The Pig is Mightier Than the Plow

Every spring I go out and buy a new tractor. I get to run it around the garden from May to November. It breaks ground, raises rocks, spreads manure, and builds up the soil. Then, around Thanksgiving, we eat the tractor. Or part of it anyway. The rest we brine, smoke and freeze. We call it the pig tractor.

Pig  tractors  run  about  35  bucks  nowadays,  but  I  remember when  you  could  get  one  for  about  half  that.  That  was  before  so many  gardeners and  small  farmers wanted  one.  Used  to  be  just farmers raising hogs in the barn. Now everybody wants the one-pig- power garden cultivator, and they fetch a fat price.

It’s  worth  it.  Around  May  Day  you  pick  up  a  freshly  weaned shoat,  hocks  thin  as  cooking  spoons  and  bristles  just  beginning  to thicken.  Your  brand  new  piglet  can’t  weigh  much  more  than  25 pounds.  But  by  Thanksgiving,  well  maintained  and  fueled,  he’ll dress  out  to  ten  times  that,  not  counting  scrapple.  That’s  the astounding  thing  about  a  pig  tractor.  He  starts  out  barely  strong enough to hoe dandelions and finishes up plowing 50-pound stones.

Who ever heard of a rototiller that gained power as it grew older? As far as parking goes, a pig tractor doesn’t need much. That’s the  point.  We  keep  ours  in  an  8-x-10-foot  pen  framed  of  scrap lumber and light balsam poles cut from the woods. If the pen gets much  bigger,  it  grows  unwieldy.  There’s  no  need  to  anchor  it because the pen must be mobile.

Indeed  the  pig  is  mightier  than  the  plow.  As  I  rotate  the  pig tractor over sod or garden soil, the land is fertilized and tilled. Roots and  stones  are  unearthed,  and  we  clear  them  away.  The  pig  gains weight  and  good  health  on  idle  land  and,  eventually,  so  do  we. There’s no hassle with manure handling, ventilation, barn building or fencing. One scavenger I know put together a pig pen of surplus bedsprings. Another linked fence panels with wire loops so he can maneuver  the  pen  alone,  lifting  once  side  at  a  time.  It’s  not important  to  build  a  gate.  If  I  must  go  in,  I  climb  the  fence.  For watering, we  lower a  bucket into  a  heavy wood frame so it’s well anchored and easy to clean and refill.

A couple of points on pig tractor design. Space the fencing tight enough to keep the little pig from getting his head stuck. You’ll hear about  it  if  you  don’t.  And  make  sure  that  the  roof  won’t  tip  rain water back  into  his  plot.  A   removable   top  allows for  pitch adjustments  on  different  slopes.  Most  of  all,  keep  it  lightweight. Ellen and I can easily lift the pen and move it the requisite 10 feet per trip, after we take down the convertible top.

The  pig  tractor  doesn’t  guzzle  expensive  fuels,  but  he  does need daily maintenance and water. We mix his grain 4:1 provender to soy meal and add a little powdered milk and kitchen scraps. For greens we grow him a row of Swiss chard and add thinnings from the  garden and  herb  patch.  We  steer clear  of  medicated  feeds  and have  yet  to  call  the  vet.  When  there’s  a  surplus  of  eggs  from  the hens, the pig tractor gets his share. It we eat out, we always ask for a piggy bag for leftovers.

Altogether,  I  figure  it  costs  about  $125  for  fuel,  plus  a  little extra for the salt-and-maple-syrup brine and freezer paper. Figuring in the cost of the piglet, the total comes to roughly $165 or about a buck a pound. The swineherd who sells us a pig every spring claims he can raise a pig tractor for $50. “Leftovers, friend, that’s where it’s at!”

Our swineherd is a master of recycling. Last year he named his pig Pepperoni. It  grew on leftovers from the local pizzeria.  In fact, he tells me there’s a waiting list for scraps at neighboring restaurants. But  we’re   sticking   with   grain   and   vegetables.   Who   needs   a carnivorous  tractor?  Look  what  happened  to  my  neighbor,  Mr.  B. He fed his pig meat scraps. One day his favorite Muscovy duck took a walk down to the pig pen and never came back. Needless to say, the pig was off limits to B’s kids after that.

Ok, say you’ve got your pig tractor started and you’re ready to plow. Nothing to it. To keep your engine chugging along, here are some  helpful  techniques  I’ve  learned.  On  a  slope,  always  plow uphill. Then, each time you move ahead, set up the pig tractor with the  roof  and  bed  on  the  high  end  of  the  pen.  At  the  opposite  end, you’ll see the pig set up his privy, where rainfall and manure runoff will stream downhill. Now your pig tractor will always have a clean garage.

To keep from flooding your engine, steer clear of waterways. But  not too  far.  For efficient  cooling,  it’s  best  to  run  a  pig  tractor near  a  water  source.  Ours  works  best  in  a  garden  sited  below  the pond. Every year we rotate him through a fallow patch about a third the size of the garden, and the plot constantly thickens. His drinking water  comes  down  by  gravity  flow  through  the  same  hose  that irrigates  the  vegetables.  Over  the  growing  season  a  pig  tractor spreads   several   hundred   pounds   of   manure.   To   improve   the composting process, I layer the fresh manure with mulch hay every few  days.  This  helps  the  manure  break  down  in  the  soil  without becoming  impacted.  It  also  keeps  down  flies  and  aroma.  To  save hay, I pitch old bedding into the pig privy.

We drive the pig tractor slowly at the start, but by midseason he’s moving every week. A  well-oiled  pig  tractor  runs  smoothest.  This  summer,  Pig
Tractor III grew the smoothest hide and softest bristles in the valley because Ellen gave him a spring oiling. It was a polish of vegetable oil to prevent sunburn and an  undercoat of pennyroyal oil to repel wood  wicks  and  lice.  It’s also  possible  to  run  chickens  on  the  pig tractor  principle,  as  a  clever  neighbor  does.  “It’s  third  world agriculture,”  he  says,  “perfect  for  undeveloped  countries  like  this part  of  Orange  County.”  His  chickens  excel  at  weeding  garden edges and preying on insect pests.

Traditionally, farmers often turn a few hogs loose in the corn field after harvest to uproot stalks, enrich the soil, and fatten up. A pig  tractor  does  the  same  job,  without  running  loose.  It’s  also possible to grow fuel especially for the pig tractor, such as beets and turnips and mangels, and then drive him over the field to fill up.

Nothing  about  killing the  tractor  engine  is  easy,  but  the portable pen can help. We try to arrange plowing so the pig tractor winds  up  underneath  the  hanging  tree,  right  beside  the  scalding tank, at butchering time. That way, after the bleed, he can be hoisted out of  the pen.  Otherwise, we knock off a few  boards to  open up.

But if  the thought  of slaughter  turns you  off,  there’s always a  call for pig tractors on the hoof.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the book A Country Planet: Smart Ways to Rural Success and Survival by Tim Matson, and in Country Life on April 25, 2011. The book is now out of print. However, watch our blog for several more reprints of Tim’s great articles from this book!

Tim is also the author of three books offered at Lehmans.com: Earth Ponds A to Z, Earth Ponds Sourcebook and The Book of Non-Electric Lighting.

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