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The Story of Bob

Bob was a pig to behold. He came out wide through the chest, long in the body, and thick through the hams from moment one. He had thick, straight legs, and the personality to fit his looks. He was the first to the milk bar and the last to leave; no one was taking Bob’s fair share, and by the time we castrated his litter I was so impressed with him he was spared lest we decide to hold him back for breeding.

But then, at three weeks old, Bob’s sow stepped on his hind quarters and he lost use of both back legs temporarily. We moved him to piggy-ICU for 48 hours to see if he would recover and he seemed to do well enough. Though it wasn’t perfect he began walking again and was able to go back in with his sisters, brothers, and sow until weaning. But then, a week and a half after weaning, Bob prolapsed. (Which means part of his bowel came out through his rectum.) He still had a bit of a hitch in his walk and I suspected the injury may have contributed to his prolapse. I talked to The Man about putting him down, but The Man has a soft heart and wanted to see if Bob would recover from the prolapse, too. (The Man always wants to wait and see if they will recover. Always.) I reluctantly replaced the prolapse instead of euthanizing Bob, put him back in piggy-ICU, and we waited. Bob recovered — for the most part. We put him back out with his brothers and sisters, but he never really caught up with them in growth. Both injuries had set him back and though he was eating, drinking, and engaging in all the behaviors we’d expect of a pig his age (and showed no outward distress) biologically he’d been through the ringer.

The thing is, none of this is surprising and I knew it as well then as I do now. Pigs who suffer set backs early in life through illness or injury are more likely to have poor growth rates, poor feed conversion (e.g. they require more food to make the same amount of meat) and are at a much higher risk of encountering life threatening complications before making it to market weight. From a business standpoint, euthanizing Bob at the point of the prolapse (if not earlier) was a slam dunk case. Far more likely than not, Bob was going to be an expensive pig that never panned out. But the emotional case is never so easy to make.

I can tell you for sure that at that moment, to the very best of my ability to tell, Bob was not suffering. But I can also tell you for sure that there was a lot of heated discussion in this farm household about the likelihood that he would in the future and the effect he’d have on the farm business in the meantime. I wanted Bob euthanized. I knew that even if he didn’t have further health complications his poor growth rate would make for the most expensive pork I’ve ever raised and didn’t want to pour resources into a pig that I wasn’t even sure we’d get to eating age anyway. The Man wanted Bob to stay, regardless of cost, because there was a small chance he would in fact grow to market size without significant complication other than requiring more feed. To him the farm’s bottom line was a distant secondary consideration, and hope for the best possible outcome overrode the logical analysis that told us that “best possible” was unlikely.

The nice thing about running a very small farm is that this does not happen often. I can count the number of pigs I’ve had to euthanize on my fingers. It’s not necessarily because we do things differently, so much as the fact that we simply don’t handle the sheer number of pigs other farmers do. So there’s fewer chances for complications.* And in every other case while it’s always been clear that The Man is the bleeding heart in this partnership, he’s never fought for one like he fought for Bob. So I relented. Bob stayed. I crossed my fingers I was wrong, and hoped the only downfall of keeping him would be the higher cost of feed.

By three months of age Bob was only a bit over half the size of his litter mates, and he remained that way throughout the grow out period — always just over half the size of the others. At a little over six months the rest of the pigs in his litter went off to the processor, but Bob stayed on, with the hope that he’d continue to grow — albeit slowly, and expensively — and reach a reasonable size to fill our freezer by nine or ten months old.

But at about eight months Bob’s hips got worse. He stopped eating as well as he had. He became depressed. He no longer met his savior and best friend, The Man, at the gate every evening. I broached the subject of euthanization with The Man again. He pushed back. Within three weeks, Bob was dead. He took with him eight months worth of feed, bedding, and hours of labor. He wasn’t the most expensive pork I’d ever raised; he was the most expensive lack of pork I’d ever raised.

The Atlantic is running a story right now by an incredibly naive, though probably well-intentioned, young woman who (in a nutshell) proposes more women in agriculture would solve all that ails our animal agriculture system. Women, she reasons, are more empathetic and more empathy is, in her mind, what we need. Throughout the piece she waxes poetic about women who secretly name every cow, and talk of their “love” for the animals, while simultaneously complaining about men who refuse to anthropomorphize their stock and talk about what she deems “profit-minded concepts.” Though we should note most of those “profit-minded concepts” she cites, “breeds, feeds, [and] technologies,” have more to do with animal welfare than “love” and first names any day.

I could write an entire manifesto on how abhorrent her assertions are simply in that they perpetuate the very stereotype of women she seems to think she’s railing against. But I think the fact that she’s simultaneously belaboring the lack of women in ag board rooms while touting women’s value to the industry only because they’re empathetic — and, hey! Can be farmers these days because it’s not so physically demanding, the delicate flowers we are — speaks for itself. I’m much more interested in this pervasive idea that good business sense is somehow in competition with animal welfare.

Back when we were in the poultry business there was one spring during which the usual spring rains were especially torrential and our brooding building flooded in the middle of the night. All of the broiler chicks it contained ended up sopping wet and nearly freezing cold despite the heat lamps that hung above them. When we found them like that at four in the morning they weren’t yet dead, but the signs of life were tiny and few; a twitch here, a shallow breath there. We scooped hundreds of cold, wet chicks into bins and baskets — whatever we could find and carry — and ran them into the house. There, The Man laid them in a single layer on towels on the floor and I broke out my blow dryer. I dried and dried every last one of them that showed the slightest sign of life. By the time I was done more than half of them were, miraculously, up and cheeping again. A few years after it happened I relayed the story to a group of people and one of them took the opportunity to point out how he thought it was evidence that though I talk a lot about farm business I obviously care very much about the animals in my care to have gone to such great lengths.

Of course he never stopped to think about what the loss of those chicks meant from a business standpoint. He simply saw extraordinary measures taken to save lives and assumed they were emotionally driven, but the loss of those chicks represented the loss of an enormous financial investment for our farm, too. In that instance and in so many before and since — on both our farm and others — what was good for the farm business was also good for the livestock who make it up.

Agriculture does not need more women any more than it needs more men. What agriculture needs is for more people like Ms. Faruqi to understand that good business need not exist in a bubble; that because a farmer seeks to feed and cloth and house his family does not make him a shell of a human being, lacking all empathy.

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