A Doctor and a Farmer’s Husband: Pot Bellies


By: Stephen Jackson, MD

Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven.  My wife is the actual farmer.  This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned.  Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.  

Hurricane Michael quickly darkened the sky and the storm hurried to get started.  The winds skipped several notches in kicking up, grass and plants all around bending under its shifting and impressive will.  The light drizzle that followed in short order was, judging by all other indicators, a very small appetizer to what we were about to be served.  The other creatures seemed to be heading for shelter except Piggi Minaj, one of our Vietnamese Pot Belly pigs.  She languidly lounged in a dry depression in the ground, well away from her shelter and was probably enjoying the quick temperature drop.  Normally, we wait what seems like forever as she trundles toward us when we bring her a gastronomic treat, leftover birthday cake being one of her favorites.  Today, however, when we tried to coax her to the safety of her shelter to ride out the storm, she shot out of her depression in the ground, in the wrong direction, as if lightening itself was chasing her.  I paused for just a moment to marvel at the locomotive speed to which she had accelerated.  Suddenly, jolting, simultaneous lightning and thunder broke my reverie.  My wife, father-in-law, and I were trying to form a triangular wall around Piggi.  Her sudden speed shot her through the hypotenuse and she easily outpaced our chase.  The rain was coming in sheets now and mud quickly suctioned my mucking boots to the ground, making the whole effort increasingly less encouraging.  After a few more minutes of watching Piggi get further away, we gave her up for nature’s creature and we were forced to release the responsibility of her safety to the pig’s own instincts.

Since nearly the beginning of our farm adventure we’ve had pigs.   First, we bought three Large Black piglets.  We tried to impress on our older daughter, who was five years old at the time, that these pigs would be used for food. We named them Bacon, Sausage, and Ham to reinforce the idea.  She seemed to easily accept this fact, which reassured me that my daughter did take after me in some ways; extreme love of bacon in this case.  Instead, she asked if we could get some pigs to keep as pets.  We certainly enjoyed the sweet-natured, intelligent pigs we already had.  So, the idea was quickly adopted in the forms of Glenda and Piggi Minaj.  Glenda and Piggi were rescued Pot Belly pigs my wife found through an organization called Red Dog Farm Animal Rescue Network.  We borrowed a neighbor’s truck and drove to pick them up from their respective foster farms.  Piggi Minaj was young, small, and trusting.  She was fostered at a YMCA camp in Greensboro along with other people-friendly livestock and was easily coaxed into the medium-sized dog crate with the kept promise of food.  All eighty pounds of her was hefted onto the back of the truck with only a little fuss from her. Then we went to get Glenda.

The foster farmer who had Glenda kept her in his barn.  I backed the truck up to the open end of the barn.  As barns go, this one was a beauty.  The barn had a center aisle, flanked on both sides by animal stalls.  There were lofts above on either side.  As I walked through the barn, I noticed that on both sides of the aisle the stalls housed all manner of livestock.  The scene made me think of Charlotte’s Web and mentally I regressed to a much younger age and briefly enjoyed a child-like excitement to be among an array of barnyard animals that would make E. B. White proud.  Glenda was out and trundling around the aisle, along with some chickens and ducks.  The far end of the barn was closed by a gate that only partially obscured the view of a pasture with larger livestock and a scenic pond.  The bucolic beauty of this family’s farm reminded me why we wanted our own farm in the first place.

The resident farmer and I stood side by side regarding Glenda and her rotund, low-hanging abdomen.  She appeared to be about 200 pounds, mostly belly.  We discussed some strategies for coaxing her into the large-breed dog crate situated on the ground near the truck’s tailgate.  I approached Glenda to pet her and she allowed me a few moments to enjoy the feel of her mud-crusted coating and stiff hair. We tried using her favorite feed to move her in the direction of the crate, which worked until she got near enough to the crate to catch on to our ruse. She abruptly turned and retreated all the way to the far end of the barn and lodged herself against the gate, probably hoping to get into the pasture.

We decided to bring the crate to her.  We wriggled the crate around her frame, tail-end first, and amid her high-pitched squealing and disgruntled grunts we eventually backed her into the crate.  We alternately dragged, pushed, lifted, and did everything possible to get the pig and crate from the far end of the barn all along the seemingly endless aisle.  Once at the back of the truck, the only thing left to do was to lift a crate crammed with 200 unevenly distributed pounds of an unhappy and shifting pot-bellied pig.  With a glance I measured up the strength of the sweating, friendly farmer, who so far had not abandoned me.  He seemed to be about my age and had a sturdy, farm-strong look about him.  We briefly made eye contact and a with a nod it was understood that we would both try to dead lift this crate together.  We were lifting from the sides and as Glenda was closer to the back of the crate, the front went up a little more easily than the back.  Holding my portion of the weight, I scrambled around to the back corner of the crate to put all my effort into lifting the now highly agitated and squealing pig.  I don’t remember the exact sequence of events at this point.  There was a slip of my boot, a scramble for balance, and a few un-muttered expletives as my rear hit the ground.  The outcome I remember clearly: a face-to-face with Glenda as she and her crate rolled across my lap, along with a searing pain along both my upper thighs as the edge of the crate and all of Glenda’s weight went before coming to rest, thankfully upright, on the ground beside me. Once I recovered most of my strength and none of my dignity, we enlisted my wife to provide the extra power and balance we would need to get Glenda onto the truck bed safely, which we thankfully did on the next try.

