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.
PigÂ tractorsÂ runÂ aboutÂ 35Â bucksÂ nowadays,Â butÂ IÂ remember whenÂ youÂ couldÂ getÂ oneÂ forÂ aboutÂ halfÂ that.Â ThatÂ wasÂ beforeÂ so manyÂ gardeners andÂ smallÂ farmers wantedÂ one.Â UsedÂ toÂ beÂ just farmers raising hogs in the barn. Now everybody wants the one-pig- power garden cultivator, and they fetch a fat price.
Itâ€™sÂ worthÂ it.Â AroundÂ MayÂ DayÂ youÂ pickÂ upÂ aÂ freshlyÂ weaned shoat,Â hocksÂ thinÂ asÂ cookingÂ spoonsÂ andÂ bristlesÂ justÂ beginningÂ to thicken.Â YourÂ brandÂ newÂ pigletÂ canâ€™tÂ weighÂ muchÂ moreÂ thanÂ 25 pounds.Â ButÂ byÂ Thanksgiving,Â wellÂ maintainedÂ andÂ fueled,Â heâ€™ll dressÂ outÂ toÂ tenÂ timesÂ that,Â notÂ countingÂ scrapple.Â Thatâ€™sÂ the astoundingÂ thingÂ aboutÂ aÂ pigÂ tractor.Â HeÂ startsÂ outÂ barelyÂ 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 doesnâ€™t need much. Thatâ€™s theÂ point.Â WeÂ keepÂ oursÂ inÂ anÂ 8-x-10-footÂ penÂ framedÂ ofÂ scrap lumber and light balsam poles cut from the woods. If the pen gets muchÂ bigger,Â itÂ growsÂ unwieldy.Â Thereâ€™sÂ noÂ needÂ toÂ anchorÂ it because the pen must be mobile.
IndeedÂ theÂ pigÂ isÂ mightierÂ thanÂ theÂ plow.Â AsÂ IÂ rotateÂ theÂ pig tractor over sod or garden soil, the land is fertilized and tilled. Roots andÂ stonesÂ areÂ unearthed,Â andÂ weÂ clearÂ themÂ away.Â TheÂ pigÂ gains weightÂ andÂ goodÂ healthÂ onÂ idleÂ landÂ and,Â eventually,Â soÂ doÂ we. Thereâ€™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 maneuverÂ theÂ penÂ alone,Â liftingÂ onceÂ sideÂ atÂ aÂ time.Â Itâ€™sÂ not importantÂ toÂ buildÂ aÂ gate.Â IfÂ IÂ mustÂ goÂ in,Â IÂ climbÂ theÂ fence.Â For watering, weÂ lower aÂ bucket intoÂ aÂ heavy wood frame so itâ€™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. Youâ€™ll hear aboutÂ itÂ ifÂ youÂ donâ€™t.Â AndÂ makeÂ sureÂ thatÂ theÂ roofÂ wonâ€™tÂ tipÂ rain water backÂ intoÂ hisÂ plot.Â AÂ Â removableÂ Â topÂ allows forÂ pitch adjustmentsÂ onÂ differentÂ slopes.Â MostÂ ofÂ all,Â keepÂ itÂ 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.
TheÂ pigÂ tractorÂ doesnâ€™tÂ guzzleÂ expensiveÂ fuels,Â butÂ heÂ 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 theÂ garden andÂ herbÂ patch.Â WeÂ steer clearÂ ofÂ medicatedÂ feedsÂ and haveÂ yetÂ toÂ callÂ theÂ vet.Â WhenÂ thereâ€™sÂ aÂ surplusÂ ofÂ eggsÂ fromÂ the hens, the pig tractor gets his share. It we eat out, we always ask for a piggy bag for leftovers.
Altogether,Â IÂ figureÂ itÂ costsÂ aboutÂ $125Â forÂ fuel,Â plusÂ aÂ 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. â€œLeftovers, friend, thatâ€™s where itâ€™s at!â€
Our swineherd is a master of recycling. Last year he named his pig Pepperoni. ItÂ grew on leftovers from the local pizzeria.Â In fact, he tells me thereâ€™s a waiting list for scraps at neighboring restaurants. ButÂ weâ€™reÂ Â stickingÂ Â withÂ Â grainÂ Â andÂ Â vegetables.Â Â WhoÂ Â needsÂ Â a carnivorousÂ tractor?Â LookÂ whatÂ happenedÂ toÂ myÂ neighbor,Â Mr.Â 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 Bâ€™s kids after that.
Ok, say youâ€™ve got your pig tractor started and youâ€™re ready to plow. Nothing to it. To keep your engine chugging along, here are someÂ helpfulÂ techniquesÂ Iâ€™veÂ learned.Â OnÂ aÂ slope,Â alwaysÂ plow uphill. Then, each time you move ahead, set up the pig tractor with theÂ roofÂ andÂ bedÂ onÂ theÂ highÂ endÂ ofÂ theÂ pen.Â AtÂ theÂ oppositeÂ end, youâ€™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. ButÂ not tooÂ far.Â For efficientÂ cooling,Â itâ€™sÂ bestÂ toÂ runÂ aÂ pigÂ tractor nearÂ aÂ waterÂ source.Â OursÂ worksÂ bestÂ inÂ aÂ gardenÂ sitedÂ belowÂ 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 waterÂ comesÂ downÂ byÂ gravityÂ flowÂ throughÂ theÂ sameÂ hoseÂ that irrigatesÂ theÂ vegetables.Â OverÂ theÂ growingÂ seasonÂ aÂ pigÂ tractor spreadsÂ Â severalÂ Â hundredÂ Â poundsÂ Â ofÂ Â manure.Â Â ToÂ Â improveÂ Â the composting process, I layer the fresh manure with mulch hay every fewÂ days.Â ThisÂ helpsÂ theÂ manureÂ breakÂ downÂ inÂ theÂ soilÂ without becomingÂ impacted.Â ItÂ alsoÂ keepsÂ downÂ fliesÂ andÂ aroma.Â ToÂ save hay, I pitch old bedding into the pig privy.
We drive the pig tractor slowly at the start, but by midseason heâ€™s moving every week. AÂ well-oiledÂ pigÂ tractorÂ runsÂ smoothest.Â ThisÂ summer,Â 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 anÂ undercoat of pennyroyal oil to repel woodÂ wicksÂ andÂ lice.Â Itâ€™s alsoÂ possibleÂ toÂ runÂ chickensÂ onÂ theÂ pig tractorÂ principle,Â asÂ aÂ cleverÂ neighborÂ does.Â â€œItâ€™sÂ thirdÂ world agriculture,â€Â heÂ says,Â â€œperfectÂ forÂ undevelopedÂ countriesÂ likeÂ this partÂ ofÂ OrangeÂ County.â€Â HisÂ chickensÂ excelÂ atÂ weedingÂ 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 pigÂ tractorÂ doesÂ theÂ sameÂ job,Â withoutÂ runningÂ loose.Â Itâ€™sÂ 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.
NothingÂ aboutÂ killing theÂ tractorÂ engineÂ isÂ easy,Â butÂ the portable pen can help. We try to arrange plowing so the pig tractor windsÂ upÂ underneathÂ theÂ hangingÂ tree,Â rightÂ besideÂ theÂ scalding tank, at butchering time. That way, after the bleed, he can be hoisted out ofÂ the pen.Â Otherwise, we knock off a fewÂ boards toÂ open up.
But ifÂ the thoughtÂ of slaughterÂ turns youÂ off,Â thereâ€™s always aÂ call for pig tractors on the hoof.
Editorâ€™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 Timâ€™s great articles from this book!