On Edward Epsen’s farm in Salisbury, New Hampshire, around 40 pigs are doing what lucky pigs get to do: forage for acorns and graze in pastures high with Timothy grass.
“So we are going to be killing this pig here, and the other one that was walking around on this side of the electric net," says Epsen. “It slipped out of sight for the moment…oh, there he is.”
The two that will die in a few minutes are American Mulefoots, a rare breed known for its lard.
When Epsen approaches, the 250-pound pigs roll onto their backs.
“Yeah…it’s alright boy,” says Epsen as he scratches the pig. “He’s grunting with pleasure. He’s not used to you. He’s willing to trust you are okay if you are with me. They like to be scratched in all these different areas.”
In a few minutes, Epsen will kill this pig with a .22 caliber rifle. He will use the same care he shows these animals while they’re alive, to end their lives. And then he will harvest every usable part of the pigs.
“There is no such thing as a natural death. I mean even a natural death is just the slow degradation of the body, right? Which involves pain and suffering, and also involves waste. It means that death has no purpose of significance, because if an animal dies a so-called natural death, but they can’t be used by us. So if we are going to use them, we have to intervene on the process of death in a very careful way to make sure the animal is at the peak of health. And to kill them, yes. But to kill them in such a way that we are able to preserve as much of the life of the animal as possible.”
It’s a very philosophical way to think about pig slaughter, which makes some sense, given that Epsen is a former philosophy professor.
He’s 32-years old, and left academia in part to get back to working with his hands.
He says he views agriculture as a way to express charity and give thanks. To fulfill what he calls life’s moral obligations.
The idea of using every part of the pig fits into that duty.
It’s also, of course, part of a larger movement.
Chefs from Portland to Brooklyn stack menus with pork belly and sweetbreads. Epsen jokes that those trends may take another decade to reach rural New Hampshire. But for him, this isn’t about style points.
“What I think of myself as doing, I think what a lot of people who are engaged in small scale agriculture nowadays think of themselves as doing, is not somehow playing a primitive or reenacting history the way Civil War re-enactors re-enact the Civil War, but just thinking of ourselves as taking the net accounting of what the options are, just deciding that the old practices were better, and correcting the wrong course that was taken at some point in the past.”
Paying close attention to feed and grazing habits, selecting breeds that forage and fatten well. He says this is just how you produce the best pork.
Epsen also works to limit stress among the animals. He lures over one of the American Mulefoots with a grain mixture. He takes care to line up his shot so that the bullet penetrates the thick skull. So that the death is immediate, and he hopes, painless.
The echo of the shot bounces around the farm.
“And you can see how oblivious the other pig is: that’s something that always surprises people when they see a slaughter for the first time. They always think the other animal is going to get really scared, by the noise or by the death or just by the whole commotion. But if it is done right, if it is done well, it is peaceful enough that the other pig doesn’t have any sign of stress to indicate that there is something wrong.”
He bleeds the animal, and then hoists it into a tank of scalding water. That’s so he can remove the bristly black hair.
In keeping with traditions, Epsen uses only handtools. He makes careful cuts to the carcass, collecting lard and organs.
“I’m trying to use the knife as little as possible. So I don’t slice any more meat than I have to extract the viscera here.”
It takes a few hours of labor to bring the Mulefoot from animal to meat.
Epsen makes money by selling various cuts, along with piglets and breeding pigs, at local farmer’s markets. Because of health regulations, he doesn’t butcher that pork himself.
Today’s pig, he technically sold to a customer while it was still alive. Then, he charges $5 per pound for the processing and preparation.
It’s the end of Henwyn Farm’s first year selling meat…they’ve done about a dozen pigs.
Kate Epsen, Ed’s wife, helps with packaging and other chores on the 21 acre farm.
This afternoon, while putting out water, she found something in the back of the barn.
“So one of the mom’s named Nina has just given birth. This is first footage, I haven’t even counted. I think it’s their first nursing.”
Sometime between gun shot and Ed’s final cuts, Nina, an all-black sow, gave birth to 11 piglets.
“The circle of life…play the Lion King…I mean it just shows you, they don’t do it on my schedule. I knew she was close. I mean, I don’t have anything profound to say, but…it’s always a nice refreshing feeling that, you know, we had to give up one pig’s life, but now have so many more.”
There’s no time to linger on the poetics. Ed and Kate Epsen have more work to do before it gets dark.