My Three Years of the Pig
For centuries, pigs have helped bind the Naxi people of China’s southwestern Yunnan province together. A cornerstone of local society and culture, the pigs — a breed known as “black pigs” — offer both sustenance and the substance of important sacrificial offerings. Pork is a prized gift among villagers here during weddings and funerals, and every winter, villagers come together to slaughter their pigs and cure meat for the upcoming year. This occasion, known in Chinese as sha nianzhu, or “Killing the New Year’s Pig,” is a communal event, as villagers go from one household to the next helping each other.
These traditions have eroded considerably over the past few decades, however. In the village of Wumu, located in a remote corner of the province a five-hour drive from the tourist town of Lijiang, locals may complain how the pork from the city isn’t as good, safe, or nutritious as their home-fed black pigs, but even they admit the newly introduced “white pig” breeds are more lucrative. Home-fed black pigs take about two years to reach a slaughter weight of 200 pounds, while white pigs on large-scale farms can grow to that size in just five months. Moreover, white pigs tend be leaner, making them more appealing to consumers and therefore more valuable on the market. Wumu farmers might spend two years and thousands of yuan raising black pigs, only to barely turn a profit.
As a result, household pig farms are now few and far between in Wumu. Over a decade ago, virtually every one of the village’s 300 households raised black pigs; that number has since dwindled to around 180, of which two-thirds also raise white pigs. Many of these are raised by elderly subsistence farmers looking for a way to augment their income or a source of food in emergencies. As young and able-bodied villagers have flocked to China’s cities in search of better-paying migrant work, the task of breeding and feeding the pigs has mostly fallen on Wumu’s oldest residents.
I first arrived in Wumu in 2019. Fresh out of college and newly employed by a development NGO, I was tasked with helping set up an economic and community development program in the village. Our goal was to help revitalize village life in a sustainable and culturally appropriate way, and pig-farming stood out as a viable way, not just to boost incomes, but also to reconnect villagers to their past and each other. For most of the past four years, as the rest of the country battled COVID-19, I’ve stayed put in Wumu, getting a firsthand lesson in the hardships and promise of ecological farming in China.
To start, our team rented a plot of land and bought a number of young black pigs from nearby farmers. Unlike industrial pig farms, our farm was covered by a dense grove of walnut trees, under which we planted a variety of grasses to feed the pigs. During the day, we let the pigs graze freely before herding them back to their pens each night. We harvested the manure and weeds from the pen and fermented them into fertilizer, which we then used to plant more grass.
Ironically, the biggest obstacle to our plans wasn’t necessarily COVID-19, but another pandemic: a 2019 outbreak of African swine flu that devastated Chinese pig stocks. Combined, the two pandemics severely impacted the promotion and transportation of our pork.
Nevertheless, by mid-2022, we had convinced enough residents of the merits of our plan to transfer the task of free-range raising the pigs to villagers. Once the pigs were ready for slaughter, we bought them from the farmers and took responsibility for processing, transporting, and selling their meat on the market.
The process of convincing farmers to work with us wasn’t easy. Grazing pigs is far more expensive than simply feeding them industrial pellets, and free-range farming is much more difficult to oversee. It took years, but a relationship based on mutual assistance formed between us and the villagers. We helped each other out on our farms and chatted during our downtimes, while our team has helped educate and even contributed to the school fees of local children. As a result, they’ve accepted us as members of their community and have come to trust us.
Once we purchase the meat, however, we face another set of problems common to many of the ecological farming initiatives cropping up across China in recent years. Wumu is far from any city and its terraced farmland renders the use of large machinery impossible. Though this has helped preserve villagers’ traditional farming methods, it also makes transportation difficult and costly. An ill-placed mudslide can cut the village off from the outside world.
Even more challenging is finding a market for sustainable produce. Our high production costs mean our goods can’t compete on price, and there are still few consumers in China willing to pay for free-range meat.
In the face of these obstacles, different eco-farming collectives have come up with strategies to help each other succeed. As a community, collectives often recommend and provide our products to other eco-farmers, and vice versa. That way, a farm can diversify its sales with goods that it can’t produce on its own, all while allowing its own products to be distributed on a greater scale.
In the long term, however, it will be difficult for eco-farming initiatives to survive without greater investment from local governments and other institutions with the resources and organizational capacity to make sustainable agriculture viable. Convincing consumers to pay for ecological farming is equally vital. Farmers’ labor has always been severely undervalued: they do gruelling work yet receive little in return. We shouldn’t let the free market alone dictate the value of produce — we need to recognize its value to rural ecologies and the contributions of sustainable farming to environmental conservation.
The truth is, every one of us is dependent on the countryside: From food security to environmental protection, its welfare is intertwined with our own. In traditional Chinese agricultural society, our ancestors developed models of production and consumption that they passed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years. Ecological agriculture is a continuation of this legacy, and it deserves more widespread attention and support. It’s not just about conserving history, but also about building a better future.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Black pigs wander about in Wumu Village, Yunnan province. Courtesy of Yang Xingfeng)