By Joseph Robertia
It was a grunting, rooting, oinking sea of pink, but a relatively calm sea until Dan Chaloux entered. Gradually the noise became louder and the movement faster, and as Chaloux lunged, the sound of the creature caught was deafening.
“I should have brought my ear plugs,” he shouted over the screams of the swine he was carrying out of a high tunnel filled with 425 pigs at Kenai Feed and Supply last week.
The porkers were not going easily. Whenever Chaloux entered they would scatter. Once he had a hand on one they would kick, twist, bite and attempt to wrestle away from him with all their might.
“The best way is to go for the back leg and hold tight,” he said. “Then, if they’re little enough, I can get my other arm under them and scoop them up, or with the big ones I can get both back legs and kind of wheelbarrow them, but either way it starts with that back leg. If you go for a front, they have too much power behind them.”
The pigs were in the 20- to 100-pound range and being picked out for different reasons, according to Sarah Donchi, store owner.
“The small ones were born February 1st, while the larger ones were born in December. The little ones go to 4-H, while the larger ones are feeder pigs that people will raise for butchering, since some people like them to be done sooner,” she said.
Getting small pigs for 4-H isn’t just a prerogative, it’s in keeping with a policy. According to the rules for participants raising pigs for the Junior Market Livestock program, pigs had to be acquired by May 1 and weigh not less than 180 or more than 260 pounds by the time they are shown during the Kenai Peninsula Fair in August.
“I wanted one with a long back, because a long back means a long loin. I also wanted one with a little indent on their rump, because that shows how much muscle they have and they usually grow the biggest and make the most meat,” said Skyler Shadle, of Homer, a three-time competitor in JML, and the participant with the largest swine last year, weighing in at 260 pounds.
“He spends a lot of time with them,” said his mom, Jackie Eisenberg. “He gets them so big by mixing a little molasses into their feed, and our real secret is giving them fodder with sprouted barley, which we grow ourselves. It’s like wheat grass for pigs, high in protein and rich in micronutrients.”
Eisenberg said that her son gets a lot out of the program. In addition to all the husbandry knowledge that comes from raising livestock, participants are required to keep meticulous records on their animal, tour commercial farms, attend workshops on herdsmanship, sportsmanship and meat cutting, and meet with local businesses in the hopes of getting them to come to the fair and bid on their animal in auction.
“Skyler was kind of an introvert, but this program has helped him gain confidence by being responsible for caring for his animals, promoting his project at local businesses and going to auction. It’s made a real difference. He has confidence in all aspects of his life from this project,” Eisenberg said.
Chantel Warfield, of Sterling, was also picking a pig for her third year in the program, and was uncertain what she would name it, even though the creature will, in the not-too-distant future, be food.
“My first one was a girl I named Viola, and last year’s was crazy so I called him Wild Thing, but I’ll have to see what this one’s personality is like,” she said.
Her mother, Catrina Warfield, said she believes it is important for her daughter to take part in the program, so she understands the reality that meat from the butcher came from somewhere else before that.
“This program gives her responsibility and teaches her where food comes from. Too many kids think food just comes from the grocery store, but she’ll know how to raise and butcher a pig if she ever needs to without going to a store,” she said.
While many picking up pigs were JML veterans, Michelle Floyd, of Ridgeway, was there with her three teens, Lindsay, Liam and Julia, who raised alpacas and ducks in the past, but would be attempting swine for the first time this season.
Liam said he was looking forward to the challenge and finding out what would be different about raising pigs. He said he had already heard of one thing he would need to do that was never required of the other livestock he had kept.
“You have to put sunscreen on them so they don’t burn,” he said.
Before any pigs left with 4-H kids, veterinarian Jerry Nybakken administered vaccines and gave the swine a good once over.
“They look great this year,” he said. “They’re big, healthy pigs, much better than we normally get.”
Getting the pigs — this year’s batch came up from Canada — is getting more difficult each year, Donchi said. It’s partially due to the logistics and always-stringent U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations regarding bringing livestock into the country. But another problem this year was scarcity, compounded by a decrease in U.S. pork production due to rare disease, porcine epidemic diarrhea, which killed off millions of preweaned piglets across the county. The die-off has resulted in pork shortages, and the decline has caused the price of bacon to rise by 13 percent over the last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Last year we got 800 and sold them all, but this year it was 425. They’re getting harder and harder to get, which is why we are encouraging more people to breed their own here, in state, and we’ll be keeping a few back to raise and breed ourselves,” she said.
Like many farming and livestock stores in the Kenai Peninsula, Kenai Feed and Supply sells hatchling chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks, but they’re the only store in the state selling swine this season, Donchi said.
“There’s not much money in it, but we want to provide this service for people. We’re delivering a bunch to Palmer next week, and some are flying out to the Port Alsworth and the other side of the inlet. They go all over,” she said.