A few hours before I arrived at Sabbath Farm in Ann Arbor, I was at a rave 130 miles away in a warehouse in Grand Rapids, banging my head to techno music. I wore plastic sunglasses shaped like middle fingers, baggy pants and combat boots. I was there until 2 a.m., and I slept on my sibling’s couch. When I woke up in the living room of the party house three hours later, I put on two long-sleeved shirts, a wool button-down, Carhartt insulated overalls and a pair of forest green Hunter rain boots. I stepped over the sleeping, post-rave bodies strewn across the floor and drove across the state.
I was going hog farming.
My neck hurt. My ear drums were throbbing. I had a headache that even coffee couldn’t fix. Somewhere along the 2.5-hour ride to the farm, I became certain I had made a grave mistake, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so wrong.
I met David Cobler, the proprietor of Sabbath Farms, on his 20-acre property at 9 a.m. When he greeted me, I wasn’t sure I was shaking hands with the right person. Cobler doesn’t look like a typical farmer. With a trimmed beard, bald head and bright red glasses, he looks like an insurance salesman because, well, that’s what he is. He lives on the farm, which he first broke ground on in 2019, with his wife and three kids, splitting his time between his day job and farm work.
But do not let his day job or bright glasses fool you: Cobler is a farmer. I am not.
I weigh 140 pounds when soaking wet. 115 pounds is the most I’ve ever bench-pressed. I grew up in a tidy home with parents who had desk jobs, and sometimes I like to wear a collared shirt underneath my sweaters because it makes me feel important. I’ve worked outside, perhaps to mow a lawn or clear some snow, but I’ve never been asked to do it well or for very long.
A few days before I met Cobler, I asked a number of local farmers if I could be put to work on their farms. I wanted to tap into a side of myself that had never been tapped into to understand the importance of a day of farm labor, preferably in the company of livestock (fun!). Cobler was the first to email me back. We spoke on the phone, and he warned me to wear waterproof boots. “You will undoubtedly be stepping in various types of animal feces,” he told me (not fun!).
I’ve written about poop before, but when he requested said boots so matter-of-factly, I realized I was going to be treading in unfamiliar territory. In the spirit of immersion, I chose to step into it blindly and agreed to show up on his farm at 9 a.m. that Saturday.
I spent a moment chatting with Cobler and his family in their quaint farmhouse before he put me to work. He showed me the farm and explained the agenda for the day: We’d be moving 50 ducks, 20 hogs and 20 heads of cattle around so that they had new grass to graze — Or, as Cobler put it, “a greener, less shit-covered pasture.”
We began with the ducks. We moved their fencing stake by stake, slowly but surely inching their pen onto fresher grass. Cobler also taught me how to feed the ducks without getting duck poop all over my hands, which proved to be surprisingly valuable knowledge. As I lugged around buckets of water for them, the ducks quacked and danced. I laughed. I liked them.
But what more can you do with 50 ducks on a farm?
If it were up to me, I would shuffle around with them for a while. I’d laugh at their strange gait and quack back, feigning conversation. Unfortunately, I am incredibly naive, and that is not how this works.
The ducks will die soon. They will be sold at a market and eaten. Duck is a delicacy, especially when raised on good pasture, Cobler told me. And, look, I’m no farmer, but I’m certainly not a fool — I know livestock farms raise animals for the commodity they provide, but I was still a little stricken. I had spent the last 20 minutes befriending the silly ducks, and I would never see them again.
If you want to worry about death on a farm, do it while you work. There is very little time for moral quandaries, especially when the guy you asked to put you to work is barking orders at you, and the cows are groaning in the distance because they’re hungry.
We drove the stereotypically farmer-like white Ford F-150 out to the cattle paddock, where the 20 heads of Dexter cattle were mooing. They too wanted greener, less shit-covered pasture. There were a few mature cows, some heifers and a bull or two. Cobler told me about the cattle and their different coat colors, and he even told me about the ways bulls are castrated (ouch).
The cows spoke a lot too, but they were much less insightful: they lacked manners and timing, interrupting the farmer almost every time he tried to speak. I was scared of the bulls, but moving the cattle was relatively easy. Cobler led them through a gate into another paddock, while I stood behind the herd, making sure they all made it through. One calf tried to bolt, which required a few quick steps from me, but it was one of the easier tasks I was asked to do that day.
Once we herded the mooing (or more accurately, screaming) cattle onto new grass, they immediately shut up. They chewed away at the ground. Sometimes, the young calves drank from the mature cow’s teats. They seemed satisfied.
The cows were fun, but now that they had been moved, it was time for the main event — my Super Bowl. This was the reason I woke up at 5 a.m. and drove 130 miles across the state of Michigan: It was hog time.
