Blaine Bilyeu is a beautiful, statuesque redhead, with enormous blue eyes and flawless porcelain skin. She could have been in high fashion, but she chose, instead, to be… a pig farmer.
Blaine is the owner and steward of Papa’s Pasture, a 122-acre family farm, the home that Blaine has known all her life. In her words, the farm is currently a “one-woman show, sometimes one and a half when Ingria, [her] eight-year-old daughter, is not in third grade.” Through Blaine’s eyes, her family’s land is to be respected, not ravished, because in its rolling hills, rugged creek bottom and high perennial pastures, she sees “an abundance of life… able to support our local economy, our food security, and our hopes for the future.”
On the early September day I drove out to Papa’s Pasture, the sun was strong and the air was crisp with a light wind, keeping me just this side of comfortable (I’m a cold-weather wimp, no doubt about it.). But I was concentrating on driving, since Papa’s Pasture is out a ways, with few neighbors. My thinking was, I’d smell the farm before I saw it and then just follow my nose. I’d been on pig farms before, so I kinda knew what I was in for. Except, of course, I didn’t have a clue.
I made my left down Crooked Creek Road and figured “any time now….” I passed some free-flying chickens, a field of soybeans and suddenly ended up in the barnyard of an old farmstead. Two beautiful weathered barns and a stunning two-story brick farm house that really didn’t look lived-in at this point, just a magical home from days gone by. A couple of cats, too, but no pigs and no smell.
“Sh$%%#$^^&. I’ve made a wrong turn.” But I just couldn’t figure out how. I pulled out my cell, hoping for service, and tried to call Blaine. I wanted to get out of there before I had to explain myself to strangers. Then from behind me I heard, “Hey, Toni.” It was Blaine with Sugar, her loyal Saluki, at her side.
“Well, hey,” I called back. “I wasn’t sure I was in the right place.”
“This is it. Are you ready for a tour? I thought we’d start by walking the creek.”
After a quick introduction to Bob the cat, we headed off through one of the old barns and down toward the creek. From somewhere in the thick grasses I heard squeals. “That’s the little piglets,” Blaine explained. “They pretty much have the run of this area. They’re sort of the teenagers, learning to be on their own.” Then she headed swiftly down the hill to a magnificent rocky creek bed. Here, the fact that I was turning 61 in about a week caught up with me as I worked to catch up to Blaine’s swift, surefooted pace.
“I spent most of my childhood playing in this creek,” she said, as we traveled down its bank, stopping every now and then to admire a majestic spider web or an outgrowth of wildflowers. “My parents moved to this farm the year before I was born. But the farm itself dates from the 1800’s.”
And as we walked and Blaine talked about the farm, about her dad–a baker by trade–and the deep connection between the two of them that clearly remains though he has passed, I began to understand why Papa’s Pasture is such a special place. More than Blaine’s commitment to bringing the farm back with integrity through regenerative and sustainable agriculture, more than her daily hands-on care of the purebred Berkshire hogs she raises, and beyond the tireless hours of research and management she expends to keep the farm viable, there is the strong, everlasting undercurrent of love that flows through every acre. For Blaine, everything matters.
“Well, let’s go meet the family herd,” Blaine suggested as we climbed up the creek bank and headed west over a hill thick with trees, grass and a variety of bushes and flowers. “Be careful here,” she cautioned. “There’s a lot of multi floral rose. It’s invasive, has nasty thorns and can take over everything, but the hogs are a big help in rooting it out. If I was to remove the multi floral rose without the pigs, it would take a work crew and a bulldozer. We would be out here wasting man hours and diesel fuel and disturbing the ecosystem with our presence, doing a task that the pigs will happily do without being asked or trained.”
Blaine was moving at a quick pace, and I was taking up the rear… barely. “They’re just ahead,” she signaled across another seemingly overgrown field. As we approached, we met with swarms of honey bees happily buzzing among the wildflowers but not one whiff of “pigs.” And suddenly, they were all there in front of me. And they were really BIG. Of course, as with any family, there were scores of little ones running every which way, tagging each other, irritating their moms and coming to the edge of their paddock to check out the new girl in town…. Me.
I was just a little nervous, to be honest, as we came right up to them. “Watch the hot wire,” Blaine instructed. And I looked for it but had difficulty seeing it; it’s just a little wire running about a foot off the ground—the kind of wire people use to keep their dogs in a yard.
“This is what you use to keep them in one place?” I asked. “This little wire?”
“Pigs are very smart,” Blaine said. “They get a little, unpleasant shock if they touch the wire, and it doesn’t take them very long to figure it out. Let’s sit down over here for a while.” She motioned to a large tree and grassy mound. We found a soft spot right at the outside edge of the family plot that was mostly dry dirt, rooted nearly bare, with a tub for water in the shade. There was no odor, no wallowing in mud puddles, nothing I’d expected.
“The pigs are naturally inquisitive and very social. They live in families and move to a new spot on the farm every week or so. There is a natural pecking order among the adults and everyone takes care of everyone’s young.” Blaine turned from the pigs and looked straight at me: “Can you imagine how unnatural it is for them to be raised in a factory setting, separated from birth and never allowed to live and roam in an open pasture?”
Well, I had read the horror stories about the factory farms that make up the bulk of today’s hog industry, but until now it had been just words on paper that sparked my concern and outrage. Now these beautiful creatures were living, breathing reality, close enough to touch.
