farmers had contracts for village garbage. But once health inspectors got into the act, pigs raised commercially went strictly vegetarian, which I don't think they appreciated.

On the farm, the Burtons didn't get into pig farming much. It was mostly vegetables, fruits and eggs - though at times a pig or two was raised for table fare as cows were kept for fresh milk, butter and cheese. The cows were luckier; their longevity was assured as long as they contributed to the twice-daily milk pail.

The pigs lasted only until they were big and fat, which always bothered me as a boy whose job it was to slop the pig or two. Many a time, I promised myself I'd give up the pork, the bacon, the ham and whatever else came from the pigs I fed, if they could be spared their fall destiny.

Exceptions are rare. Pigs from birth are on the path to the butcher, as John Stuart Mill observed in 1859 in Liberty: "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied."

Generally, before the fateful day when vats are filled with boiling water, pigs have it good, it's eat, eat and eat. No beast-of-burden chores for them, just eat, get fat, lounge around or root, and in a year or two it's all over. Who wouldn't rather be a dissatisfied human any day?

So it went on the farm where I discovered once you're on a routine of feeding a creature day after day, you get to know it. You give it a name and you learn it's a living thing, and I guess you might even say there's somewhat of what you could loosely call a "bonding."

It was the same with the pig or pigs in the pen. My footsteps and voice became familiar, I represented their next meal. They came to me, they grunted, they squealed, they ate and they grew fat, which of course was the object of the whole process, whether or not I liked it, which I didn't.

They were low maintenance beings. You built a pen with a shelter (as distant as possible and down wind from the house), you got a pig and you fed it - some commercial meal mixed with watery skim milk, table scraps, vegetables and fruits not fit for market and the pig did the rest. It got fat, no milking, no hoeing, no plowing, no spraying, no nothing, just feedings twice a day.

But pigs have always gotten a bum rap, though I figure somewhat undeserved. They're not pretty - though piglets are cute - and once grown aren't too ugly when groomed, which reminds me of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland: "If it had grown up, she said, it would have made a dreadfully ugly child, but it makes a rather handsome pig, I think."

Sure, pigs are gluttonous. They're fat and their droppings have a very unpleasant odor, and they root in muck and mire to get themselves plastered with same. But they're fairly intelligent and not unfriendly though a sow can be aggressively protective of her piglets.


Pig Tales

We had a sick pig once. We knew it was sick; it quit eating. It was during the Depression - no money for a veterinarian - so Uncle Larry Brush headed up Red Mountain in the Model A to seek advice from a family who raised hogs for market.

The grizzled old grandfather listened to Uncle Larry's description of symptoms, thought a minute, then advised "Cut off its tail, and let it bleed. Cures 'em all the time."

That didn't settle well with Uncle Larry, a rather sensitive fellow who wouldn't swat a fly unless it buzzed him. But the lethargic pig didn't get any better and wouldn't take the fresh ripe apple I pressed against its snout one evening. Also, winter was ahead and the larder was low on smoked ham and bacon.

Within a couple days of the trip up the mountain, Uncle Larry told me to mix the flaky brown mash not with the usual water or skim or sour milk but with fresh rich milk and go feed the pig. He overruled my insistence that it would be a waste of good milk and mash.

As I approached the pen with pail in hand, I heard snorts and the gallop of the tan pig whose name I've long forgotten. It dug its snout into the trough as if starved, and while emptying the pail, I noticed its curly tail was missing.

| Issue 2 |

VolumeVII Number 2
January 14-20, 1999
New Bay Times
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