In my mind, I hold hogs in particularly high esteem. They’re funny-looking creatures — objectively cute, despite us all knowing that they spend their lives rolling around in mud and poop. It’s an impressive feat to charm the masses while being known almost exclusively for being disgusting. When I took this story, I was certain of only one thing: I wanted to hang out with some hogs.
Cobler and I walked into the hog’s paddock and like a scene out of a movie, or perhaps the Iowa State Fair, he let out a sharp, strident, “SOOIE. HERE PIG. SOOIE!”
The hogs approached us, and with them, a hideous stench. But if you’re wearing three separate pieces of Carhartt clothing and rubber boots, you’re not allowed to be troubled by a hog’s scent. So I wasn’t.
Instead, I was absolutely enchanted by their character and curiosity. They grabbed my overalls and tugged on my boots. They threw their dense bodies into my legs, squealing with infectious joy.
Now, I realize that my portrayal of a hog that is being raised for the explicit purpose of being killed as joyful might read a little contradictory. Frankly, it feels a little contradictory to me, too. Before I showed up, I was open to the idea of being so shocked and disturbed by the conditions of a livestock farm that I would convert to veganism and begin demonstrating with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Obviously, this did not happen.
If I had been put to work on a factory farm and not on Cobler’s hyperlocal farm, I might have had a different take. At Sabbath Farm, Cobler put me to work — shuffling food and water across the pasture, herding cows like I was some eager border collie — just to give these animals a better life and better pasture. The very foundation of his farm was one of compassion.
Unfortunately, he is an outlier. For many hogs, the foundation of the farms they live on is concrete. The Rodale Institute estimates that nearly 97% of pork in the United States is raised on commercial farms in concrete pens, where hogs have little exposure to mud or grass before they’re slaughtered. It’s devastating to me that these pigs will die at all, but it’s even more heartbreaking when their lives are defined by concrete and rebar.
Not these Sabbath hogs, though. When we let them into their new pasture, they pranced and scrambled around. They gathered around the base of a hickory tree and plowed through the mud, crunching on pignuts and acorns. Projecting human emotions onto animals is probably wrong, but I’d like to call this “hog joy.”
Less joyous was the task of dumping 1,000 pounds of hog feed. We untied, shouldered and dumped bags upon bags of swine feed. As the feeder filled up, the hogs crowded around at the base and bickered with each other over the food like students in a dining hall.
Again, if I may project: We and the hogs are not too dissimilar.
Yes, it breaks my heart that they will all die. But so will I. So will the farmer, and so will you. I’d rather myself, Cobler or any other farmer give them acorns and overalls to chew on and share some joy with the hogs of the world while we’re all alive.
I’ve already learned that pondering death on a farm is no good for business, though, so we kept it moving. Cobler told me to get on the tractor.
He gave me a crash course on how to drive the thing and had me haul stock tanks up the pasture. The curious hogs waltzed beside me as I drove, pooping and oinking indiscriminately. It was hilarious. The fact that I was on a tractor was hilarious — especially considering that just a few hours prior I was in a warehouse in strange clothing dancing to strange music. It was cold, rainy, and my hands were freezing. My fingernails were caked with hog feed and mud — probably hog shit, too. I was in pain, but I spun the wheel with one hand, nonchalantly. I was overwhelmed with boyish joy.
As we wrapped up, I thanked Cobler for the opportunity. I told him how I was out raving the night prior, working on three hours of bad sleep, expecting to hate the day, but I didn’t.
He knew the feeling well. He didn’t want to go out to the farm that day, either. He said he’d rather spend time with his wife and family next to the fire.
“But then you get out on your pasture,” he said. “And there’s nothing like being out on your pasture. It awakens the five-year-old boy in you, and you’re like, ‘Damn. I’m on my tractor.’”
Damn right, David.
Nothing I did that day was overly exceptional on its own. There wasn’t one singular moment where I realized that my life had changed permanently, but rather the dirty jobs, considerations of death and the symphony of oinks culminated into an experience I could not forget — not even if I wanted to.
But why would I want to?
I walked onto Cobler’s farm with a little interest in hog farming. It was enough to drag me across the state in the wee hours of the morning, but it was still a measured interest. I did it for the novelty of the experience — to work hard for a day and learn from it.
I’m leaving with those lessons, sure, but there is something more: A new perspective on life.
I’ll remember those hogs the next time I have bacon at breakfast. I’ll recall how the joy of driving a tractor surmounted any physical discomfort the next time I’m bitterly walking home in the cold. And when I graduate, so long as the world is still spinning, I’ll think of those hogs when I move into my first home and break ground on a garden — or perhaps my own farm. They’ll be with me, trotting along and oinking, as I continue to move through this world, hopefully into greener, less shit-covered pasture.
Statement Correspondent Liam Rappleye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.