The pig paddocks have had too much impact!

It was the smell of failure.

Insidious. It seemed to creep up so slowly.

I was standing at the edge of our pig paddock, and all I could smell was the overpowering odor of pig manure.

Actually, I was at the edge of one of two pig paddocks, and we still had a third paddock on the other side of the farm. But these two paddocks had too many pigs on them for too long. Their impact on the land had been too much.

This system was failing. This system was screaming at me to be fixed.

Something had to change.

My wife and two daughters (3 and 5-years-old) were pinned under the four wheeler.

A week earlier, I was travelling back from my brother’s wedding.

The plane landed, and my phone started buzzing with texts sent while I was flying:

My wife and two daughters had been in a four wheeler accident. 

The four wheeler flipped.

All three were pinned underneath.

They were heading to the emergency department.

My 5-year-old was scraped up but doing well.

My wife was bruised and needed CT scans… no significant injuries.

My 3-year-old daughter was complaining of abdominal pain, was vomiting, and had blood in her urine.

She had a CT scan… some significant bruising. Probable kidney contusion. But everything was okay.

By the time I was able get home, the emergency had passed. But the near tragedy was, and is, still fresh.

We have fallen in love with this land, but we were not enjoying it like we should.

We have only been at our farm for two years.

The first year had been wonderful.

But things had changed during this second year.

With the stench of manure in the air and the bruises on my family, I knew something had to change.

The near tragedy shook us out of the routine we had fallen into.

Our Vietnamese Potbelly – Gloucestershire Old Spot piglets.

How had it gotten to this point?

Over the previous few months, I had observed multiple issues with our pig system. It had started moving in the wrong direction. When we first started with pigs, our thought was to incorporate a wide variety of breeds in our herd. I wanted to see what worked best for us and for our land. Included in our herd were a couple Vietnamese Potbelly Pigs. This small breed was very resilient, but it was just too small for what we were aiming for. Unfortunately, I had not separated the boar from our two potbelly sows… I had too many things on my list, and I separated them too late. Well, not surprising, we had undesired litters from each of our Vietnamese Potbelly sows.

So we now had three separate herds: 1) young uncastrated males (we didn’t castrate them, because I didn’t get to it… too many things going on!), 2) young females and older females we didn’t want bred, and 3) our main herd (boar and selected sows). Keeping three herds fed, watered, and on fresh pasture is a lot of work, especially when the weather is getting hot.

The pigs have a heavy impact on the land. We anticipated this, and we had designated an area for us to rotate our herd. Unfortunately, with the extra pigs and multiple herds, the land didn’t have enough time to recover by the time we needed to move the pigs to the next paddock. The result was degraded soil with no cover and an excess of manure building up.

Get to the root cause!

But the pigs were just one example, or better yet, a symptom, of the underlying problem.

I am a strong proponent of getting to the root cause of problems. Finding and fixing the failure is important, but discovering the underlying reason that the failure occurred in the first place is paramount to preventing similar problems in the future.

We needed to search for the underlying cause.

So what went wrong?

First, I know I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. We have had many successes on the farm. With our pigs specifically, I know they were actually in much better conditions than most other pig operations I have seen. But these were my pigs on my land under my management. And this is not how I wanted to raise them.

Second, we lost sight of what our goals were. As a general rule, I don’t publicly share our personal holistic goals, but I can say that our overall priorities are faith, family, homestead, environment, farm, community. I generally aim to live by two guiding tenets:

  1. The Permaculture Prime Directive: The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for own existence and that of our children. A Greek proverb that falls right in line with this is: A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
  2. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Third, we over committed. We stretched ourselves too thin. We pushed ourselves too much. I also work off the farm, and so this burden frequently fell on our intern, our WOOFERs, and my family. Instead of doing a few things well, we were doing too many things… some were working great, some were working well, some were not quite working, some were not getting done, and some were failing. Because we were too busy, we were not enjoying the journey. We had stopped doing a number of the things that were important to us. Yes, we were accomplishing a lot, but we were not accomplishing the things that mattered the most to us.

