Planet Earth Protectors, The River's End

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After walking for about fifteen minutes, Teplan and Terah came to an opening in the trees and could see a large farm, full of life, with plenty of open space. Huge corrals separated by traditional wood-pole fencing lined the rolling hills. They stepped into the clearing and froze. In front of them, hundreds of hogs of different sizes ambled about their open-spaced corrals. Large pink-bellied pigs grazed in the corral closest to them. The next corral over housed small brown pigs that ran and played with each other. Pathways wove between the fences and showed worn tire tracks with tufts of grass that lined the middle part. A modest country home lay about quarter-mile away on the other side of the corrals. The air was rich with the smell of fresh soil, hay, and farm animals.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a voice from beside them said, “Can I help you?” freezing them in their spot.

Time stood still and the only sound was Terah’s quick breath, in/out, in/out, in/out . . . I knew this whole thing was a bad idea.

“Hello?” said the voice.

Spinning on their heels, Teplan and Terah turned to see a lady with grayish dark hair, older than Teplan’s mom but still much younger than his grandmother. Standing in flower-patterned rain boots and wearing a big-rimmed yellow hat, the lady’s wise and discerning eyes softened at the site of their young, dirt-smeared faces.

“You two are filthy! You okay?” She asked holding her pitchfork butt-end planted in the ground and fork pointed to the sky.

They mustered an uncertain half-smile while they glanced down at their clothes.

“You two alright? You look cold.” she said. Her already endearing disposition and friendly tone were enhanced by her half-silhouette from the mid-afternoon sun.

Teplan’s mind raced to analyze the situation. “Uhh, no, we aren’t. I mean, yes we are. We aren’t lost, but yeah, we are wet and a bit cold, too.”

“Do you know whose property you’re on?”

“Uhh, no,” Terah and Teplan said at the same time as they glanced at each other trying to be as innocent and ignorant about trespassing as possible.

“This is my farm… My name is Marney,” the lady said proudly, and smiled.

“Oh, we didn’t know” Teplan replied in a bit of a panic.

“Hi, Marney. I’m Terah,” she said holding up her hand from the elbow. “This is Teplan.”

“Hi, Terah. Hi, Teplan,” Marney replied warmly. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but what are you two doing on my pig farm?”

“Pigs!” Teplan inadvertently blurted.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“I mean, how do you farm pigs? Like, I don’t mean this in a bad way, but don’t pigs just eat old food and roll in the mud?”

“Well, I guess they do that,” Marney replied with amusement. “They need to do other things, too. But, rolling in the mud makes them feel better as it cools their bodies and protects their skin from the sun. It’s like nature’s sunscreen for them. Pigs don’t have fur to protect them, so they roll in mud. Pretty smart, eh?” Marney said with a chuckle. “Would you like to see them?”

Feeling comfortable with this surprise situation, Terah and Teplan responded in unison, “Sure.”

“But first, you haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”

Teplan and Terah briefly looked at each other and Teplan spoke first. “Well, we uh, were walking along the river and then thought this would be a short cut back through the forest to where the houses are.”

“We were on our way home,” Terah added.

“You might as well cut through my property now and go out the driveway; it’ll get you there faster than going around,” Marney said, motioning for them to follow.

As they walked, Terah asked, “What’s the difference between pigs and hogs?”

“Ah, good question,” Marney replied, happy to be educating people on the species. “There is no international, clear-cut the definition between ‘pigs’ and ‘hogs’ other than people usually use ‘hog’ to describe a large pig.”

“But a baby pig is called ‘piglet,’ right?” Teplan asked, excited to contribute to the information being shared.

“That’s right. Good job, Teplan.”

“And a female pig,” Terah said more out of curiosity rather an attempt to outdo Teplan’s question, “is called a sow, I believe, right?”

“That’s right, Terah. You guys know your stuff!” Marney said proudly.

“So, what do you do with the pigs? Where do you sell them?” Terah asked in rapid succession. “Do pigs get sick? Can people get sick if pigs get sick?”

“Wow, you sure do have a lot of questions. To begin with, the way I farm pigs is from an ecologically conscious approach. That means, the way I grow and raise my livestock doesn’t harm the soil or use harmful chemicals, and it allows the pigs to be pigs while they grow.”

“What do you mean, ‘harm the soil’?” Terah asked, thinking about the conversation they just recorded.

“Well, pigs need soil that has nutrients in it. If the soil doesn’t have enough nutrients, pigs aren’t able to keep their skin healthy. If pigs don’t get fresh air and sunlight, their bodies won’t work properly,” Marney replied, noticing Teplan and Terah’s eyebrows furrow with uncertainty. “I was actually just checking the nitrogen and Ph levels in my soil when we met. Each month, my soil has to pass an inspection. A government inspector comes here and tests the soil. If the soil is clean, my farm earns a Clean Soil Certificate for the month and I keep my farm open. Because only a certain amount of soil can absorb a certain amount of nitrogen over a certain amount of time, it is tested monthly.”

“Well, how does nitrogen get into the soil in the first place?” Teplan asked.

“Nitrogen is a fertilizer… which helps things grow, so it’s a good thing. And there happens to be a lot of it in pig poop!”

Teplan and Terah looked at each and laughed.

“So, you put pig poop on your fields?” Terah asked.

“Yes, yes I do. It sure sounds gross, but it’s actually very natural and it’s also a very cost-effective way to get rid it. Instead of having to pay someone to pick it up and take it away, you just put it back on your fields or sell it to a crop farmer as fertilizer. The right amount is great for the ground. But too much can be catastrophic.”

I wonder if that means we just went through pig poop back there.

Teplan’s mind raced, and then immediately asked, “Marney, where can you buy a Clean Soil Certificate?”

Marney looked at Teplan as if he had two heads. “Clean Soil Certificates aren’t for sale, sweetie.”

Terah, figured to move the conversation along, put up her index finger, as if she were in class raising her hand, and then said, “If nitrogen is a good fertilizer, what happens if there is too much nitrogen in the soil?”

“That question deserves a truthful answer. First-of-all, there are a couple of compounding results of too much nitrogen. One is that when the ground is full and can’t take any more, the nitrogen has to go somewhere else, and usually ends up making it way to the nearest waterway. Another is that it takes oxygen away from the soil, which makes it very hard for a plant to flower or make food. If the nitrogen levels continue to go up, plants and trees will eventually just die. And either way, animals would have to go somewhere else to find food.”

Teplan and Terah shared a glance worth a thousand words.

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