Cleaning the pig barn — isn't it romantic?

This column originally ran June 4, 2009.


We’ve got a lot of farm animals to take care of these days. We divide the labor based on what we’re good at. I, for example, excel at collecting eggs, sometimes as many as eight each day. My husband, Mark, and his brother do pretty much everything else.

Every couple of weeks, they spend two or three hours cleaning the pig barn. I’ve never known exactly what it involved because barn-cleaning time tends to coincide with my egg-collecting time and, darn it, a person just can’t be in two places at once. Last Saturday, however, my brother-in-law made other plans, saving me from a lifetime of barn-cleaning ignorance.

It was, Mark told me, perfect weather for hoeing out the pigpens; the sun was shining for the first time in days. I explained that it was perfect weather for planting vegetables and possibly relaxing on the back porch with an iced tea and some knitting. But Mark explained that I was wrong.

He assured me that cleaning the barn was actually pretty fun, and, hey, it was a way for us to spend some time together as a couple. I pointed out that many couples spend time together over dinner at a nice restaurant, but when I couldn’t convince him that such a plan would benefit the pig, off to the barn we went.

While he locked the pigs out in their yards, I grudgingly picked up a shovel and surveyed the situation: four pigpens filled with hay, now wet and soiled and heavy. I breathed through my mouth; pig waste, unlike that of horses or cows, has no meadow sweetness about it. The more pigs you have (we have 14), the more pronounced the aroma.

Because they’d been unable to go outside much during the ark-appropriate weather of the previous week, the odor was downright pungent. As stink molecules attached themselves to my hair. I wondered how many shampoos it would take before I could buy groceries without fellow shoppers moving to a different checkout line.

Sighing, I followed Mark’s lead, scraping the gunk off the concrete floors and piling the manure and wet hay into the tractor bucket, load after arduous load. I doubt, as a young woman, I had ever imagine I’d one day find myself here, covered in sweat and pig muck, while my American literature diploma moldered in a scrapbook somewhere.

But the work was strangely satisfying; the barn’s systematic transformation from dank dungeon to quaint petting zoo pleased me. And as Mark and I chatted about small things, I realized that he had been right: This was a good way to spend the day alone together, being possibly the only job distasteful enough to discourage anyone from infringing on our couple time.

Once the barn was clean, we threw down new sawdust and big piles of hay and let the pigs back in. We watched them frolic in the hay. We gave them back scratches just to hear their contented grunts. (Happy pigs wag their tails like dogs do, but in a full circle, clockwise. I suspect that below the equator, they twirl the other way.)

I have to admit — other than the odor, the unfairness of being stuck inside on the one fair day in recent memory, the lower-back twinges I suffered from the shovel work, the yucky mud-and-worse spatters all over my bare legs and arms, and the fatigue — I did kind of enjoy myself. We left the barn tidy and fresh, the pigs snoozing in beds of sweet-smelling hay. And for the rest of the afternoon, Mark helped me in the garden with my favorite activity at this time of year: giving my doomed vegetables a false sense of security before letting them die of neglect.

So maybe it’s not all bad, this working hard and getting dirty stuff, as long as you do it with someone you love. Or even your spouse. But when I told Mark I was crossing “mucking out the pig barn” off my rather pathetic bucket list, he seemed disappointed. He said he was hoping we could make a regular thing of it, like a date, only without the wine and candlelight.

Thanks, but no thanks. Here we are, five days and five shampoos later, and I’m still the only one in my checkout line.