Fourth, I had not heeded my own advice: Revisit the Permaculture Principles on a regular basis. David Holmgren (co-founder of Permaculture) has 12 amazing principles that I regularly use… well, maybe not as regularly as I should have! The following section touches on a few of these principles and how we are using them to get back on track.

Permaculture Principle One: Observe and Interact.
I had observed, but I didn’t interact. We just kept on doing what we were doing. It is hard to take the time to make changes when you are just trying to keep up, even if those changes will make things better in the long run. But we need to take the time to implement changes based on our observations! 

 

Permaculture Principle Four: Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback.
It is so easy to let our pride get in the way of accepting feedback. It isn’t always arrogance. Too often we will just keep doing the same thing or wasting a lot of energy trying to accomplish something, because we think we are smart enough to figure it out. We tell ourselves, “If we just work on it a bit more, longer or harder, we can make it work!” And we may eventually figure it out, but at what cost? Remember the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

 

Permaculture Principle Nine: Use Small and Slow Solutions.
One of the first things I wanted to do on our farm was to try a little bit of everything. We would see what we liked, what worked for us, what didn’t work for us, and then we would pare down. Unfortunately, trying to maintain so many systems was overwhelming. Also, trying to pare down is actually a lot more difficult than I was expecting.

We thought we were starting small and slow. Compared to many farming ventures, we were not doing a lot. But for us, it was still too much. Over the last few months, my wife has told me many times, “This is starting to feel too big.” She has more wisdom than she credits herself, and if I was a bit more self-aware, I would have made the connection between her words and this principle.

However, we also need to use small and slow solutions to fix the problem as well. We could have decided to completely give up, sell the farm, and move back to suburbia. I think many young farmers get burned out and then walk away from everything. But that wouldn’t be a small and slow solution. We are choosing to pare down a step at a time… trim back slowly.

 

Permaculture Principle Twelve: Creatively Use and Respond to Change.
Everything is constantly changing around and within us. This is life. We can passively let these currents push us around. Or we can be intentional. We can use these changes. We can learn from them. We can respond to them. We can also make our own changes to influence those currents.

We found ourselves in a place we didn’t like. While we had systems that were working, we also had systems that were failing. And so we are doing something about it. We are observing, accepting feedback, interacting with our systems, and using small and slow solutions to get ourselves back on track with our personal holistic goals.

We have since made some changes to our pig system. We moved things around and now have two pig paddocks instead of three. By doing this, we have already cut our pig chores by a third. We are also giving the land more time to rest… and the smell is almost gone already! In addition, we took the time to process some of the larger pigs that did not fall in line with our breeding goals. This has cut our feed bill, and we now have some high-quality pork in our freezer and for sale. We will continue to cut back on our pigs until we have a much smaller breeding herd. Our focus is quality, not quantity.

We are implementing a number of other changes. For example, our first batch of broilers (meat chickens) is about 2 weeks from their processing date. This first batch of birds was for our own personal consumption. Last year, we raised a second batch to cover the expenses of the first batch. However, with being stretched too thin, we decided not to raise a second batch this year. That means our chicken is going to cost us more, but we will have more time to enjoy it!

We are continuing many of the things we love including raising our pastured lamb and laying hens. Most of our other changes are small, like they should be. But cumulatively, they will continue to guide us back toward our goals.

We love raising our sheep on pasture.

This Permaculture Life is a process. It is not an endpoint. There is constant evaluation and interaction and evaluation and interaction… and this goes on and on. And it can be a lot of fun. But we must be intentional.

I’ll end with some of my favorite quotes.

Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret?
There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.

– C. S. Lewis

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
– J. R. R. Tolkien

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
– Matsuo Basho

We are what we believe we are.
– C. S. Lewis

 

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