STERLING – This little piggy went to market. This little piggy stayed home.
And then there are these little piggies that set up shop on a precarious plot of land – a fallow field – just outside the Sterling city limits, near a movie theater, a gas station and a chain restaurant.
Farmer Norm Koster, 62, owns the 120-acre parcel that abuts city limits on Polo Road, near Applebee's, Kelly's Market and Mobil and Carmike Sauk Valley 8 Cinema. He's had the land for more than 30 years and raised commercial corn and soybeans. He now has the remnants of a wheat crop, with clover and alfalfa mixed in.
The pigs are just hired help, in a way.
Koster bought the pigs – at least a few hundred of varying breeds, all about a few months old and about 50 pounds – in a lot and deployed them on his field about midnight Wednesday.
He plans to move them from one 96-by-96-foot pen to another every 2 days across the entire 120 acres. Their job? To naturally fertilize the land.
"This is the first year I've applied no chemicals, no commercial fertilizer," Koster said. "This way, I think, is better for the soil, better for these pigs, and [for the meat that reaches the market] better for the people.
"It's kind of back to the way it used to be done."
The pen is fenced in and provides the pigs their basic needs – food, water and shelter (a shaded area to escape the sun and to curl up in hay). They graze on the remnants of wheat, clover and alfalfa – and the occasional turnip – and simultaneously deposit the richest fertilizer onto the soil.
The noise is low – the gentle hum of oinks, snorts and sneezes can be heard as they snuffle and clamber over each other to get to the water or the food. And the smell is tolerable, perhaps more so than that of the small, not-well-ventilated barns at the county fair.
Koster estimates that the pigs – including a second lot set to arrive in a week – will have the field fertilized by November. He plans to till the soil and plant a cover crop, such as wheat or rye, for the winter, then plant corn in the spring.
Koster will add hundreds of chickens (working simultaneously in their own pen on a similar rotating basis) to the mix by the end of the month.
The pigs, which should top out at 280 pounds at the end of the process, will be sold at market and should fetch a good price; people are willing to pay good money for pork raised in this fashion, Koster said.
The eggs laid by the chickens also will be sold – right on the spot along Polo Road – and also should fetch a good price, coming from cage-free, range-fed fowl.
The operation, PEEP Inc. – for Pasture, Eggs en Pork – has drawn the ire of some folks.
"I've had some pretty p----- off customers," Applebee's general manager Jason Zelle said.
The city has fielded a few calls from people convinced the pigs and the land are within city limits. The Whiteside County Health Department has received several complaints, too.
Neither agency has jurisdiction over the pig pen.
"It's zoned agricultural," said Gene Johnston, environmental health director for the health department. "We don't investigate farm-related complaints. We do not have any authority to put any regulations on them."
Farm operations are regulated by the Illinois Department of Agriculture and, in some cases, by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Applebee's management hasn't done anything about the nuisance, Zelle said. Customers have asked and complained about the pig pen – mostly the smell – but generally have stayed for a meal, he said.
Koster maintains he isn't doing anything wrong. In fact, he welcomes passersby and curious onlookers – even those with their noses turned up – to stop by so he can educate them about his practices, he said.
In fact, a mother and her three daughters were out petting the pigs Thursday afternoon. The girls giggled as the little pigs nosed at their knees and then scurried about the pen.
Koster, accompanied by his youngest daughter, beamed.
"This is the way it's supposed to be," he said.