Month: July 2017

Wild Hogs in Florida

A NPR Morning Edition news report last September by Jessica Meszaro, “Meat Industry Turns Florida’s Feral Hogs Into Prime Pork,” reminded me of my encounters with wild pigs on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County in the 1950’s, particularly shortly after my family moved onto the ranch in 1957.

My father quit his ranch hand job on the Circle T spread near Lake Okeechobee for a similar position on the ranch outside of Parrish. Although the pay was not much greater, the opportunity to build his own new house, have a cow to milk, have chickens for eggs and meat, have a steer to butcher once or twice a year, and have a garden as benefits enticed both my parents. His salary of $250 a month, supplemented by beef, chicken, eggs, milk, housing, and utilities, allowed him to buy a decent truck, a serviceable car for my mother, and a horse he could train and use in local calf roping competitions. He felt he was in hog heaven.

Wild pigs added to that sense of wellbeing. He and Vick Blackstone, the ranch foreman, decided one way to lessen the destructive impact of hogs on the pasture land Vick was trying to develop to improve beef production would be to trap the feral pigs, keep them in a pen for a couple months to fatten them on grain, and butcher them for food to feed the ranch families. They built two large wooden traps out of two by ten pine boards that stood eight feet tall and were fifteen feet by fifteen feet square. A single hinged trap door four feet square propped up by a two by four driven slightly into the ground served as a simple mechanism for capturing the pigs. The traps were pre-baited with livestock feed, tomatoes from the local commercial farms, and, occasionally, carrion (road killed raccoons or possums) with the trap door tied open for a couple weeks so the hogs would get used to the structures. Once the traps were set for captures, my brother and I were often sent to check on them.

The first capture of two yearling hogs proved entertaining as my father and Vick took turns roping the 75 pound pigs as though they were calves, tying them off to posts, jumping down into the trap to hogtie their rear feet first and then their front feet, and putting burlap bags over their heads to reduce their struggles. The hogs were dragged out through the trap door, thrown onto the bed of a pickup truck, and driven to their brand new sty. My brother and I happily took on the new chore of daily feedings. The unpleasant task of mucking out the sty also fell to us after a fence with a gate divided the sty in half, so the pigs could be enticed with food to gather in one half of the enclosure while we closed the gate. We cleaned the empty half and repeated the process to clean the opposite half. We made sure we never leaned over the fence when we poured feed into the troughs. After the hogs got over their initial fear of being near people, they would charge toward the fence in efforts to get at us for days as if they were defending territory. That charging behavior occurred most frequently when sows were captured along with two to a half dozen piglets. One 250 pound sow that had three piglets grunted and charged us every day for three months before she was finally slaughtered and sent to a butcher.

Pork chops, roasts, and sausage filled our freezer. Pork and beef dominated the dinner table because the chickens were only replaced every 18 months or so. We gathered eggs every day from the thirty chickens that were kept in a wire cage that was suspended from the barn rafters, but the complex process of slaughtering and plucking chickens took most of a day, a task both Vick and my father put off until their wives repeatedly complained about not having chicken as a meal alternative.

Small herds or drifts of pigs were common sights along the length US 98, US 19, and all the other rural roads in the 50’s and 60’s, and, because the state was much less developed, the feral pig population did not get the attention the animals get today.

Wild pigs have become a problem in Florida as hundreds of thousands roam the state and destroy pasture land, crops, and residential property. There’s an effort now to turn the pest into a profit. According to William M. Giuliano in “Wild Hogs in Florida: Ecology and Management,” “Wild hogs are now found in every county in Florida and in at least 35 states and Canadian provinces, including most of the Southeast. Florida’s wild hog population is second only to Texas’s; the state is estimated to have more than 500,000 wild hogs in a relatively stable population (there are from 1 to 2 million wild hogs in the southeastern United States). Some of the highest hog population densities in Florida can be found north and west of Lake Okeechobee in areas with large forested tracts, dense understory vegetation, and limited public access. Hog numbers tend to be lower in areas with intensive agriculture and urbanization, and little water.”  The  Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission contends “the wild pig (Sus scrofa), also called the wild hog, wild boar or feral pig, is not a Florida native…and prefers oak-cabbage palm hammocks, freshwater marshes and sloughs and pine flatwoods. Wild pigs can reach weights of more than 150 pounds and be 5-6 feet long. They usually travel in small family groups or alone.

