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Pigs in the backyard? What a Bloomington idea

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Four pigs are destroying the plants a backyard near downtown Bloomington. They’re eating honeysuckle, euonymus and other invasive vines and weeds, ripping their roots from deep in the earth, loosening the soil – and then fertilizing it.

The homeowners, Julia DeBruicker Valliant and Michael Valliant, are delighted with the work.

“Our backyard was all vines that we didn’t want growing there, but that do really well back there,” DeBruicker Valliant told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/179hD5E). “We had heard about farms that use pigs on pasture as a way to totally renovate the landscape, as a way to change what’s growing in a place.”

So they thought they’d conduct an experiment on their urban property.

They borrowed the American guinea hogs from Allen Kitscher, who owns Moon Valley Farm near Gosport. Guinea hogs, the swine, are not the same as guinea pigs, the rodents. Guinea hogs are a rare heritage breed, small, docile and slow-growing. Slow Foods USA lists the breed as in danger of extinction.

The four shoats in the Valliants’ backyard weigh each about 50 pounds, about the size of an obese puggle. They have long, black fur and straight, drooping tails.

Someday, they’ll be bacon.

DeBruicker Valliant earned a doctorate in public health from Johns Hopkins University. For her dissertation, she compared the nutritional and environmental differences between conventional animal husbandry and rotational grazing, in which the livestock are confined in a small area and moved frequently to fresh pasture.

That’s the technique the couple are using in their yard: The pigs stay in a portable pen roughly 25 feet long and 10 feet wide. It’s held to the ground with several concrete blocks, but every day, the the pen is moved – pigs inside – to a fresh section of their shady yard.

Where the pigs have been, there is loose soil mixed with fresh manure, and not much else.

“We reseed with flowers, grasses – plants we want to have back there,” DeBruicker Valliant said.

With the pigs’ help, they are transforming their yard from an overgrown, inhospitable jungle into what they hope will be a comfortable lawn, garden and outdoor living area.

The Valliants did not seek permission from the city to keep the pigs in the backyard of their McDoel Gardens bungalow. They figured their request would be denied, and they hoped to keep the cloven-hoofed visitors a tight secret for their entire stay.

“We knew about the chicken tussle” in recent years, Valliant said.

“But we knew they’d be here only a short time,” DeBruicker Valliant said, “to do short work of a specific job, and then they’d go.”

“It was never our intention that they’d stay, that we’d raise livestock in the city. For us, they’re a tool,” Valliant said. Like borrowing a tiller.

But someone called Bloomington Animal Care and Control to report the pigs.

“The call wasn’t necessarily a complaint, just that someone heard them and was curious if they were allowed and contacted our office,” said Laurie Ringquist, director of the department.

In response, animal control officer Nadine Eubank visited the couple last week. She gave the couple permission to keep the pigs through this Sunday.

The couple were pleased with that decision, since they had planned to return the pigs to Kitscher around that date anyhow.

“They were lenient. I love that they didn’t come down on us,” Valliant said.

“Per city ordinances, pigs are not allowed inside the city limits,” Ringquist said in an email.

City code permits livestock only “in a pasturage context,” on lots of 5 acres or more.

What do the neighbors think?

In late March, when the Valliants pulled up next to their yard in a pickup truck with a large dog pen containing four oinklets, eight of their neighbors happened to be standing in front of their house, chatting. So much for the secret.

The neighbors helped them unload the pigs, and since then have been united in supporting the experiment in urban landscape modification. Some bring grass clippings and food scraps. Others stop by just to see the pre-hams at work.

Rachel Krefetz Fyall’s backyard abuts the Valliants’. “We think it’s a creative way to do landscaping, and we haven’t had any issues with them. It’s been pretty fun to walk by to see the pigs and check on their progress,” she said. “I may feel differently if everyone in the neighborhood started putting pigs in their yards, but it’s been really interesting to watch them transform the yard.”

Matt Press lives just down the street. He said he doesn’t mind the pigs either, “not even a little bit.”

“I have seen them be very productive in their rooting, because that’s the purpose of them being on the property,” he said. “They’re there to do a job, and are doing it well. To my understanding, they haven’t created a disturbance.”

Press said he’s taken several children to meet the pigs.

“We knew some neighbors would be in favor of what we’re doing,” DeBruicker Valliant said. “But some neighbors we thought would be apprehensive have been bringing them snacks.”

Valliant said his biggest fear was that someone would think it would be funny to have four little pigs running loose around the neighborhood.

“The public health risk these pigs present is much lower than if I were to keep four dogs, who could get out and harm someone, who also have manure, and who bark,” DeBruicker Valliant said. “These guys just snuffle every now and again.”

On a rainy day earlier this week, the pigs were very quiet and emitted no noticeable odor, not even up close.

“This is a perfect spring activity, cool and wet,” Valliant said. “On the hot days we had last week, it smelled a bit, and that’s not appropriate for in town.”

He said that if the weather hadn’t been conducive for suppressing odors, they would have returned the pigs long ago. “We’re not insensitive to our neighbors,” he said.

DeBruicker Valliant said she met a couple from Indianapolis who are in the process of obtaining a permit from that city to rent their sheep for lawn maintenance. Think of the money the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department could save if it used livestock for lawn mowing instead of conventional equipment, Valliant suggested.

“With attentive management, it could be a viable option for urban agriculture,” DeBruicker Valliant said. “Or even for maintenance of city property,” her husband added.

Press said he hopes the city pigs will get people talking. “Bloomington is heading in the general direction of broader acceptance of urban farming,” he said. “The next question is, `What does urban farming entail?”’

After much discussion, the city decided to allow small flocks of chickens, with the proper permit. Press noted. “Do we want to have a dialogue about reintroducing other domestic animals as well, such as small number of pigs?” he said.

“I think the four pigs they’ve had on their property have had positive impacts, as have the chickens I’ve seen in the community. I’d be intrigued to see a dialogue on it,” Press said.

This is an Associated Press Member Exchange story shared by The Herald-Times.

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