Once we got home, unloading the pigs was an easier process and we used a ramp system to ease the dog crates that contained them out of the truck. The pigs were only too happy to escape the dog crates when the doors were opened inside their new pasture.  We had converted an old farrowing house into a living space for the pigs. My wife had done an impressive job of preparing a comfortable bed of hay.  I had to admit it looked inviting even to me after the morning’s ordeal of getting Glenda.  Not much time had passed when Glenda smelled the food scraps left in her new sleeping space and she tried to make her way into the farrowing house.  She did her best but couldn’t come close to getting her belly over the six-inch threshold that separated her from her food.   I took a closer look at her and couldn’t find light between her belly and the ground.  Eventually we were able to re-route Glenda and Piggi to their new quarters thanks to more ingenuity from my wife.

I personally love the Pot Belly pigs.  An easy-going sort, they rarely make trouble.  People house-train these pigs and have them as live-in pets, an idea I quickly rejected under the pleading eyes of my daughters.  A large herd of goats and one sheep now share their living space and pasture.  The baby goats hop on the pigs’ backs, sometimes using them as stools to reach the feeding trays along the fence.  The pigs squeal and complain, but they don’t seem to mind, their straight tails swishing back and forth as they enjoy the food dropped from the trays above by the kid goats on their backs in compensation for the help.   Pigs have been said to be smarter than dogs, a fact that I don’t find hard to believe with the trio of canines we have living in our house.  Piggi knew something we didn’t that day that Hurricane Michael came through.  She survived the storm and, from what I could tell, she might’ve even been enjoying it for a while.

A Doctor and a Farmer’s Husband: The Bright Lights of a Country Bathroom


By: Stephen Jackson

Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven.  My wife is the actual farmer.  This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned.  Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.  

I casually tossed my keys on the kitchen island and called out to a seemingly empty house. I had just arrived home from work.  So, I headed to the master bedroom to get changed out of my workday scrubs. Panda, our brindle farm dog, wined and sniffed the bottom of the bathroom door, tail wagging in happy anticipation of getting inside. I became aware of a chorus of cheep-cheeps coming from the bathroom.  I joined Panda at the door.  Already pretty sure of what I’d find, I opened the door to no less than 100 chicks in a playpen.  Thankfully, it was a big bathroom.  The garish, red brooding lights hung high enough from the floor to give them the right amount of warmth.  The girls gleefully sat around on the bathroom floor, each holding a fluffy, disgruntled chick.  My wife and daughters are suckers for cute animals and I’m a sucker for my wife and daughters.  So, I ambled in, plucked up a chick from the pen, and joined the girls on the floor with my own complaining chick.

If this domestic scene was a surprise for me that day, finding animals in our bathroom became much more the norm.  We’ve since housed a goat, a piglet, lambs, and even Turkey chicks.

Probably my favorite animals on the farm are graduates of the bathroom/brooder/sick bay.  We have some wonderful friends in the farming community and one of them had called my wife to ask if she might be able to provide some TLC to a pair of lambs that didn’t seem to be thriving.  Enthusiastically, my wife took up the task.  At that same time, we had a newborn goat kid whose mom had shunned her and wasn’t giving her access to milk.  The runty kid wasn’t ready for regular goat food and wasn’t likely to survive without intervention.  So, my wife bathroomed the kid.  The unlikely trio, two lambs and one goat, unfortunately became a duo after one of the lambs didn’t survive, even with my wife’s intensive care.  This left the kid, Katie, and the lamb, Baby Blue, a fast friendship that exists today.  My wife and older daughter bottle fed them until they could live outside with the goats.  During their time in the bathroom they could be found in the arms of my wife or older daughter attacking a milk bottle or joyfully bouncing around on our bed to the delightful laughter of our daughters.  Since being with the goats, Katie and Blue have remained a steadfast pair.  Whenever I clear the fence perimeter of the goat pasture, I always smile when I look over my shoulder to see Katie and Blue following along behind me, clearly still attached to me from our time together.  I can understand what it must’ve felt like to be Mary being followed around by her little lamb and goat.  Maybe she raised the lamb in the bathroom, too.  From the comfort of my front porch I can discern the burp-like bleat of Baby Blue.  The only other animals in the enclosure two large potbellies, more than once I have thought that Blue must think he is a goat, too.

Not all the bathroom patients have success stories.  I remember sitting on my younger daughter’s step stool looking down at my wife while she sat on the floor, teary-eyed, leaning against the bathtub, holding a piglet, who was quite sick with scours, trying to get him to eat or drink anything.  I remember the juxtaposition of feeling sad for the piglet and my wife while involuntarily smiling inwardly at the size six diapers the piglet was wearing.

While growing up, I would occasionally visit my Grandparents who were farmers.  My grandfather was one of the Greatest Generation and his values were a little different.  He would cull the herd of the sick animals, as it would’ve been a waste of precious resources to do otherwise.  I don’t fault him his values and doing what he believed to be right by his farm.  We didn’t grow up on a farm at all. So, we have a different value system and, thankfully, a few more resources. Watching Katie with her own two kids now, while probably leaving Blue a little confused as to his role in this new social structure, has been gratifying to me and, without doubt, to my wife.  I understand that animals might not think like humans. Still, I can’t help believing she would never neglect one of her own.

Since our first batch of chicks I’m glad that we now have a proper outdoor brooding shed for them.  It keeps them out of my bathroom. I don’t mind sharing the bathroom. Still, it is a little unsettling to have my wife say, “Honey, whatever you do don’t leave the bathroom door open, there are baby turkeys in the jacuzzi,” or “Hon, please be sure to turn on the fan when you’re showering tomorrow morning. I don’t want to steam the lamb.” Even still, I know that some sick animal will find its way back to the bathroom/brooder/sick bay.  For us, the animals are like family and bring us joy, even the ones destined to become a meal get all the royal treatment.