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book excerpt

If pigs had wings

This summer, farmer Brent Preston will share his challenges and successes in a regular diary for The Globe. To kick it off, here's a humorous excerpt from his memoir The New Farm, about leaving Toronto with the dream of growing organic food

We decided to go into eggs and pork. We bought 100 laying hens at the start of season two and threw in a few ducks for good measure. Then we started preparing for pigs. Pork is not supply-managed in Canada – anyone can raise as many pigs as they please and sell them to whomever they want. We decided to ease into things and start with three.

The first order of business was a pen. The fencing around our barnyard was completely decrepit, so we hired Cona, our next-door neighbour, to pull it all down with his excavator, burned all the old posts and took the wire to the scrapyard. Then Cona put us in touch with some Mennonite guys who did fencing. The farmland in eastern Grey County, around Maxwell and Badjeros, was being rapidly bought up by Old Order Mennonite families who had moved north from the Waterloo area, looking for affordable land. The first families had arrived a little before we did, and by 2008, there was a sizeable Mennonite community just across the highway from our farm. I talked on the phone to a guy named John. He quoted me a very good price and agreed to show up the following week with his crew.

The fencing operation was a two-day blur of frantic activity. John and his two helpers were very large guys dressed in typical Mennonite garb – straw hats, suspenders, white shirts and blue pants – but the way they worked and the equipment they used defied a lot of my Mennonite stereotypes. Everything arrived on a flatbed transport truck (driven by a non-Mennonite), including two self-propelled fencing machines that looked like mini battle tanks. One machine drove in the fence posts while the other uncoiled and stretched the wire. John worked the piledriver like an extension of his own body, pivoting and swivelling the machine in mid-stroke to adjust the angle of the posts. The guys ate lunch in the barn out of five-gallon pails that were stuffed with sandwiches made with freshly baked white bread, and whole pies, washed down with multiple cans of Coke.

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At the end of day one, John walked up to me and said, "We're done for the day."

"Great," I said.

He stood looking at me. "We'll be going home now."

"That's fine," I replied. We stood looking at each other for a few seconds, and then it dawned on me: John was expecting me to give them a lift home.

My wife Gillian was in the city, so I piled my children Foster, Ella and three very large men into the pickup and made a 90-minute circuit of Grey County to drop everyone off. I had to wake the kids at 5 the next morning and bring them with me to pick them all up again. I never figured out why driving a fencing machine was allowed but a car was off-limits.

We ended up with a very tidy barnyard. There were two separate pens, both about 50 feet by 75 feet, one around the chicken coop and one next to it, farther from the barn, for the pigs. We also put up 16 parallel runs of fence, each about 60 feet long and four feet apart, to grow tomatoes on. This replaced the failed tomato-trellising system from the previous season and was suitably sturdy, I thought, for our high-wind environment. It was all finished by the first week of May, right around the time we kicked off the season with our first ramp harvest.

My father-in-law had warned me that pigs have a Houdini-like ability to escape from their pens, so I spent a lot of time that spring creating what I thought would be the Alcatraz of pigpens. I got some design advice from Mike at Hamilton Brothers, the local farm supply store, then stretched three strands of electric fence wire all around the inside of the pen near the ground, attaching it to the fence posts with yellow plastic insulators. I also ran a water line from the barn and built a little shelter in one corner of the pen so the pigs could get out of the rain and sun. When it was all finished, I plugged in the electric fence regulator. I couldn't resist the temptation to touch the wire, just to make sure it was working. It was.

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Gillian and I went to pick up our piglets from Gerald te Velde in early June. I can't remember how we first got in touch with Gerald. He runs an organic farm near Meaford, about 45 minutes northwest of our farm, where he raises sheep, pigs, cows and chickens and has a big market garden. He and his wife, Shari-Lynn, were about halfway through the production of a very large family back then. They now have six kids, I think, all boys except the youngest, and they're all home-schooled. Gerald has taken self-sufficiency to a daunting level.

A normal person would have brought the pigs home in the back of their pickup, but our truck used a lot of gas, so we avoided driving it when we could. We packed the three little piglets into a plastic dog carrier that we put in the back of our station wagon. The ride home could best be described as smelly.

Gillian and I had set up a bowl of water and food in the little shelter in the pen before we left. When we got the piglets home, we carried the dog crate into the middle of the pen, turned on the electric fence and opened the crate door. The piglets were each about a foot long, and very skittish. They came out of the carrier cautiously, but they startled and ran if we made any sudden movements. We stood outside the pen watching them, the kids oohing and aahing at how cute they were. Ella is a born animal lover and extremely protective of all the creatures on the farm. "They don't know where their food is, Daddy," she said with concern. "I think they're hungry."

I should have left well enough alone, but I seldom do. I climbed back into the pen, over Gillian's objections, and tried to herd the pigs toward the food in their shelter. They started to panic, jumping into the air and running in short, extremely quick bursts. One suddenly made a break for the fence and managed to wedge itself between the two bottom electric wires. Pigs are pretty much cylinders of solid muscle. They're incredibly strong and extremely fast over short distances. This piglet was moving so fast that it was halfway through the fence before it felt the electric shock. Instead of turning around, it let out a high-pitched squeal and powered forward. It took only a fraction of a second and it was through the fence and out into the field. A pig had escaped from our heavy-duty Mennonite-constructed electrified pigpen in less than five minutes.

Excerpted from The New Farm by Brent Preston. Copyright © 2017 Brent Preston. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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