Edible Essay: What a pig named “Big Bacon” taught me about responsible hog farming

“Pet them or eat them…your choice!” read the Craigslist ad for the free pair of swine siblings I found online last December. My husband Daniel, a city-reared chef from Rio de Janeiro who spent summers with relatives in rural Brazil, warned me that acquiring the complimentary Christmas gift might come at the expense of my paladar for pork.

After spending our summer in beautiful Bend, Oregon, Daniel and I accepted an offer to work as managing partners at an equine-friendly retreat center located off the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway. We resided on-site with our 5-year-old son, isolated 30 miles from civilization on 180 acres of high desert expanse, situated amongst statuesque lodgepole and Ponderosa pine trees that stretched for miles into a trio of National Forests.

My master plan was to develop the region’s first Farm Stay USA experience, and having meat on hand that we could sell to our guests was the first step.

Without my “Edible education,” I’d likely have lacked the confidence for such an undertaking. Storytelling for Edible Cleveland had given me tremendous insight into the value of knowing the origin of my food and often afforded me invaluable opportunities to meet the purveyors of many a morsel that pleased my palate.

Unbeknownst to me, I was being groomed for hog farming with each chance to scribble about the craft of snout-to-tail cooking: meeting Mangalistas while strolling Spice Acres with Ben Bebenroth; visiting chef Matt Del Regno’s urban farm at the Cleveland Convention Center; joining ACF chefs for Vincent Delagrange’s coppa class at Urban Farmer; chatting with Adam Lambert of Ohio City Provisions as he stealthily sectioned half a hog without missing a beat; or meandering around the Saucisson kitchen with my kid in tow as bloggers eyed a swine’s head bobbing in a gelatinous broth and feasted on a bounty of porcine delicacies…

“Can we call him George instead, and not eat him?” our son John Uilson inquired in earnest about the barrow I’d christened “Big Bacon.” But with no means to reproduce and a potential to balloon to nearly 500 pounds, economics had determined the castrated male’s plated fate the day he arrived on the ranch. Considering feed costs meant keeping him long-term as a pet would eventually become infeasible.

Picking names for Big Bacon’s sister, Delilah, and her new companion, Francer, assuaged my sweet child’s sense of loss for the beast who’d so effortlessly earned our affection, and his awareness presented me an opportunity to give him a gentle education about factory farming.

“Do you still plan to eat sausage and bacon?” I asked. He nodded without hesitation. I sat down at our dining room table and opened my laptop. I keyed the words “PETA gestation crate” into my Google search bar and invited him to sit beside me. His brow furrowed in confusion as he eyed the images of animals confined to sow stalls and farrowing crates commonplace in the commercial hog industry.

I explained what a blessing it was that we can control not only the way our pork is processed but also how Big Bacon lives. Unless we raise our own meat or have a link to the farmer who does, it’s unlikely the pigs we eat will live differently than the ones we’re seeing on our computer screen.  

Lessons about sustainability grew organically from our shared experience. Rerouting our kitchen scraps lowered our feed costs while mitigating the methane gasses produced when our produce was pitched in the trash. As we lovingly separated snacks instead of serving the pigs “slop,” our efforts were repaid in double as the pigs literally sang for their supper and began eagerly sitting on command for spaghetti.

The companionship of our endeavor was a benefit I hadn’t bargained for. The Kune Kune pigs we raised are a New Zealand heritage breed that’s purportedly the most docile in the world. Big Bacon and his sister Delilah were affectionate, and Francer, the boar we brought into the fold for breeding, would eagerly recline for belly rubs with a few scratches on his ribcage. Self-segregating their areas for sleeping, eating, playing, and potty consistently proved their penchant for order and cleanliness with the support of a competent caretaker. 

Although I began our relationship with intention, determining Big Bacon’s last day weighed heavily on my mind and heart.

A dozen years ago, a book by Gail A. Eisnitz called Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, And Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry stunned me into vegetarianism for nearly a year. After one too many bean burritos, my carnivorous desires and conscience found a middle ground when I learned about Certified Humane® labeling for meat, dairy, eggs, and poultry from the nonprofit certification organization Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), which ensures a standard of care from birth to slaughter.

In an effort to “modernize production,” the Trump administration trimmed animal welfare and consumer protections from commercial hog processing even further in September 2019, ushering in changes that eliminated the limits on how quickly slaughterhouses can sacrifice pigs while reducing the amount of USDA oversight. Government officials still inspect the animal prior to slaughter and evaluate the end-product; however, under the new legislation, factory employees are now entrusted to remove any defective meat during the slaughtering process.

“The implementation of the rule will result in the fox guarding the henhouse,” cautioned Wenonah Hauter, executive director of advocacy group Food & Water Watch, who predicts these changes could contribute to a heightened instance of contamination. 

A Certified Humane option was not available to me, so I traveled 100 miles to deliver Big Bacon to a USDA-certified slaughterhouse in Madras that I personally vetted for cleanliness and humane methods. As we parted ways, I stroked his head and thanked him for his sacrifice and company before corralling him to his holding pen and saying “goodbye” with tears in my eyes.

In late March, on the heels of our governor’s COVID-19 mandate to shelter in place, I retrieved nearly 150 pounds of meticulously-packaged cuts from the butcher’s assistant at the Oregon Beef Co. While faced with highly-processed packaged meats and factory-farmed pork, the meager options left mingling together in our grocer’s coolers, I was thankful to know my family would be satiated in spite of the slim pickings available.

I couldn’t be more grateful for having taken the gamble on hog farming. Peace of mind during a pandemic was only the tip of the iceberg.   

Though I have immense respect for Tom Jones and his venerable Oregon Beef Co., working within the confines of his utilitarian approach made me miss the Lady Butchers of Saucisson all the more, particularly their abundance of artisan offerings like tasso ham and rillette. At my request, Mr. Jones carefully packaged an enormous box of Big Bacon’s fat so I could attempt replicating Melissa Khoury’s luxurious lard soap sprinkled with hand-harvested lavender.

I abundantly enjoyed each cut and the nuance in flavor, discovering pork shoulder steaks are a new favorite. I reveled at the marked difference in color, texture, taste, and aroma when compared to similar offerings at the supermarket. I lamented the relatively low cost of bacon and ribs considering how little of each such a large animal provided. Food waste was now out of the question, my 360-degree exposure molded me into a more conscious cook and consumer.

Tricia Chaves

Hog Farming in Cleveland? Yes.

While we had hundreds of acres available to utilize, the footprint of the pigs’ enclosure was minimal, about the size of my Cleveland kitchen. Their care took less than 20 minutes a day, no more complicated than scooping a litter box morning and night while dropping some kibble and clean water. I learned that pigs are hardy animals who can, with a small shelter, tolerate temperatures descending far lower than a typical Northeast Ohio winter night.

Thanks to a generous urban agriculture ordinance, Clevelanders may keep up to two pigs on a residential parcel that is at least 24,000 square feet in area, and an additional animal for every additional 2,400 square feet.

You can obtain more details by calling the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability at 216-664-2455 or by reviewing the urban agriculture ordinance online.