On A Small Farm Homestead, The Pig Can Be Invaluable

On the homestead, a pig is more than just future meat. From garden cleanup to compost and kitchen waste management, pigs do a lot on the small farm!

by Shawn and Beth Dougherty
PHOTO: Shawn and Beth Dougherty

Let’s hear it for the small farm! Big farms and big equipment may enjoy certain advantages when it comes to mechanical efficiency. But for productivity, beauty, health and enjoyment, the family-scale farms have it. 

Even in the area of true efficiency, tiny farms excel in making every detail count. Like the old saying goes, ‘Waste not, want not’!

The Pig Is Essential

Which is why every small farm and homestead needs a pig! For thousands of years, pigs have been one of humanity’s traditional partners in turning soil and sunlight into a healthy, stable, resilient food system. 

As omnivores, they will eat almost anything and turn it into solid flesh and valuable compost. Pigs are four-legged food storage units, happy to eat whatever we have to give them, in whatever quantities. And they are ready for harvest in less than a year! 

The pig is truly necessary homestead livestock.

So why is it that so many of the instructional books, pamphlets, bulletins and videos on raising hogs tell us homesteaders to raise our hogs just like commercial hogs, only on a smaller scale? 

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Confinement, commercially compounded hog pellets, farrowing crates, lots of pharmaceuticals—these may be best protocols in large-scale pig production. But the small farm can aspire to better things.  

Read more: Pigs will eat just about anything—but be careful what scraps you toss them.

They Eat What the Farm Produces

In our own journey, from city-dwellers to independent homesteaders, we’ve asked a lot of questions about traditional small-farm pig management, including: 

  • What was the traditional role of pigs on the farm? 
  • What did they eat? 
  • How were they managed? 

Finding answers hasn’t always been easy. This valuable knowledge has almost been lost in the last 70 years, with the commercialization of farming and loss of small family farms.

Traditionally, of course, pigs ate what the farm produced. Feed stores are a modern invention. 

It’s true that pigs can get along fine on a small ‘maintenance’ ration. But when there’s plenty of surplus to eat, they’ll just, well … pig out! 

On the diverse homestead this can mean:

  • garden surplus
  • canning and other food processing wastes
  • cull vegetables
  • dairy surplus
  • grass, weeds and hay

With good planning, at certain times of the year a homestead pig can harvest food for himself. In autumn he can be turned into the woodlot to forage wild edibles like acorns and nuts. Pigs used to be a common site in the homestead orchard, where they cleaned up windfall fruits, ate grubs and stirred soil for better aeration and percolation. 

And they can forage in the garden after the main harvest, rooting out perennial weeds and gleaning overlooked vegetables. On many homesteads it’s possible to feed your pig entirely from what your homestead has to offer.

Pigs as Farm Workers

Pigs are more than walking appetites. What about using pigs as earth-movers and compost builders? 

In the commercial farm setting, pigs are just bacon and sausage. But the homesteader can take advantage of the whole animal. Pigs’ stout noses and instinct for digging means they can plow up a new garden site. Or let them turn and aerate the compost pile.  

There’s a lot of muscle in that porker. And on the small farm or homestead, you can put it to work.

When it’s time to harvest our four-legged food storage, if we butcher at home we can use every part of the pig – like the old-timers used to say, ‘everything but the squeal’! 

Read more: Plan ahead so you can maximize your land for pasture-raised pigs.

Pigs Provide Farm-Raised Meat

You can butcher a pig without specialty tools, using simple, hand-powered grinders and slicers, and only the weather for refrigeration. And some ambitious homesteaders now build walk-in coolers their small farms, allowing butchering whenever it suits them, in any season. 

Taking responsibility for our own animal slaughter puts the power back with the small farmer and homesteader, where it belongs. No more wondering about the quality or availability of commercial meat. It’s time we brought our bacon-raising back to the farm.

We can take these valuable animals into partnership once again.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents raised pigs long before there were feed stores and confinement houses. And even if they didn’t leave us an instruction book, we can still figure out how they did it. 

On our farm, the Sow’s Ear, we’ve spent over a decade researching these and related questions in old farm manuals and diaries. Even more importantly, we have the pig himself, sus scrofa domesticus, to show us what are his likes and dislikes. 

Let’s put the pig back in his rightful place on the small family farm. Nature—and our animals—wait patiently to share their knowledge with us.

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