Laura Reilly, argued in 2014: “One solution to Florida’s wild pig problem: Eat them.”  She put forth that “Anna Maria restaurateur Ed Chiles’ three moderately priced indoor-outdoor restaurants, Anna Maria’s Sandbar, Mar Vista on Longboat Key, and Anna Maria’ BeacHhouse, showcases Florida foods, which includes Braised Punta Gorda Wild Boar Au Jus with Beagle Bay Organic Sauerkraut. That is a pretty upscale treatment for meat coming from “descendants of pigs brought by Hernando de Soto in 1539.” She did address a question most restaurant patrons would ask: “But is this wild pork safe? Field dressing wild hogs puts hunters at risk of brucellosis infection, and then there are the specters of dangerous diseases such as trichinosis, pseudorabies and leptospirosis. According to D.J. Conner, who regulates animals coming in and out of the state for Florida’s Department of Agriculture, if it’s cooked thoroughly (the USDA says that means an internal temperature of 160), it poses no greater risk than commercial pork.”

From chapter 9, “The Barn,” of Growing Up Floridian:

Lessons in how steak, pork roasts, and fried chicken got to the table were taught in that barn, too. Every six months a steer was grain fed for a couple of months before he was butchered to serve to families. Wild hogs were as frequently trapped, fed, and slaughtered. The anatomy lessons offered during those very real life moments identified livers, hearts, stomachs, and intestines in three vivid dimensions. Every eighteen months the chickens were replaced after they were slaughtered and distributed to the ranch families. I was not quite prepared for the spectacle of bringing to life the adage of “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Even at eight years-old, I had heard the saying many times but did not realize such a behavior could happen. When Vick and my father set up a huge iron scalding pot over a fire in front of the barn one Saturday morning, I had just finished cleaning the chicken area and washing off the red wagon with the hose at the back of the barn. Both men had hatchets and oak stump chopping blocks set near the bubbling pot. They went into the chicken cages, brought out two chickens at a time, and chopped their heads off. Then, they tossed the headless bodies into the grass. The white unbalanced forms ran or stumbled around the area for ten to twenty seconds, sometimes going fifteen to twenty feet away from where they were tossed. The actions of the headless chickens were the strangest I had ever seen, and I was hesitant about eating chicken for some weeks afterwards. After all the chickens were dispatched, both men plunged the bodies into the scalding water, plucked the feathers, dressed the birds, and wrapped them in white freezer paper. I carried a box filled with white packages to my mother so she could place them in our freezer.

 

The Great Florida Cattle Drive

Vick Blackstone would have loved participating in the Great Florida Cattle Drives. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1987, eight years before the first of the three reenactments of Floridian cattle drives that the Florida Cow Culture Preservation Committee under the auspices of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Agricultural Museum coordinated. The first Great Florida Cattle Drive was organized in 1995 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Florida statehood and the second was in 2006. Vick was named Man of the Year in 1970 by the Rodeo Hall of Fame, and, in 1985, the Florida Senate and House passed joint resolutions citing Vick Blackstone for Outstanding Service to Florida Agriculture. Celebrating the Cracker cowboy heritage is always done with a tip of the hat to men and women like Vick and Faye Blackstone.

On July 22, an evening spent taking a look at 2016 Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles was offered at the Hideaway Cafe in St. Petersburg by father/son filmmakers Elam and Nic Stoltzfus with music by J Robert Houghtaling as he performed some of his original songs that are featured on the film. The documentary, narrated by Baxter Black, tells the story of the Great Florida Cattle Drive 2016, the history of Florida’s scrub cattle breed, and how they almost went extinct. A DVD, a CD, and a coffee table book were produced and are available for anyone who does not have the opportunity to see a live presentation of this Floridian historical event.