Introductions followed. There was Gertrude, the most industrious nest builder in the group, and, yes, pigs burrow out nests in hillsides for their babies. She also seems to run her own daycare for those days when the other moms need a break. Then there’s Nugget, a younger sow somewhat low on the totem pole and still trying to have a voice in the community. She waits her turn a lot of the time. “The girls definitely run the show,” Blaine said with a smile, “at least until the males get big and assertive. Of course, Meatloaf is just a big romancer who will drop in a heartbeat for a good belly rub.”
I gazed across the yard at Meatball, an 800-pound boar with an imposing stare. Really? Meatball is the big man on campus and the dad to all of the piglets. According to Blaine, he’s a real Casanova, who woos his ladies with fresh-dug roots, soft grunts in their ears and snuggles, as only an 800-pound boar can deliver.
My mental image of a hog-heaven date night was suddenly interrupted by some pretty intense nibbling on my shoes. The piglets had made their way under the wire to check me out up close and personal. Within seconds, I’d made new little friends and was giving belly rubs myself.
“So this is where your pigs live all the time?” I asked. “Just out in the field?”
“No, they move around the farm,” she said. “In fact, I’m getting ready to move them from this spot to another one and let them start rooting and digging all over again. Then in a couple of weeks, they will move again. Once it gets really cold, they move inside the barns and make their nests in deep bedding.”
This nomadic existence isn’t simply to give the animals a new view, but to sustain the farm. Rotational grazing is a best practice of regenerative agriculture, a process that is seen by many farming and environmental experts as one of the “solutions to the biggest environmental issues of our time: climate change, erosion, declining aquifers and eutrophication of lakes and rivers,” according to staff at the Cornucopia Institute. Once the hogs move on to new pasture, the previous family plot grows back, reclaiming the ground and regenerating the vegetation.
“Each time I move the hogs to a new spot, the old spot comes back a little bit more as it was before years of traditional farming depleted the soil and introduced plant life that wasn’t native, like fescue,” Blaine explained. “Little by little, the farm is returning to native pastures. Someday,” she said, “I plan to have the entire farm converted through regenerative agriculture methods.”
We took time to visit a pasture that had been the hogs’ family home only two months before. The grasses were now as tall as Blaine in most areas; the bees were buzzing everywhere and the once-prevalent fescue was spotty and falling away. “See how quickly the pasture comes back,” Blaine said. “This is much closer to what this land looked like before it was farmed in field crops.”
And while it looked quiet and still, a lot of activity was actually taking place. When farmland is allowed to “regenerate” the benefits are many, from carbon sequestration in the soil to increased nutrient content and better absorption. According to the Cornucopia Institute, “plants act as carbon pumps, bringing the CO2 down into the soil, where it is ‘fixed’ by soil life in a process that builds organic matter.” The hogs contribute to this process through their trampling, rooting and waste elimination.
“Doesn’t it bother you,” I finally asked Blaine as we walked back to my car. “I mean, most of these piglets will eventually go… I mean you will…” I couldn’t even finish the inevitable question.
She smiled. “I’m devastated on harvest day,” she said flatly. “A lot of the times I sit in my truck outside the butcher and cry. If I ever stopped feeling that deep compassion and empathy for the animals in my care, then I would give up farming. To give them the life they deserve I need to be deeply concerned with their wellbeing every day… including their last day.”
Then was it wise, I asked, to become so attached to these animals, to name them, to talk to them, to love them. Because it was pretty clear to me that Blaine knew and loved every one of them—their idiosyncrasies, their temperaments, their communication with each other and with her. During my visit, she had taken the time, for instance, to give Goldie a good back rub because Goldie is very pregnant and very uncomfortable right now. It was just the thing to brighten the day of this the mom-to-be.
“It’s probably not smart by most people’s thinking to become so attached,” she answered. “But [the hogs] are thinking feeling creatures who deserve to be honored and respected. I can’t give them the best life possible if I keep them at an emotional distance.”
And as I thought about this later driving home, I figured most people were wrong and Blaine was right. She may suffer more heartache at butchering time, but she’s quite clear on what she’s doing and how she’s doing it and why she’s doing it. If being this close to her “product” causes pain, it also instills respect and honor and value. And at the end of the day, when we sit down to the dinner table, all that has happened in the field—all the care and love and sacrifice—are offered in gratitude and appreciation to those we love.
Of course, the recipes for October feature pork dishes—Apple Jack Pulled Pork, Bacon Candy and Ginger and Beer Baby Backs. So did I feel differently about preparing these dishes having been out to Papa’s Pasture before heading to my kitchen? I did. I really had a couple of moments of hesitation, even though my own choice of vegetarianism has never really been a choice based on ethics or the belief that eating animals is somehow morally wrong. It’s just that now I “knew” my meat in a way I had not before. And, again, I felt Blaine had the right idea: it isn’t about distancing ourselves from our food; it’s about being as close as we can be and as grateful as we can be as we prepare and serve it.
Want to Learn More?
Regenerative Agriculture is based on farming practices ages old, but understanding how it might “save the world” from climate change can be difficult to grasp. If you are interested in how this all works, Delicious Living Magazine has a great article on this topic that was published just before the World Climate Summit in Paris in the summer of 2016. This well-researched, clearly written piece is a great starting point for learning more, with links to other useful resources, if you want to keep learning. You can even find everyday actions you can take to be part of the regenerative agriculture movement.
While her days are long and full of physical hard work, Blaine does her part off the farm. She lectures at local elementary schools, teaching future generations about sustainable farming, protecting the environment and the importance of kindness. She’s letting our children know why everything matters and what it means to farm like a girl.