It seemed like a good idea at the time. I wanted to know how the Maya managed to scratch out a living, even thrive, on this drought-prone bit of rocky soil here in central Yucatan Peninsula. What plants and animals helped them survive during the last several hundred years of cultural disruption? The list was long and diverse but many, like the hairless ‘box keken’, or black pig, had been forgotten or replaced by more “productive” but less robust exotic breeds.
Centuries ago the Spanish introduced Iberian pigs, which adapted so well to conditions in rural Yucatan, they became synonymous with the resilience and self sufficiency of the subsistence farmer. More recently, box keken is being looked at as a protein source to help guarantee food security in an uncertain future.
It was this interest in food security and ancestral foods which led me to finance the purchase of 9 box keken piglets for a neighbor who was interested in raising them. Unfortunately, within 6 months they were returned to me, hungry, and not quite so adorable. We loaded them up for a short trip from the village to my farm and I focused on getting through high season at my eco hotel. By the time I could turn my attention to the farm, piglets were popping out everywhere. Who knew? Looking out over a dark grey sea of 38 pigs and frolicking piglets, I swore they would never experience the deprivations of a factory farm or the terrors of a slaughterhouse, that they would have ample space to root and range and just be pigs. No confinement, no unnatural food, just a healthy diet of greens, supplemented with food scraps from the restaurant and rice bran. Pig paradise.
How hard can organic pig farming be? Enthusiasm and naiveté make a dangerous combination.
Luckily the University of Google was at hand: Yucatan pigs: history; diet; forage plants; intelligence; free range; playground; humane slaughter. I spent months learning how to be a benevolent pig farmer. Costly mistake were made. We experimented with free range, for example, until a neighbor discovered the herd feasting in his corn field. Oops.
I enlarged their corral to one acre, improved their shelter, deepened a cooling pond and mud bath and built a large feeding trough to minimize crowding and conflicts. People urged me to just truck them all off to slaughter. I knew I couldn’t afford to feed them into old age but surely there were alternatives. I studied the guidelines for humane slaughter. I read Temple Grandin’s books. I talked to farmers who raised and butchered their own livestock. Finally, I settled on a way to provide each mature pig with a no fear, no stress end to a pleasant life. I try to remember that with each easy life and death I ensure, one less pig suffers the factory farm and slaughterhouse experience. It also means that those who eat meat can choose to eat “clean” meat with a clean conscience.
* I am currently an omnivore and will not be restocking the pigs after herd numbers are down. The last two will live in semi-retirement, loosening rocks and compacted soil on the farm and just being pigs.