Carlton Ward, a photographer who participated in the drives, wrote “A lot has changed since the first Great Florida Cattle Drive in 1995. Florida’s population has grown from 14 million to 20 million and more than 2 million acres (more than 3,000 square miles) of natural and agricultural lands have been lost to development.

That trend was apparent as I headed south down Canoe Creek Road to the starting point of the drive. New developments sprawled out from Kissimmee and St. Cloud, covering what had been ranch country just a few years before. I learned from the trail bosses that it had been increasingly difficult to find enough connected land for a cattle drive from one decade to the next and that the prospect of being able to do it again is very much in question.

It’s when I think about the landscape of the cattle drive that my concern shifts from nostalgia for the heritage to fear for the future of Florida. Four years ago, I hiked across this cattle drive route on Day 53 of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1000-mile, 100-day trek from the Everglades to Georgia tracing the best remaining wildlife corridor through the Florida peninsula. Our team’s mission was to show that a statewide wildlife corridor still existed and could still be saved.”

The cattle drives have been widely cover in newspapers and periodicals like the Los Angles Times and Western Horseman.  Mike Cleary wrote in the LATimes that “Most of the Great Florida Cattle Drive ’95 runs over private land, including hunting preserves where wild boar, deer and alligators thrive. But on Saturday morning, at trail’s end, the cattle will be herded across busy U.S. 192, a main road into a better-known symbol of Florida: Walt Disney World.

The cow hunters driving the cattle are expert riders nominated by the cattlemen’s associations in each of Florida’s 67 counties. The journey averages 10 miles a day, and at night the cows are penned in prearranged locations, where the cow hunters set up camp. Trailing the herd is a mile-long retinue of more than 30 wagons and about 400 horseback riders.”

Susan L. Ebert wrote in Cowgirl magazine that, “Last year’s Great Florida Cattle Drive, featuring the state’s famed cow hunters, delivered an unexpected surprise: women outnumbered the men!” She concluded with, “As momentum builds and the urgency to preserve Florida’s ranching legacy and wilderness increases, planning is already underway for the fourth Great Florida Cattle Drive, to be held in 2021 to mark 500 years of Florida Cracker tradition.” So, if anyone wants to participate in the next celebration of the cattle drive, start planning now.

Brahma Fear

Even before the Manatee County school bus slowed to a stop in front of the dirt road leading over the railroad rail cattleguard at the entrance to the Quarter Circle A ranch on State Road 62, my brother, Smokey, and I looked out the opened windows and scanned the small four-acre pasture in front of the tree line for cattle. What we didn’t want to see were the Brahman cows.

The Colvin ranch of 10,000 acres was the home range of several hundred head of Florida scrub cattle and several breeds of purebred cattle that the Colvins bought at auctions in whatever parts of the country they happen to visit. A champion Angus Bull arrived from a Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo visit one day, got out of the cattle truck, and walked right into a barbed wire he had never encountered before, requiring a local veterinarian triage visit. A few Hereford cows brought in from Nebraska required veterinarian attention several times during their first few months in the Florida heat and humidity. However, the purebred Brahman herd of about 40 cows required the least amount of veterinarian care, but were rotated through different sections of pasture land to give the cattle the best grazing the ranch could afford them. When the rotation schedule brought the Brahmans into the small entrance field leading onto the ranch or the wider pasture area around the four houses and barn of the ranch headquarters, my brother and I had to devise strategies for dealing with the herd.

The cows with their calves were usually skittish, dashed into a close-packed herd a couple hundred feet away from anyone who approached on horseback or on a tractor, and turned to stare at the intruder until they determined whether or not danger really existed for their offspring. When two small boys coming home from school began walking down the 300 yards of dusty, dirt road that disappeared into the tree line harboring Gamble Creek, the cows looked up from grazing, sometimes snorted, and, most often, went right back to grazing. A few of the 1,200 pound cows with wide-eyed curious calves on either side of the road would raise heavy heads adorned with short, very pointed horns and stare. We would freeze in place. After the closest cow lowered her head to graze, we quietly crept forward again. This cow and boy dance usually worked until we came within the last 200 feet from the tree line; then, we ran as if our lives depended on the few seconds we needed to reach the safety of the trees.

