A story in the Washington Post about a couple who ran afoul of their neighborhood association for running a winery in a horsy set rural area in Virginia reminded me of what my dad and I ran into when I tried to go into the hog business after my mom and dad had rented a house on an acreage out in the country.
But let’s back up a little:
Back in the earlier 20th Century, maybe especially before 1930, a large part of the population of the United States lived out on the farms in what some, like by dad, reminisced about as a bucolic paradise — whether it always was or not is another story.
But anyway, back in the day it was not uncommon for country folk to be rather self-sufficient and no matter what their cash crop might be they probably had chickens running around the barnyard and probably had a pen or so of pigs.
Now livestock tend to put off an odor, especially pigs, that is not always pleasant to human beings. But farms tended to be well separated from each other and people with any sense would put the livestock downwind from the main house most likely. Besides not everyone agrees on what is a good or bad odor.
But the country was the country and you could pretty well do what you pleased.
With that in mind, when I was a freshman in high school we had just rented a house some eight miles south of town, a rural farm town at that, and I was interested in going into farming and had signed up for agricultural classes at the high school and had joined the Future Farmers of America chapter at the school.
I was fortunate enough to get what was called a Sears Project pig, and it was free (and you know? No one ever explained what Sears had to do with it or why. But the long and the short of it was that I got a female pig absolutely free. The only stipulation being that I would give back a female from the pig’s first litter). It was pretty exciting. I was getting into the hog business for nothing.
My dad, an old farm boy, was pretty hyped about the whole thing too. In fact, I confess, he probably did as much or, let’s be honest, more work than I did. Out of some scrap lumber and odd pieces of wood he constructed a pig pen. But he did not make the sides high enough and that little sucker jumped right out and ran down along the creek and through the orchard and we were afraid we would never see it again. But we did catch it and made the sides higher.
We did not live in pig country — this was not the corn fields of Illinois or even Iowa or Kansas and Toto too. This was walnut orchard country in northern California‘s Sacramento Valley, relatively flat land with hundreds of acres of walnuts — we lived on an eight-acre plot that had been subdivided from a larger one — planted in straight rows so you could not really see the countryside — you could not see the forest for the trees, so to speak. We did, however, live on the beautiful Sacramento River and could see it, plus a creek that flowed into it. The pig pen was just up from the creek and well back of the house — I don‘t recall any pig odors coming down to the house — but who knows? Maybe they did.
We also raised a vegetable garden. I was quite active in that.
Like I say, my folks just rented the place. The rent was relatively cheap, even for those days (the mid 1960s — would you believe $75 per month?).
I think dad, who worked as the editor of the local newspaper, loved coming home and reliving his days as a farm boy.
What I have not mentioned yet is that to get to our house you had to use what was essentially the driveway of these two rich retired folks from the Bay Area. They were business people. Not farmers. But they loved their rural paradise on the river and had a nice house with giant picture windows.
They were friendly enough. But occasionally they would run out and yell at visitors to our house to slow down through their driveway. It was unfortunate that our house did not have a separate driveway — they did not own our house. It was two separate properties.
The old retired city folks never said anything bad when they saw I had a pig out back. They thought it was like one of those 4-H market hog projects where you fatten up a pig and sell it at a junior livestock auction and that is it — no more pig.
I think they were happy, though, when they saw my grown pig — now a mature sow — leave in the back of a pickup truck. What they did not realize, though, was that she was off to visit the boar (male sire) at the high school farm. Once that was done, they were shocked to see her return.
Dad, and I, were getting excited about the expanding hog business — soon there would be a litter. We’d need more room for them all to forage. Dad and I, but I want to stress dad, for he seemed to do the bulk of the work, cut small trees down by the creek and made fence posts and began to construct the perimeter of a large, natural pig pasture that would run down by the creek (I don’t think the EPA was in existence yet).
That’s when we got a visit from the old retired city guy. He threatened to sue if we went whole hog, so to speak, into the pig business.
And that is when I learned that just because you live in the country does not mean you can be in the pig business. Actually our landlord said it was okay with him, but my dad did not want to spoil good relations with the neighbors, so we moved the pig operations elsewhere.
Strangely, we noticed our neighbors never had any qualms about the tons of poison spray the local orchardists applied and we all had to breathe. They were of the moneyed class and respected what one must do to make the big money — and walnuts are a high-value crop.
Ironically, we were not the first to raise pigs in a walnut orchard. A well-known orchardist in our general area had raised them for years and fed them on cull walnuts. And in fact, after we moved the operation I did that too. It’s fun to watch those hogs eat walnuts. They break open the shells with their teeth and get the meats inside.
But what I get out of this is that out in the country means different things to different people and if you want to do what you want to do on your own or your own rented land, it is always nice to have a rather large buffer between yourself and the neighbors and of course zoning and property covenants and such play an important role.
The story that made me remember all of this was: