Life and Death: The San Saba Feral Hog Harvest
*Please note, these are photos of a hog harvest; if you do not wish to see these, do not continue reading*
Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting my friend, Liz, in San Saba, TX (2 hours NW of Austin). For the past 3 summers, Liz has been doing her field work for her PhD. Liz studies bats and her work is specifically looking at whether or not increased bat numbers, species and activity correlates with decreased insect numbers, and specifically the insects that eat pecan trees and nuts. In other words, would bats be a resource for those wanting to use organic or natural methods to control the bug populations so they would not have to spray chemicals on their pecan orchards? Pretty interesting, I think! Liz has based her research out of an organic pecan orchard along the San Saba river, owned by John and Jimma Byrd, one of the neatest couples I’ve ever met. Both John and Jimma are from the San Saba area, so they are true Texans. However, unlike the stereotypical Texas rancher or pecan grower, they are very progressive in their way of life–they only use organic methods in their orchards and vegetable garden; John rigged up a solar system so they are now “off the grid” as far as energy is concerned; Gimma feeds the hummingbirds daily (and believe you me, there are LOTS), but refuses to put red food dye in their syrup; Sally Fallon and Joel Salatin are household names–you get the picture.
Not surprisingly, John and Jimma are fantastic stewards of their land and the organisms that call it home; and this includes population management, aka hunting and fishing. On a typical day, you will find venison, squirrel, feral hog, and fish in their deep freezer. All of this food was hunted or fished right on their own land. They take only what they can use and they use it all.
The feral pig population is out of control in Texas. The first pigs were brought to Texas by the Spanish in the 1600s. More were brought over by additional settlers in the centuries following. Eventually enough of them escaped domestic life and are now essentially wild. They are incredibly adaptive, smart animals. They are omnivores and can adjust to whatever life throws them. Also contributing to their population explosion is their high reproductive rate.
The Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas Dept. of Wildlife have given Texans the green light to harvesting as many feral hogs as possible. Sadly, many hunters kill the feral hogs only to let their carcasses rot under the hot Texas sun. This unnerves John as he only “harvests what [he] will eat” and doesn’t waste the meat. Despite the government encouraging the hunting of hogs, the population is still growing and expanding. In fact, my co-worker, who lives in North Austin near the Samsung campus said that feral pigs have now invaded their residential neighborhood, tearing up flowers, gardens and trees.
When I arrived to the Byrd property on Saturday morning, Liz and John were out in the orchard studying the damage caused by one of the moths species. They were both perplexed to see the damage considering there was a very active bat population that lived in that orchard.
As we were riding across the orchard in the electric golf cart I could see “my hog” in it’s pen over by the compost pile. John had caught it for me, knowing I wanted to harvest one during my time out there. The trap is such that it lures the hog into the pen with corn, and then the hog trips the door, it shuts and the animal is stuck.
So there I was in the field, looking at my hog and Liz says, “Well, there’s your hog, enjoying it’s last few minutes…”
That’s when I took a breath. Ok, we really are going to kill this feral hog because I want the meat. And the population is out of control.
We zoomed around the orchard in the golf cart, taking care of a few odds and ends. We stopped over by the “butchering station” where John grabbed his .22. This is real, I thought to myself.
On the short trip back over to the cage, I thought, maybe I should pull the trigger and kill it. After all, I’m the one who wants to eat it. My biggest hesitation (besides the fact that my own hands were going to cause something to die for me to eat it) was the fact that I’ve only shot a gun once. What if I didn’t shoot it well and the hog suffered?
“BAM….BAM” The gun is shot twice. The hog is lying on the ground, bleeding through it’s nose, kicking wildly.
“Is it dead?” ask Liz and I in unison.
“Oh, it’s dead. And that kicking, that’s just a reflex. It’s dead,” said John again.
So before I could even get the words out of my mouth, that ok, maybe I will shoot the hog, it was done. Fast. No suffering. John, Liz and I hoisted it up into the back of the golf cart and made a b-line for the “slaughter” station. The pictures below capture the actual butchering.
After carving up the meat, we put it in a dry freezer overnight that John built. In the morning John taught me how to make sausage using the hams from the feral hog and pork fat from Sand Creek Farm in Cameron, TX. We didn’t have casings, so what we made is more of a breakfast sausage. And boy, is it delicious!
All in all, I made 14 pounds of sausage. Additionally, I had two shoulders (I plan to make pulled pork), the back (good for roasts), ribs, and the tenderloins. But, I do I feel strongly that for small, local farms and producers to survive, that we have to eat all of the animal. That being said, I need to figure out how to cook (and eat) the organs.
For several days following the harvest and butchering, I woke up at night, picturing the hog in it’s final moments in life, standing in the cage, watching us from across the field. This is the closest I’ve ever come to life, death and the making of a meal. A friend with whom I served in the Peace Corps once told me that he no longer would eat beef; he said he had had to butcher cows in Bolivia and felt that he really couldn’t do that again, so he have up beef. I share similar sentiments; if I’m going to eat animals shouldn’t I feel comfortable killing and butchering them? I can only speak for myself, but for me, as someone who seeks out an intimate relationship with food and the surrounding land, I’d have to say, yes, I should feel comfortable. Do I, in reality? No. But I am starting to warm up to it.