The first time we encounter the herd on the way home, we had no strategy in place and spoke nervously about running all the way to the trees or just walking like the cattle were not even there. Our chatter must have irritated the cow closest to the road. She ran several strides forward, lowered her head, and swung pointed horns at our rear ends as we screeched and stumbled in our awkward school shoes toward the lone pine 75 yards from the road in the middle of the eastern half of the pasture. The cow could not have been serious about wanting to reach us, because she halted after those first few strides and watched us scramble behind the pine. The rest of the herd gathered on the western side of the pasture to watch us exit the open field by keeping the tree between us and the Brahmans, going all the way to the barbed wire fence on the eastern edge, and climbing under the fence into the Palmetto scrub on the other side. Our journey home took three times the usual duration as we navigated palmettos, watched for rattlesnakes, and twisted through the trees along the creek to get back to the road. Smokey and I talked about strategy on the way home and decided being quiet while walking slowly after taking off our shoes would be the best plan, agreeing that we ran much faster without shoes. We had quite a few more dances through the herd over the next few years and a few barefoot races to the trees when we heard an aggressive snort or strides coming in the grass toward us that, a couple of times, left school shoes lying in the dust.

When we heard Tex Ritter sing “Bad Brahma Bull” on the car radio a few times during those mid 1950’s, my brother and I agreed that we were happy never seeing any of the several Brahman bulls, a couple of them retired rodeo bulls, mixed in with the herd of cows. They were put together once or twice a year in outer pastures removed from the area of the ranch where we typically travelled on foot.

Years later in 1974, the lines from “Brahma Fear” on Jimmy Buffett’s album, Living And Dying In 3/4 Time, “I’d like to ride the rodeo/But I’ve got Brahma fear/So I’ll just stick to airplanes/Gently pop my ears,” reminded me of my childhood moments with Brahman cattle. I, too, thought about rodeo possibilities, but I figured pain from football injuries probably paled in ctomparison to that inflicted by bulls and broncs in a rodeo arena.

In 1977, Chris LaDoux’s album, Sing Me a Song, Mr. Rodeo Man, offered an upbeat version of “Bad Brahma Bull,” and led me to find that the song was originally written by cowboy poet Curley Fletcher in 1915 as the poem, “Strawberry Roan,” and transformed into a song by Fred Howard and Nat Vincent (The Happy Chappies).  Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen and Buddy Essen, Marty Robbins, and the Sons of the Pioneers recorded versions of “Strawberry Roan.” Fletcher rewrote the bronc riding song into a parody as the bull riding song in 1942.

From the 5th chapter, “Cowboy Hat,” of Growing Up Floridian:

As we started to the barn, I noticed Vick was bow-legged, and his stride was an awkward mix between a slight limp and an exaggerated right leg extension.

“Why do you walk like that?”

“Son, if you had been thrown from as many horses and bulls as I have, you might have a hitch in your giddyup too. Too many rodeos. Too many eight second rides.”

He wore a silver belt buckle adorned with a cowboy on a bucking horse that read Saddle Bronc Champion 1942, one of many I saw over the years. I learned that Vick Blackstone was a well-respected rodeo performer when he was young and still had to ride once in a while in competitions despite being almost 50, an age when most riders had retired from all rodeo events. Vick did not talk much about himself to us, but we overheard conversations or his responses to questions about where he earned the championship belt buckle he wore on any given day. He was respected as a five-event cowboy, a competitor riding bulls, riding broncs bareback, riding broncs with a saddle, roping calves, and bulldogging. For twenty-five years, he won championships on the rodeo circuit across the country from when he was seventeen in 1930 until he was well into his forties. Once, a truck driver delivering feed to the ranch asked him about “that Largo rodeo when you won all five main events.”

 

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