It’s not easy raising a pig

Hobby farms increasingly popular, but are not for the squeamish

Samantha Harris, 16, plays with her sow named Candy recently at her family’s home south of Durango. If all goes well, Candy will soon become pregnant and have piglets by August, when the La Plata County Fair takes place. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Samantha Harris, 16, plays with her sow named Candy recently at her family’s home south of Durango. If all goes well, Candy will soon become pregnant and have piglets by August, when the La Plata County Fair takes place.

Turkeys, rabbits and a 200-pound sow named Candy inhabit the backyard of Nathan and Julie Harris’ home off County Road 216 in southern La Plata County.

Their 16-year-old daughter, Samantha, is raising and breeding Candy for a 4-H project, but like parents helping out with homework, her dad will be responsible for getting Candy ready to conceive piglets.

Because of health risks posed to human females by the drug that manipulates swine reproductive cycles, Nathan Harris will be lacing the drug onto hot dog buns for Candy’s consumption.

He better not spill any drug on exposed skin because it can cause “instantaneous urination,” said Doug Davis, a pig farmer who advises 4-H members on swine projects.

Getting piggies to market, or in this case, the La Plata County Fair, is complicated business, but then farming is not even the full-time occupation for the Harrises, who work in law enforcement and store security.

Given the modern science of producing piglets, “hobby farming” is practically a misnomer, too.

Samantha tends to Candy every day. While she has a passion for animals, she is not thinking of farming as a career.

“At my age, I want to go to college, to either get a degree in teaching or nursing,” Samantha said. “You can always do farming on the side.”

Rise of the hobby farm

Farming as a full-time occupation is on the decline. In 1969, it represented 9 percent of all jobs in La Plata County. By 2009, it accounted for 3 percent of the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Still, census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that farming remains a popular pursuit, especially for those who like to keep a few animals around the house.

Between 2002 and 2007, which is the most recent data, the number of farms in La Plata County with 24 or fewer pigs grew from 28 to 33. The number of farms with nine or fewer cattle grew from 111 to 117.

The increase in small poultry operations was even more profound. The number of farms with “any poultry” increased from 66 to 101 with 78 farms classified as having only one to 49 poultry animals, such as chickens, turkeys or geese.

Greg Felsen, the agricultural extension agent in La Plata County, credits the local food movement for the popularity in hobby farms as more people want to know where their food is coming from.

This weekend, Fort Lewis College is hosting the fourth annual Homegrown Conference for foodies, restaurant owners and farmers interested in “local, healthy food.” Farmers represent about a quarter of the 200 participants.

Conference meals, such as sausages, frittatas and soups like potato leek and ginger carrot, were made from locally sourced ingredients.

Referring to the variety of dishes made from animal products, FLC program coordinator Rachel Landis joked that “I’m a vegan, and I’m organizing this.”

Moment of conception

Of course, people approach hobby farming with diverse interests and objectives. Some 4-H families raising livestock for the La Plata County Fair, for instance, prefer more natural methods and never would use drugs, such as Matrix, which manipulates swine reproductive cycles, Felsen said.

If local sows are to have piglets in time for the county fair in August, they need to become pregnant by mid-March.

Davis likes the swine drug for taking the guessing out of breeding.

“Breeding is easy. Getting the right day is the hard part,” Davis said.

Without the drug, farmers have to depend on clues such as moodiness and a swollen vulva to determine whether a sow is in heat.

Because pig semen cannot be frozen and is viable for only 48 hours, it must be shipped live for artificial insemination.

So farmers have to know when to order it. Shipping often is more expensive than the sperm. Six of seven students breeding pigs chose artificial insemination for the 4-H Catch-It program, said Julie Harris.

“What kills you is the shipping because it must be overnighted. You’re paying about $70 just on the shipping,” she said.

When the Harrises first got the pig in October through the Catch-It program, which donates pigs for 4-H students, the pig was only 70 pounds. Now, Candy has plumped up to 200 pounds on a steady diet of corn.

The Harrises are leaning toward artificial insemination for the convenience, Samantha said.

Samantha favors semen from a species of pigs called the blue butts.

“They’re actually black – they look like Oreos,” Samantha said. “They have a white stripe underneath them.”

Samantha, who has bred rabbits, said she is not feeling squeamish about the moment of conception.

Last year, Samantha held onto a sow to “make sure she stayed down. It didn’t bug me. ... I’ve grown up with animals.”

For safety’s sake, Davis warns human females not to go anywhere near the drug.

“This is where the dads come in,” he said.

The drug’s website, www.matrix-swine.com, advises women who are pregnant, or suspect, they are pregnant not to handle the drug or its packaging. The drug can disrupt menstrual cycles and prolong pregnancy. Women of child-bearing age are told to be extremely careful.

Merck, the manufacturer, did not respond to calls for comment.

While Samantha’s father, Nathan Harris, a deputy for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, is helpful with the chores, he is not crazy about animals, said his wife, Julie Harris.

He does not like to give shots but was receptive to getting Candy ready for heat, Julie Harris said.

“When we found out you just have to put it in the hot dog bun,” she said, “he was like, ‘I can do that.’”

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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