I don’t know jack about raising animals – and I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, it can be said (and yes, dozens of people have said, in various terms of disparagement) that I am not an animal person at all.
But the great thing about visiting a Heifer International project is that you learn a boatload about animal husbandry, even if you don’t want to. And while that still may not make you feel swoony about cows, pigs, chickens and goats, it certainly gives you new respect for them. It also makes you realize how utterly removed that we westerners are from any and all sources of our food, despite our utter dependence on animals for life itself. In the developing world, you see on a daily basis how important animals are to communities and how closely people live with their animals. The symbiotic relationship between man and beast is tangible and immediate: we simply can’t live without each other.
But let’s get back to the pork…In Uganda, pigs are valued for their meat, their manure, and their ability to produce other pigs – and lots of them. The mommy pig is a sow; the daddy pig is a boar – and piglets can become parents at an astonishing six months of age. Pretty much as soon as they’re weaned, they’re ready to roll. The gestation period for a pig is apparently as precise as a Rolex –and their litters are huge: a sow will often produce 10-15 piglets in one furrow. And they’ll produce at least five farrows in a lifetime. That’s some serious fertility.Almost as precious as piglets is pig poop …which can be used to fertilize banana plants, maize, coffee, potatoes, cassava, and all kinds of fruit trees. When you’re raising everything you eat, and there are no stores in the event you run out of Hot Pockets, a better crop isn’t just a luxury, it’s a lifeline. And poop makes a huge difference.
Heifer trainings teach farmers how to compost in six trenches: plant and food scraps are turned over and moved from one trench to the other over the course of weeks, until the sixth one produces beautiful composted soil, ready to be mixed with manure & used as fertilizer.
To produce this glorious rot, pigs eat banana peels, napia grass, elephant grass, food scraps and peels. The farmers must learn to plant and grow the food the pigs need to eat – which is another Heifer training. And farmers need to carefully cross-breed the pigs, so the pig stock remains strong and there isn’t an issue of in-breeding. The Heifer extension workers carefully chart the breeding and bring in boars from surrounding communities to protect the genetic integrity of the animals.
It’s a complicated thing, raising pigs. Particularly when you have to do every single part of it yourself: build the shed, raise the plants to feed the animal, breed it, milk it, sell it, slaughter it, and use its poop to grow more food for your family (and for your animals).
Bringing home the bacon is both remarkably complex and utterly essential.