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The farmer's dilemma 

What's better for a pig—a quick, clean slaughterhouse kill or a great life that ends with three minutes of pain?

Bare Knuckle Farm, on northern Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, raises hogs in orchards where they forage on apples, pears, chestnuts, and worms.

Bare Knuckle Farm, on northern Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, raises hogs in orchards where they forage on apples, pears, chestnuts, and worms.

Mike Sula

The pig was supposed to drop with one bullet, but as Jess Piskor aimed the .22 down on the top of its skull it must have moved slightly, because when the shot rang out the animal squealed, turned, and ran off.

At that moment, in the lower portion of the apple orchard, Abra Berens dumped out a bag of grain and the 20 or so remaining Duroc crosses rushed toward her near the end of the electric fence, while the injured pig continued in the opposite direction. Piskor and his friend Andrew Brix followed it into the neighboring cornfield, where a second shot finally felled the animal. Piskor fired a third just to be safe, then knelt and cut into its throat to bleed it out.

As the pig lay dying, it kicked and rocked slowly, and each of us took turns holding a palm to its side as its life ran out. Piskor collected the blood in a Ziploc bag.

I was visiting Bare Knuckle Farm on the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan with meat cutters Rob Levitt, Chris Turner, and Danielle Kaplan from the Butcher & Larder in Noble Square. The butchers made the trip because they wanted to see for themselves the transformation from living animal to the food they sell.

Berens and Piskor had raised this pig for the shop, and instead of herding it into a trailer and hauling it off to a slaughterhouse where the animal would be assured a quick death—but would have to endure hours of stressful travel and confinement—the pig was killed on the land where it spent its whole life.

"What's harder on an animal: bringing him to a strange place and having a clean, quick kill?" asked Piskor before he fired that first shot. "Or doing it here, where there's some risk, but it's not spending its last day and a half inside a building? I don't know what's better." The fact that Piskor's shot didn't bring instant death made it a more complicated question than we anticipated. But there would be time later to talk it over. There was a pig to butcher first. The butchers loaded the carcass into the bucket of the farm's tractor and regrouped on a flat of concrete behind the Bare Knuckle barn.

For the past four years Piskor, whose grandfather owns the land, and Berens, who has cooked in a number of Chicago restaurants including Avec, Mado, Nightwood, and now Floriole Bakery, have been partners in Bare Knuckle Farm. They sell dozens of varieties of produce to their CSA subscribers and farmers'-market customers, and they host farm dinners in the summer. But eventually they'd like to open their own farm-supplied restaurant. For the past three years, they've raised hogs in partnership with their neighbor Gene Garthe, a fruit farmer who grows mostly organic cherries, apples, and pears, and who was on hand that day for the killing. Their efforts are partially funded by a Michigan State University study on pest control. Some 20 percent of the pigs' diet comes from foraging fallen apples, pears, cherries, and chestnuts, many of which are infested with codling moth and plum curculio larvae. The theory is that the free-ranging pig herd will help control the pest problem naturally, while producing delicious, healthy meat.

This year all 23 of Bare Knuckle's pigs had been sold ahead of time, but only the Butcher & Larder's would be slaughtered on the farm. The rest would be driven about 50 miles away to a slaughterhouse in Buckley. Pigs don't like to travel. On two separate occasions Berens loaded solitary pigs into the back of a truck and each jumped out before she could get the cap on. Pigs don't like to be alone either.

I've seen pigs killed and butchered in a slaughterhouse. Four years ago, near the end of the Reader's Whole Hog Project, in which we followed a group of heritage pigs from birth to death to the table, I helped wrangle three frantic mulefoots into the back of a truck and drove them from southern Wisconsin to Seward, Illinois, over an hour away. There they were tattooed and forced to spend a bewildering night on concrete before being led onto the killing floor and electrocuted with a 340-volt stunner. Our mulefoots were killed in a small-scale slaughterhouse that treated the animals with as much care and respect as possible under the circumstances—nothing like the industrial-scale operations that chew up thousands of factory-farmed animals by the minute to supply us with cheap meat. Their end came quickly and their carcasses were cleaned with efficiency, but still, the preceding 24 hours seemed a high price to pay relative to those of the Bare Knuckle pig, who "led a great life and had a bad three minutes," as Kaplan put it.

Levitt and the others have broken down plenty of pigs in their day, but they'd never seen one die and cleaned on the spot before. Piskor had participated in four farm slaughters—one for his own wedding feast—and he coached the group through the process.

First he took a propane blowtorch to the skin, which tightened visibly as the hair and epidermis singed. We then scraped it clean with circular knives that had sat for years on Piskor's grandfather's windowsill. Then chains were attached to its hind trotters and it was hoisted into the air by the tractor bucket.

Levitt cut around its rectum and carefully sliced down the center of its abdomen so that he wouldn't pierce the internal organs. The butchers took turns opening the animal until gravity pulled the innards from the cavity. Levitt split the carcass in half from its backside with a meat saw, and removed the head. He and Kaplan began breaking down the sides into primal cuts—hams, shoulders, bellies, trotters—while Turner busied himself with the offal.

One of the day's triumphs came when Turner and Levitt figured out how to clean the small intestines by flushing them with a hose and then using the weight of the water to turn them inside out. As the long tubes ballooned with water Piskor got excited. "Wow! That's so cool," he exclaimed. Next time he killed a pig he'd be making his own sausage.

In the end nearly the entire pig would be turned into food, including the head, lungs, heart, kidneys, fat, and liver. The amount of waste fit into a small stockpot, the contents of which Piskor would distribute around the edges of the farm to warn deer away from the crops.

After the slaughter it was time for lunch. Levitt seared off some short ribs and scrap muscle from the sides and made a stew thickened with the reserved blood. As we sat eating, we talked about the killing.

"There's an entire industrial system built around turning animals into food that makes it incredibly simple," Piskor said. "And that's both awesome and a problem. You have these entire factories of animals that are treated poorly. And to do it in a more old-fashioned way, where they're treated like animals, you have a risk of things going wrong. So what are you more comfortable with?"

"The idea is not necessarily parsing out which animals suffer the most," said Berens, "but that each animal has to go through this process, and it's a difficult process, and that should be on people's minds when they decide to eat meat. Or that when they put meat on the table it's a special thing. They are animals and they are designed and bred to be food, and it shouldn't be so easy and it shouldn't be so hard. It has to be somewhere in the middle."

"The thing is," said Gene Garthe, "nothing dies easy."

Read Rob Levitt's account of the trip.

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