More than 50 REALMS middle school students tore through Piggyback Ranch on a recent field trip. They were there to pet, chase and be nibbled by the offspring of Rosie, the beheaded and butchered sow they viewed in a demonstration a few weeks before.
More than an excuse to romp with pigs, the sixth-graders were on the last half of “Waste less, nourish more,” a semester-long interdisciplinary study that explores food production. The visit to Piggyback Ranch showed students the real-life oinks, grunts and snuffles that go into their bacon, pork chops and prosciutto.
The surprise and fascination were mutual between the pigs and humans. Some pigs made inquiring nibbles to students’ shoes and pant legs.
“They’re eating me!” a boy hollered.
REALMS, which stands for Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School, has been a choice-option school in the Bend-La Pine Schools since 2015. “Waste less, nourish more” is one of 18 programs throughout the country to receive a $5,000 grant through the “Better Worlds Project,” a competition by El Education Curriculum. In addition to learning about on-pasture meat-rearing, the REALMS students have been building a school garden and a campuswide composting operation. Standards for science, health and math are met by these initiatives, according to the school.
“We wanted to shine a light on where our food is coming from,” said Amy Anderson, REALMS program coordinator. “We like going to Piggyback Ranch because we like talking about the ways that local meat is farmed. We use Piggyback as our case study … of how you can humanely and sustainability raise meat (compared with) industrial meat farms.”
A few weeks ago, the students attended a seminar at the Cascade Culinary Institute.
Alongside a carcass of a pig that lived at Piggyback Ranch, chef instructor Thor Erickson explained the basics of butchering and the curing process of making prosciutto, which many students sampled. That was the “after” to the “before” interaction they had at Piggyback Ranch. Through his decades-long career, Erickson has butchered countless pigs. Carcasses of pigs raised in factory farms more often have swollen lymph nodes, he told the class, which indicates that hogs had been battling disease. He doesn’t see that kind of inflammation in pasture-raised pigs, like those at Piggyback Ranch.
“They’re happy pigs,” Erickson said.
Ranch owners Greg and Hilary Smith, also married, walked among the preteens and the pigs through fields of alfalfa, clover and orchard grass. They have raised two heritage breeds, the black-and-tan Gloucestershire Old Spot and ebony-colored English Large Blacks, on their 54-acre ranch northeast of Bend since 2010.
“They won’t eat you,” Greg Smith said. “They’re nibbly, but they won’t bite-bite unless you leave your hand out long enough.”
Many pigs were roughly 3 to 4 months old and already the height of medium dogs. Several boars and sows, kept for breeding, were 2 to 3 years old.
“They’re so cute,” said Anderson. The Smiths led visitors through the many fenced-in pastures — which range in size from one to 20 acres — they cycle the pigs through each month. In that time, the pigs will render a lush, irrigated acre blade-less and covered in manure.
“They’re a mower up front and a fertilizer out the back,” Greg Smith said. They also feed their pigs local brewery grain, oats, peanuts and varieties of fish. No feed is genetically modified.
The Smiths explained that conventional, industrialized farms raise pigs to 250 to 270 pounds in 6 to 8 months when they’re slaughtered. Most pigs at Piggyback Ranch live 12 to 16 months, reaching 200 to 250 pounds. They slaughter 20 to 40 each year, on-site, in a painless manner that causes as little stress to the pigs as possible, Smith said. Each pig is killed with a .22 caliber rifle bullet to the head.
Customers can buy entire or halved carcasses or 10-pound pork boxes. The farm occasionally sells to 900 Wall, a downtown Bend restaurant. Piggyback Ranch is one of 15 to 20 pig farms in Central Oregon. Of those farms, Piggyback Ranch is one of seven to 10 that raise pigs on-pasture and don’t use antibiotics, Smith said.
Makayla Saraceno, 12 and a sixth-grader, bent down to rub the belly of Peaches, a large sow who was reclining on her side. Smith said this pig is so intelligent and even leash-friendly that he might walk her in Bend’s Fourth of July Pet Parade. He’ll keep her as a breeder, which will extend her life to 6 to 8 years. Some physical attributes make Peaches desirable, as well.
“She has 14 well-placed teats,” Smith said, noting how piglets would have ample feeding access. “And intelligence is something to breed for. It creates a better animal with better foraging capabilities. (Intelligence makes) for better moms, and a stronger desire to eat and thrive.”
Rosie, the butchered large black sow whose fleshy skull grinned from inside a clear tub during Erickson’s presentation, lived to be 7 years old. She reared 10 litters — or about 100 piglets.
Saraceno had only previously encountered swine as piglets at a petting zoo.
“Some are super friendly and run around a lot,” she said. “The tails — personally — are adorable. I 100 percent didn’t know if the pigs would be super soft or not. I expected them to not have any (hair).”
Saraceno likes pork chops and bacon, but she didn’t care for the prosciutto she tried at the Cascade Culinary Institute. She said she feels guilty that these pigs will be slaughtered for meat.
“I feel very self-conscious,” Saraceno said, adding that if pork chops made an appearance on her dinner plate that evening, it would take her a lot longer to finish her plate, if at all.
The Smiths bought their original pigs from a farmer in Missouri. They sought out these heritage breeds for their genetics, which date back several centuries to when their ancestors thrived in conditions similar to the Smiths’ farm. After a 4,000-mile road trip, the Smiths brought back three adults and three piglets. They stayed in pet-friendly motels on the way back because “there was no way the piglets would have made it in 7 degree weather,” Greg Smith said. The adult pigs, packed in like sardines with plenty of hay, were fine in the trailer.
A student piped up with the classic question: “Is a pig or a dog smarter?”
“Pigs have a different level of comprehension,” Smith said. “They can unlock gates and retain information. So that would depend on the pig — and the dog.”
‘Eat less, better meat’
As Keala Anderson, 12 and in sixth grade, walked among the pigs, she said she liked to eat bacon and ham, although she knows that meat comes with the cost of life. Anderson and her classmates read Michael Pollen’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which exposed them to arguments for humane farm practices.
Keala felt conflicted about eating pork, but “it’s kind of in our nature because we’re omnivores,” she said. “We just don’t want (our animals to consume) antibiotics, insecticides or pesticides because (they’re) against our nature. The killing — well, slaughter — and butchering is part of nature.”
Prosciutto is kind of gross, though, she said.
“I like pork with lots of seasoning,” Keala said. “I thought the prosciutto was gross because (it’s cured) with only water and salt. If it had something else it’d be enjoyable, like bread and pesto.”
Here at Piggyback Ranch, she said, like other local farms, you can visit and see the green pastures the pigs are rotated around and that “the pigs don’t have nose rings to keep them from rooting.”
During the presentation at the culinary institute, Erickson also expressed his preference for pasture-raised meat.
“Eat less, better and older meat,” Erickson said. “That’s my philosophy.”
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