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Cloudy with a Chance of Bagels
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
With financially stressed farm budgets, how do you satisfy the insatiable appetite of a herd of pigs?  The answer, of course, is the time-honored strategy that has long served the down and out:  by desperately begging.
Processed feed is expensive.  A hundred-pound bag of locally milled feed (mostly consisting of corn and soy) costs about $15 a bag when you're buying it by the ton.  We raise red wattle pigs, a breed that routinely produces boars that can weigh more than a thousand pounds.  Some extremely large red wattles have attained that weight by the time they're a year old.  By the time they're six months old, even normal-sized red wattles are eating ten pounds of food a day and gaining almost three pounds of body weight.  So, feeding a small herd on mill-processed feed becomes an expensive proposition.
When you have a herd of hungry animals to feed, each of which is potentially capable of growing into something the size of a Volkswagen, you spend a lot of time thinking about cheap alternatives.  (And yet our pigs are midgets compared to the world-record Poland China boar known as Big Bill, who in 1933 was weighed at 2,552 pounds.)  I know of a hog farmer who obtains for free the whey from a cheese-making operation and feeds this high-protein by-product to a herd of rare Ossabaw Island hogs.  Lacking a local cheesemaker, we had to go a different route; one that veered toward gourmet food and bagels.
We are lucky enough to get the leftovers from a local gourmet restaurant run by New York Times acclaimed chef Keith Baxter.  Keith is a big believer in helping local farmers, and his restaurant, Kool Beanz Cafe, supplies us with several hundred pounds of salvaged food each week.  (Federal regulations prohibit us from selling pork that is raised on leftovers, so we limit the use of this pork to our farm family.)
Also, a local retail outlet of Bruegger's Bagels gives us their two-day old bagels for free.  Each bagel carries a 300-calorie gut punch, and some days hundreds of bagels make their way into our pig pens.  On a good day a single pig will eat a couple of dozen bagels, and here's the amazing part:  without coffee.  (Our stud bull, who I never credited with much intelligence, has figured out the game by watching the pigs, and now he, too, bellows to be fed.)
Every morning I sling the surplus bagels into the bed of my pickup truck, and the pigs soon came to associate the sound of my truck with the arrival of their breakfast.  Like Pavlov's pigs, they run to the fence when they see my truck coming, and from the bed of the truck we wing bagels into the writhing mass of grunting pigs, each jockeying for position to try and snag a bagel out of the air.  (I'll be honest:  It's a little weird to see these pigs with their slobbering, clacking jaws cast their beady eyes heavenward as they rapturously await food to fall from the sky.)   Our children have become quite adept at flinging the bagels like yeasty little frisbees, often scoring a direct hit on the cavernous open mouths that are their targets.
So, between the acorns and roots they forage in the woods, the gourmet food from Kool Beanz, and the gift of airborne bagels, our pigs are happy, healthy, have a varied and delicious diet, and cost virtually nothing to feed.  And from all this free food is produced one of the most valuable experiences of all:  the prospect of eating perfect pork.