We donate some of our surplus food to an elderly feeding program in nearby Punta Gorda Town, where we work with Helping Older People Equally (HOPE), a local community-based organization run out of the Red Cross building that works with 22 elderly people. The balance we cycle through our pigs. This deals with seasonal abundance. Frequently, when we have something, for example avocados or mangos, everyone in the area has them too. This makes selling them difficult, and there are times when farmers have not sold their produce at market by noon, when they must catch buses back to their villages. However, with our ever hungry pigs, we always have a use for excess foods, and the pigs act as a way to convert our surplus foods into energy and marketable products.
Pigs are an important part of local agricultural and cultural practices. Like the proverbial piggy bank, when a farmer needs a substantial amount of cash, they can sell a pig. Unlike perishable materials, pigs can wait to be sold until the market demands it. Pigs also bind communities together. Pigs are used for weddings, confirmation, graduation, funerals and for labour exchange, when farmers trade days of labour. If a farmer has 20 men come help him to clear, plant or harvest his corn field, or thatch his roof, or any task that requires a lot of hands, he must feed the men who come. Serving a pig is a way to show appreciation.
We avoided the high yielding Large White pigs, which were offered to us by a school we work with, and instead purchased the “local” pigs, pigs that have been raised by Kekchi Maya farmers for centuries. They are sturdy pigs, can eat a variable diet, are not prone to getting sick, and do not have the reputation of the Large White pigs of being aggressive. I did not want any 900 lb mean pigs. Our biggest pig, Romeo the Boar, weighs about 300lbs. He is well mannered.
I, personally, do not eat pork, but I love the place pigs hold in the farm ecology. Pigs eat things that we do not want — spoiled food, skins of fruit, surplus food — and in return provide us with manure, and a highly prized food source. Pork meat is considered a delicacy here. Additionally, pigs’ intrinsic behavior, rooting, can be used to plow land. We have two rotational paddocks for the pigs to root around and do their piggy thing. When one paddock has been denuded and the soil turned, we can sow it to grains or beans, and move them to the next pen, where they will plow and fertilize that for us.
Our piggery is comprised of four pens and has housed 4-20 pigs. At the time of this writing, we have four mature pigs, and six piglets, now being weaned to allow us to market them.The piggery has two rotational paddocks for the pigs to get out, root around and do piggy things. We strictly bring food for them to their pens, so they are trained to return to their pens to be fed. The piggery is designed for easy collection of the manure, with an eventual goal of building a biogas plant, which will add an additional harvest cycle to the system, burnable methane, which can be used in a modified propane stove, while the effluent will still be useful as a nitrogen rich soil amendment. In the mean time, we use the manure generated by the pigs for composting, and use the compost for our tree crops, especially coffee and cacao.
While much of the food we provide for our pigs can be eaten raw — ripe banana, ripe plantain, guava, all fruits, amaranths, sugarcane, inga edulis pods, to name a few — some of the food we prepare for the pigs needs to be cooked for palatability. Breadnut and breadfruit, banana and plantain (when green), cocoyam and cassava, all benefit from cooking. Like most households in rural areas of Belize, we cook with fuel wood, mostly small diameter wood collected from the 20 acre agroforestry system, or trees we have thinned out. We have a wood burning cook stove, a few hearths and a cob oven for pizza, which we fire up every Saturday, in the kitchen, and a biochar stove located near the piggery.
Placing the biochar stove near the piggery gives us a short distance from where we prepare the food, to where we feed the pigs. Additionally, it allows us to transport the biochar directly to the pig pens.
Albert Bates is a good friend of mine and co teacher at our annual Permaculture Design Courses here at MMRF. He wrote a book about biochar, called “The Biochar Solution“. It is a very good book for explaining what biochar is and its value. It gives more detail than I can provide in this article about the benefits to soil and the environment from making biochar. After reading it, inspired, we set out to build a biochar stove out of local materials for both pig food and human food.
Biochar is produced by heating biomass to high temperature, in a low or no oxygen environment. As the biomass heats up, it starts to off-gas, leaving behind the carbon. This is called pyrolisis. When making biochar the feed stock gets hot, and if the environment is well designed, the oxygen is depleted, and the feed stock goes from combustion to pyrolisis, as the biomass off-gasses. The gasses that come out of the pyrolisis chamber are flammable, and they are burned by the fire as they exit the inner tank, or retort, and meet the flames inside the container in which the inner tank is set. We burn those gasses to make more heat. Initially, there is some smoke, but very soon almost no smoke is visible, as the flames are burning very hot.