EATING MISSOULA: PEAS Farm piglets teach

2010-05-21T07:50:00Z EATING MISSOULA: PEAS Farm piglets teachBy LORI GRANNIS missoulian.com
May 21, 2010 7:50 am  • 

In Big Sky country, there's plenty of room to roam. And, as it happens, there's also room to root.

Yards beyond the last cross street on Duncan Drive, PEAS Farm is nurturing six new arrivals.

Squirrely piglets that could be cradled across two palms three weeks ago were born mid-April, and are now the size of Dalmatians - only, with much shorter legs and a body composition much more skewed toward adipose.

According to PEAS community education director Jason Mandala, the last time the farm actually purchased pigs was in 2008, as part of an educational program to help school-age children make the connection between farm and table.

That spring, furor erupted over the fall slaughter of those pigs within city limits, and the farm made the choice to sell remaining pigs and lay low.

Now pigs at the PEAS Farm are ready for pupils once more. The pigs, hard-wired to root the land, are in a pen equipped with a long feeding trough and a walk-in shelter.

A combination of milled grains and the farm's garden waste help them grow exponentially - literally by the day, says Mandala. They've already tripled in size from birth. They root, roll, dig and make half-hearted efforts at running.

Pigs never really get up a run, you see. They merely see-saw front to back in a broken staccato momentum that ends as abruptly as it begins.

That's because they'd much rather eat.

Good thing, too. Bacon, ham, breakfast links, pork loin, marbled chops, meaty shoulder, and succulent rib racks might be otherwise hard to serve up if they were any more active.

Most of these pigs are spotted and are likely descendants of a breed simply called "Spot," or some amalgam of the celebrated "Gloucestershire Old Spots" breed - known for its flavorful meat.

But no matter their breed, Mandala says pigs are the perfect animal to help close the wide chasm of disconnection between farm and mealtime foods.

"Kids love them, primarily because we grow up with pig stories" from "Charlotte's Web" to "The Three Little Pigs," he says. And, he says, that has a lot to do with why they are so visually and conceptually appealing to children.

Then, of course, there's the cute factor, which certainly applies in the case of these six. But it's something purposely downplayed, to debunk the idea that pigs are pets, rather than food.

And that's the other reason the farm values these porky critters: Virtually no pork product we eat has the word "pig" in it, Mandala says.

In the moments before schoolchildren step off the bus, bacon, ham, and sausage may be merely savory breakfast meats that accompany eggs. Back on the bus at day's end, it's a different story.

Some 2,500 kids per year come to the farm on field trips, or as part of weekly summer camps, to learn about food source from the vantage of vegetables grown there. But with stops at both chicken coop and pigpen, the entire food pyramid is in view.

"We want kids to see the whole picture - to learn where meat comes, and not just vegetables," says Mandala.

In talks to classes, clear associations between animal and food are made - from origin to end. Once pigs reach 250 pounds, they head to slaughter. The farm will keep one, and another will be donated to the Missoula Food Bank, says Mandala. The remaining four will be sold.

And while blows may be softened when talk turns to end-of-life slaughter - now conducted at Lolo Locker - classmates walk away with farm-to-table wisdom, and the sobering truth that livestock are not pets.

"It's always interesting to see kids make that connection between the pigs and the meat they may have eaten that same week," he says. "They ask lots of questions, but they get it and accept it."

In 2008, the farm made children part of the program itself by inviting Rattlesnake School pupils to save scraps from lunch trays in large vats that were fed to farm pigs throughout the week.

That practice was later halted after a spot visit by Montana Department of Livestock, who informed Mandala of risks associated with hoof-and-mouth disease, should pork products be inadvertently swept into the supply.

The pigs now devour grain screenings from Fort Benton's Montana Flour and Grains, and cast-off garden greens.

Mandala drags a cup through a vat of milled grains and tosses it into a trough just beyond the fence. He's glad the program is back - not only because it is an easy way for kids to make the connection between animal and food source, but because it provides youth with choices that will drive later decisions.

"They need to be presented with the full story," he says. "If we teach them early, they can make the decision to eat meat or not - and at least know why they are doing it."

Columnist Lori Grannis may be reached at 360-8788 or eating.missoula@gmail.com.

 

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