words by: Shawn + Beth Dougherty
The longer we work this land, the more deeply it forms the way we live and think. We build gardens and homes, fences and barns; we pasture cows, sheep, and poultry; we plant and tend gardens. And yet, in the long run, it is we, not the natural world, who are changed the most profoundly. Our visible impact on the land, the plants, and the animals signals a much more profound alteration inside us, the land keepers. We are the students, and, winter and summer, the farm gives us glimpses of who God is, and our true place in His creation.
January has been the time for our community pig harvest for twenty years. Our neighbors Barry and Kathy began it, with equipment Barry inherited from his father, and knowledge he acquired over a lifetime. It is no surprise to find these friends at the heart of any community activity; their family is always reaching out to share—food, time, knowledge—with the folks nearest them.
The connection between our families is natural. Our farms are only a couple of miles apart by the road. Barry had equipment and know-how; we had sons. He asked if we wanted to learn to slaughter pigs. With Barry supplying the brains and the Dougherty boys the brawn, his garage was transformed into a butcher shop. We built a brick stove to accommodate two cast iron kettles. We hung a block and tackle from the reinforced rafters in Barry’s barn, to carry the weight of several hogs. The long wooden scalding trough and maple harvest table took up their places against the wall under a row of iron meathooks and singletrees of various sizes. Five weanling pigs moved into a tidy pen in the barn.
That summer and fall, we were up and down the hill to Barry’s every day or so. We carried buckets of kitchen scraps to feed our new charges, bushels of garden wastes and corn shucks, gallons of tomato peels and apple cores from our food preservation tasks. Skim milk and buttermilk were welcomed enthusiastically by our fast-growing porkers. Our families took turns cleaning out the pig pen, keeping the water trough full. The pigs grew big, and then bigger.
When January came, we got our first lesson in large-animal harvest. That winter, Barry taught us to butcher hogs; we’ve held a January hog butchering ever since. Long custom passed down to our children has given our work a set pattern, a predictable schedule; you could almost say a ritual.
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Shawn and Beth Dougherty live in eastern Ohio, where their home farm is 17 acres designated by the state as ‘not suitable for agriculture’. Using grass as the primary source of energy, they raise dairy and beef cows, sheep, farm-fed hogs, and a variety of poultry, producing most of their food, and feed, on the farm. Concerned that farming is too often dependent upon multiple off-farm resources, from feed, fuel, and fertilizer to water and electricity, their ongoing project is to discover and test the time-honored means by which farming may be done with a minimum of off-farm inputs. Their research has led them to identify the daily conversion of grass into milk by dairy ruminants as a key to whole-farm sustainability. They are the authors of The Independent Farmstead, Chelsea Green Press 2016.