Turning fish into pork

This is the latest in the series I’m writing for the Washington Post.


Because I’m raising pigs, I hear a lot of stories about other people raising pigs. It’s usually not the other people telling me the stories – it’s usually the children of the other people, whose parents raised pigs back in the day.

The story almost inevitably involves the raiser of the pigs getting cast-off vegetables, stale baked goods, restaurant leftovers, or dairy by-products. The idea that you’d feed a pig swine feed, which you buy in fifty-pound bags from the feed store, was alien.

That was back in the day.

Now, it’s hard to get scraps, leftovers, or by-products. Mostly, that’s because there are laws about how substandard food must be disposed of – it can’t be given to humans – and grocery stores, retail outlets, and restaurants are afraid that food intended for pigs might find its way to people. And make those people sick. Lawsuit to follow.

The manager of a local Stop & Shop told me her hands were tied; all their inedibles go, by contract, to a composting company (although the company does rescue some of it for animal feed). I’ve approached Trader Joe’s, and I’m waiting to hear whether they can help out. They need the go-ahead from HQ, apparently.

I can get a steady supply of spent grain from our local brewery, Cape Cod Beer, but the pigs don’t seem terribly fond of it.  (Beer, of course, they like — but we don’t let that go to waste.)

Luckily, there’s the Naked Oyster, a seafood restaurant in Hyannis owned and run by a woman with a soft spot for livestock. Kevin and I have been friends with Florence Lowell almost since we arrived on these shores, but I was still a little hesitant, once we discovered that our pigs love fish skins, to ask her to collect scraps for the pigs.

The Oyster is full to capacity this time of year, and asking the staff at a busy restaurant to set aside a container for fish scraps means asking for their time, their effort, and their fridge space. It’s a non-trivial request, but I made it anyway.

Florence agreed immediately. She liked the idea that what usually goes in the garbage was instead going to feed our three pigs. But she then had to make the non-trivial request of her employees.

A couple days later, she reported back. Not only was her staff willing to make the effort, they were enthusiastic about it. The idea that we’d take their garbage and turn it into pork appealed to the culinary alchemist in all of them.

I picked up the first lot this week. It was a plastic flat crammed full of skins and scraps, mostly tuna and salmon. It weighed more than fifteen pounds.

That night, we grilled our dinner and used the residual heat to cook the fish. We’ll be using it over the course of a week, and we thought raw fish might get a little unappetizing, even for pigs, if we didn’t cook it.

The pigs love it. When we come down to the pen with a tray of it, they climb all over each other to get the first bite. Although we’ll have to stop feeding it to them a month or so before their date with destiny to make sure the pork doesn’t taste fishy, the amount the Naked Oyster gives us will be a meaningful supplement to their diet between now and then.

A pound of grain-based swine feed has about 1800 calories. A pound of fish has about 600. That means that every fifteen-pound box of skins recycles garbage, makes for a high-quality protein supplement, gives our pigs some variety, and saves us five pounds of feed.

So, to Florence and the Naked Oyster staff, our pigs say thank you.

13 people are having a conversation about “Turning fish into pork

  1. Hi – just a reminder – a few weeks before butchering you might want to get rid of the fish in the diet. It is good for them, and they like it, but it will flavor thepork. We used to feed some scraps of carp and buffalo (the native fish) and learned this the hard way. You would not need much of a break, but I would suggest at least two weeks.

    Great series, BTW, having fun with your reports.

  2. A second thought… …we used to feed ours the yeast settlings from home made beer (don’t ask) and they loved it as well – but if there is too much alcohol in the settlings they will voluntarily give it up.

    Surprisingly, pigs seem to have more sense than I did about getting drunk!

    • Steve — I’ve been outsmarted by animals too many times to ever doubt that they sometimes do us one better in the brains department.

      And we will definitely stop feeding fish, probably about 6 weeks before slaughter. A month might be sufficient, but I’d rather be on the safe side.

      Thanks for commenting — having people who’ve raised pigs share their experiences is extremely helpful (and often amusing).

  3. I am sending positive energy for you to find a source for expired milk or milk products. The best pork I’ve ever had was raised on milk.

    It is lunch time here, and now I am all hungry thinking about pork! Maybe I’ll run to the Cuba place down the street and get a pork sandwich.

  4. Wendy Almeida says:

    We have been raising our pigs this year on some milk we get from a friend’s dairy cow and our own goats. The pigs get a gallon or two over the course of a week with their grain so it’s not really very much milk. But they are growing really well this year. I think the dairy protein has been the difference on the speed of weight gain (this is a new thing for us – hadn’t done dairy previously). I make yogurt for the pigs because I do this anyway for my family. It’s not the cheapest option to feed pigs but it’s not very expensive either because of our local (and own) dairy source. I think the active cultures in the yogurt help the pigs utilize their grain better. We give a couple of homemade quarts per week. Crazy for taking the time to make yogurt for the pigs? Maybe. But we’ve been very happy with the results. In another month we’ll know for sure if it was worth the effort taste-wise because like the last commenter, people say dairy-raised pork is tastes really good. Love the idea of fish scraps too cost-wise. Will have to explore my options next year since we live near the coast in Maine.

  5. Laura & Wendy — I’m a believer in dairy for pigs. My best source of pig know-how, Walter Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm, gives his foraging pigs a steady diet of whey and grass. He’s up in Vermont, and lives near cheese producers who have whey they need to dispose of, so it’s a very convenient and constructive set-up.

    I don’t have a source for dairy, so it’s not in the cards for my pigs. I think part of having backyard pigs is feeding them from whatever nutritious waste source you can find. In our case, it’s fish. Not perfect, but better than nothing.

  6. Novella Carpenter of Farm City fame wrote that she finished her two urban pigs (as in raised in Oakland, California, of all places) on peaches and bread, because that’s what she was gleaning out of the local dumpsters at the time.

    Since we’re on the subject of pigs, and now that you’ve turned yourselves into pig farmers, this ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=843yH_0RMIA&feature=youtu.be ) may be of interest to you.

  7. Accidental Mick says:

    I followed the link you posted and one cannot help but sympathise with the farmers at the sharp end. Of course, being English, I have no knowledge of the reasons for and against this new regulation so I cannot have a valid opinion but, on the face of it, it does seem to be high handed over-regulation (which we are very familiar with in Britain).

    Forgive my ignorance but who or what is DNR?

  8. Paula, thanks so much for that link. It’s pretty horrifying. Anybody reading this who’s interested in buying pork that doesn’t come from factory farms should take a look.

    Mick, the DNR is the Department of Natural Resources, a state agency that is, in many states, responsible for regulations like that.

  9. Just a thought, but is there any concern with the accumulation of heavy metals in the pigs from eating significant quantities of predatory fish? I would imagine the concern would be roughly the same for pigs as it would for humans. Otherwise I’m all for the scrounge approach!

  10. Accidental Mick says:

    Just a thought, is the the answer to the your earlier problem of the disposal of the striped bass frames. Just make sure you have piglets in the striper season.

    • We thought of that! We’re worried about the bones, though, especially with small pigs. We’d love to just toss the pigs the carcasses — we think they’d enjoy them. But I’m just not sure if they can eat the heads and skeletons of a big fish.

      If anyone out there knows …

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