Your Lunch, On the Hoof

Don Nelson’s white minivan looked pretty much like every other vehicle in the parking lot behind the Green Mill restaurant on Hennepin Avenue. But the moment Nelson opened the rear door, out of the dark interior came frantic grunting. When he opened the gate to a portable dog kennel sitting on the floor, the grunts grew into squeals and the squeals to high-pitched yelps.

Oval nostrils and bristly nose hair pushed hard against the door of the kennel. The strong little shoat—this one a small, white-haired Hampshire pig—flung open the door and ran in tiny circles in the relative freedom of the vehicle’s cargo space. As pigs go, this one was pretty cute: squeaky clean, animated, and noisy. He was about ten pounds of grunting, oinking, and snorting energy. Despite

appearances, the piglet, named Perfect, was not Don Nelson’s pet. After its month on the road, it’s back to the farm for Perfect, its show-business days just a hazy memory. From there, well, its future is pretty much tied up in country-style ribs on a foam tray at the grocery store.

Nelson was once a farmer, and like every farmer, he knows the difference between livestock and pets. For more than fifteen years, he’s visited with thousands of Minnesota public schoolchildren to teach them about where their food comes from, and who grows and raises it.

“A lot of urban kids have this image of a farmer as an unsophisticated hayseed, a guy who walks around in bib overalls and a straw hat,” said Nelson. He tends to show up at school assemblies, pig in hand, dressed rather like a poet—in a natty sport coat, wool trousers, and turtleneck sweater.

For several months each year, Nelson spends his day going from school to school in and around the Twin Cities, talking with elementary schoolchildren about pigs and turkeys and agriculture in general. It’s a job he likes, and according to the teachers and students, he’s good at it. These days, most children think of livestock only in the abstract—their pork chops and chicken nuggets coming from machines at the food factory, not from living, breathing, grunting beings like Perfect.

Even in rural towns like Litchfield and Willmar, kids don’t know much about farming anymore. “All agricultural areas are now suburbia,” said Nelson. “Even the communities that do have livestock are suburbia. The Litchfield area, for example, has livestock, but there’s probably only a single farm kid or two in the whole school, even there. Years ago there used to be a high percentage of farm kids in small-town schools, but no more. If I go into small towns with the pig and talk about hogs, it’s just as new to them as it is to kids in the city. They’ve never been on a hog farm.”

The only problem with Nelson’s gig is how fast his assistants—who are always named Perfect—grow up. “I can only keep any one particular pig for three weeks, and then it’s just too big to take around,” he said. “When I start out with a new pig, it weighs around ten to twelve pounds. Three weeks later, it’s thirty pounds. My arm gets sore from carrying it around.”

In the pizza parlor parking lot, the show was over. It was time to herd Perfect back into his kennel, despite his enthusiasm for the prevailing scent of pepperoni and sausage hanging on the air. Perfect’s little home, I noticed, was outfitted with a heat lamp to keep him cozy and warm—not unlike the to-go counter inside Green Mill.

—William Gurstelle