“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly first.” -Joel Salatin
Whenever Josh and I tell someone that we live on a farm, the polite followup question is inevitably “what do you raise?” I think most people are hoping we’ll say tomatoes, but “pork and chicken,” is what we say. “Raised on grass, organic feed, happy and frolicking, that sort of thing.” The next question–usually tinged with a little horror–do you do your own butchering?
“Chickens only,” we say. “We have a mobile butcher come to our farm to do the pigs.” They usually look relieved, and the few who soldier on in this vein of conversation say something like, “I can’t imagine having to butcher a pig. It would be too hard.”
We agreed, which is why we’d never done it. (Also because we sell our pork, and food safety laws prohibit the sale of home-butchered meat to outside parties. If you kill it yourself, you have to eat it yourself.) Butchering your own pig is hard in many ways–emotionally, which is what most non-farmers mean by hard, and physically, which farmers and hunters understand.
The difficulties of home butchery
The emotional difficulty is of course a mental barrier, and that barrier dissolves with more practice and experience. We’ve slaughtered hundreds of chickens in the past couple of years, and although I don’t enjoy processing day, it no longer makes me nervous and jittery, and I love the small cadre of friends who routinely come together to help us out on those long days. We tell stories and listen to music, we share a big meal, and it seems very much the way that meat should be processed, and has been for millennia.
The physical difficulty of home slaughtering is a genuine challenge. Moving 200+ pounds of dead animal weight, sawing through bone, scraping off hair, chopping meat, stirring enormous kettles–processing an animal carcass like a pig can take days, depending what you want to do with it, and it’s exhausting work.
We were able to get past the mental barrier with chickens, and I knew we’d get there with our pigs eventually, and we don’t shy away from physically demanding work. The main problem for us was complete ignorance about the whole process of pig butchery, from the gunshot to the pork chops. We watched dozens of YouTube videos, attended a slaughter at a nearby farm, asked questions on Facebook groups, and listened to podcasts on the topic from Farmstead Meatsmith. We armed ourselves with as much second-hand knowledge as we could acquire, but in the end we needed the real teacher: experience.
Eliza and Alexander Hamilton were purchased to be our breeding stock for the farm. Eliza had a sweet personality, she gained weight quickly, she had excellent breed conformity, she was a courageous eater (you’d be surprised how picky some pigs can be). She was everything we wanted to replicate in our herd, except that she couldn’t replicate. Something was wrong with her that prevented her from coming into heat, and although she and Alexander Hamilton were excellent companions, their relationship was never anything but platonic.
Although we knew that Eliza had a near-term future in the freezer, we held onto her as companion for AH, and an auntie to our other sow’s piglets. Sometime this summer she topped 200 lbs, which is as big as a female of this breed will get, but her affectionate and calm nature never changed. Nonetheless, Josh and I were committed to not keeping any pigs as pets, and every month we kept her meant another month of feed.
Why was I dragging my feet, I wondered? Calling the butcher for Eliza seemed terrible for some reason, and for the first time, harvesting her ourselves seemed the less scary option.
If it’s worth doing…
Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm and leader of the local and sustainable food movement, famously said, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly first.” He means that although screwing up is hard, never trying because you’re afraid of failure is much, much worse. It’s worth pushing through the awkward difficultly of inexperience in order to learn a new skill and grow as a person.
Eliza had spent the summer eating apples and sweet corn, she was getting fatter by the day, and we had eaten the last pork in our freezer. It was time for us to grow up, risk failure, and butcher the pig ourselves. (With help from a friend.)
Stay tuned for more details about our first home butcher.