AgriCulture: The Kindness of Neighbors

The “Waste Not Want Not” bulletin of last week, which included news of the death of my elderly sow, Possum, elicited a range of responses, including valuable kitchen composting tips to help me replace my living, breathing consumer of food scraps. But virtually everyone added condolences. By far the most touching and beautiful tribute came from my next door neighbor Emily, a gifted designer, who delivered a card of her own creation. On the front was an illustration of my great big pig gazing through the chain link fence from her mugwort filled pasture. On the back, she wrote, “I will miss visiting Possum through the fence.”

I will miss visiting Possum through the fence. Portrait by Emily Isabella

And then there was the message from my frequent farm sitter, soon-to-be (I hope) housemate, and always attentive reader Steve: “You had to dig a grave for a 400-pound pig and didn’t think that was interesting enough to be your main topic?!”

Truth be told, Steve was not the only one curious about Possum’s burial. Others asked. And the issue rather preoccupied me too, from the moment I found her lifeless in her hut. To begin with, of course, there was her size. Six feet long from snout to tail, 3 feet tall, and 21 inches from side to side at her widest exactly. (I measured her before digging.) A solid, wide creature who always amazed visitors.

She was also awkwardly located. Her pasture was fenced off and deliberately set in a soggy low lying area, a pig paradise where they could create mud wallows in the summer and the sheep would not want to graze. It is fenced off from the rest of the property with no wide gates or any easy route for mechanized vehicles to enter. 
Then there was the matter of time and temperature. Our unusually warm winter saved me from a painful battle with frozen soil, but it would only hasten the decomposition of her body. I felt an urgent need to get her in the ground.

To top it all off, I was alone. It was one of my rare (and unwanted) weekends without Eric. He and Steve and Matt and Tom and Paul all offered to help, but dispersed as they were from the Berkshires to New York City and Eastern Long Island with commitments they couldn’t instantly drop, I didn’t feel I could wait. Against all their warnings (Eric insisted: “Don’t do this yourself!”), I stubbornly decided I just had to get to it.

Shovel in hand, I went down to survey the possible burial sites.In a perfect world, I would bury her next to her former companion, Vernon the boar, in the middle of the pasture. But the prospect of maneuvering this massive corpse down and up a rise and across a stream was a quest I could not undertake. Besides, any action emphasizing their coupled status would be terribly guilt inducing for me.

Possum and I had a complicated relationship. She came to us as an adult, a gift from a farm where she constantly fought with a rival sow. In most circumstances she was sweet and liked to be approached and petted, but she, like any sow, could be ferocious if ever her piglets were threatened. And I, unfortunately, on one muddy spring day, found myself trying to grab her male piglets for the vet to castrate. I grabbed a hoe to keep her at bay as she charged me. With her full weight, she jammed it back into me, cracking one of my ribs. From then on, I kept a wary distance.

That was just one reason I spent several months soon thereafter convincing my late partner, Peter, to sell off our 30 plus pigs. After they were almost all gone, I reversed course. I couldn’t bear to part with Vernon the boar, having raised him from when he was just a couple of months old. Fearing he would be lonely, we kept his companion, who was, ironically, Possum. (Possum and I both loved his sweet nature.) And as fate would have it, she was left alone when Vernon died. Her farm of origin did not want her back. I felt guilt at her life isolated from pig society and with only a couple of daily visits from me. Emily’s note was especially comforting by letting me know she and Possum communed through the fence.

Logistics and emotions thus led me to conclude Possum would be buried right next to the hut in which she died. But after 45 minutes of painful digging, and as darkness fell I despaired: I hit a shale ledge at one end of the grave and a layer of clay about 20 inches down everywhere else.

I sent out an SOS to James, the neighbor whose cattle graze my back acres. He had used a wonderful small tractor to trench an electric line from the barn to the middle of the field the week before, and I hoped it might also dig a giant pig grave.

“Too wet and inaccessible,” James said. But instead he brought over two strapping helpers with shovels and strong backs the following morning. In a matter of a single hour the four of us lay Possum to rest.

My responsibilities to the old gal complete, I have to acknowledge my affections for her were not quite the stuff of children’s books. As any farmer will admit, not all our animals engender the same level of love, and Possum the rib breaker was no Doodle the orphan lamb. But from this not so sweet departure I’ve come away with a different sweetness: a renewed and deeper appreciation for the kindness of my neighbors.


Just a few things. Eggs are in hiatus until these new girls get a bit bigger. The old girls are producing just a couple a day, though today we got 4, so ask if you want eggs.

Lamb is sold out but I’m preparing to send 5 or 6 more off to market. If you want to order a whole or half lamb cut to your specifications at $7/lb hanging weight, please let me know.

Last produce:

Salad turnips, $2/bunch


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