Hog heaven

Pigs are popular at the Agricultural Fair.

Robinson's Racing Pigs at the Ag Fair. —Ralph Stewart

Some might come to the fair to pig out, others bring their pigs. Pigs, also known as swine, have a strong footing here on Martha’s Vineyard. You can always find a few of them in the livestock barn, and sometimes even outside of it. They’re also one of the most popular farm animals in the world, primarily, but not exclusively, as a source of meat. At the fair, they also race, and elsewhere on-Island, some pigs do landscaping work. In the past, there have even been pet pigs at the fair. There are hundreds of breeds of domestic pig, with adults ranging size from about 110 pounds for the Vietnamese pot-belly pig to up to exceptional examples from larger breeds that can reach over 10 times that weight — 1,000 pounds or more.

Fred Fisher of Nip ’n’ Tuck Farm tries to bring a litter of piglets to the fair every year, and this year it’s an unusually large set of piglets. The pigs at Nip ’n’ Tuck are descended mostly from the Hampshire and Yorkshire breeds, but aren’t purebred. The Fishers have bred and raised pigs since the 1950s, and although they keep some on the farm, most of their piglets go to other Island farmers and families to be raised for six to nine months until they’re big enough for slaughter. Many Vineyard families raise pigs for meat, some regularly and some only occasionally.

Pigs will eat almost anything. They thrive on restaurant slop buckets, past-best-by-date bread from Cronig’s, and whatever they can dig up in the woods. That tendency to forage and dig can be put to good use. A few years ago, Joe Van Ness started a business leasing goats out to people who wanted land and brush cleared. He soon added pigs, which he says are especially good at killing poison ivy.

Rebecca Gilbert and Randy BenDavid of Native Earth Teaching Farm have been keeping pigs since they started the farm in the 1990s, primarily for meat, but also to till fields. Rebecca says that although she’s never kept a pig as a pet, she understands why some people do. “Piglets are very cute, and jump and run around; they’re very humorous,” she says. “There’s a stage in pig raising when you have a hole in the pen so the piglets can get out but the mother can’t. If they stayed that size, they would be the perfect pet, and you do get fond of certain ones.” But of course, they don’t stay small for long.

“If you want to keep pigs,” Rebecca says, “get some experienced advice and consultation.” For their biggest pigs, she and Randy use a combination of electric fencing and panels to keep them where they’re supposed to be. A pig on the loose can wreak havoc. They’re very intelligent animals, they grow fast, and they’re excellent foragers. A few winters ago in my neighborhood, a pair of large pigs got loose. They tore up a nearby manicured lawn, and at one point, five adults were chasing the two pigs through the brush, trying to get them back home and not at all sure that we would succeed. They can move very fast when they feel like it, much faster than an out-of-shape adult human.

In that vein, Robinson’s Racing Pigs have been coming to the fair for many years now. Their pigs trot up to the gates and race around the tracks to get an Oreo cookie. I asked what makes a good racing pig. “They’ve gotta be fast, and they’ve gotta love Oreo cookies,” says Randy Ross, who manages the team. “Sometimes they crash and wipe out on the curves just like in real racing.” Although the racing pigs come from many different breeds, they race in groups depending on size. This year at the fair there will be one group that weighs about 60 pounds, a group of 40 pounders, and some very young pigs, too.

The FARM Institute’s pigs usually come as donations from other farms, and many of them are older than typical farm animals. Their current pair, Billy and Peggy, are huge but sociable — they like to get back rubs from humans. Unfortunately, they haven’t had piglets recently. Peggy had one litter a few years ago, and two older sows that used to be at the FARM Institute had small litters, with only three piglets each. Billy and Peggy live together, and farm manager Alec Forbes hopes that they’ll have piglets together again. “We’ve been feeding them some brewer’s mash so that they’ll get drunk,” he says. “But I think mostly they just fall asleep.”

When it comes to slaughter time, many Island farmers favor the Berkshire breed for its excellent meat, and if it’s not sent off to the butchers, eating a pig can be a major social event. “When you have a pig roast you have to have a party, to have enough people to eat all that food,” Rebecca Gilbert says. “There’s nothing quite like it.”