When the youngest pigs were about three months old, the farmers figured it was time to castrate their own pigs.

Castration has to be done before the males are too big to hold but after the sows are no longer standing guard over their babies. (A sow can be extremely protective of her piglets one minute and, in the next, flop down on her side, crushing and killing them.) It might have been the one time when they were glad to have had such small litters.

All 34 remaining piglets were corralled into a writhing mass in one corner of the hog house. In turn, Lois Pavelka would hoist each by its hind leg and the famers would peer at the struggling animal’s nether regions.

“Gilt!” Bill Ellison said, identifying a female, and the pig was released on to the other side of the fence. The next would be lifted, “Can you hold it still? Oh, she’s a gilt.” They would sort until they found a boar.

While Pavelka grabbed hold of each leg and hung the struggling boar upside down between her legs, Ellison held a scalpel and bottle of iodine. The pig would stop struggling and Ellison would make quick incisions in the soft skin where each leg met the pig’s trunk. A squeeze to expose the testicles is followed by a scalpel stroke to castrate.

The pigs seem disturbed only at the moment of castration and, after a spray of iodine, walked away with only their pride injured.

Ellison takes pride in the doing the dirty work and respecting his pigs. But Ellison has his practical side, too. To prevent the sows from accidentally crushing their offspring, they are kept in cages just big enough for them to stand in until the piglets are weaned. But when combined with his idealism, it means he stops by a couple times each day to let the pigs out and bring them back in.

Pavelka and Ellison can rattle off the reasons to stop farming, to “move to the condo,” as they put it. Now, if they’re efficient with the everyday chores, a four-hour window opens up in the afternoon — for a bigger project; her pension check goes right into the farm and it isn’t close to profitability; hauling animals to slaughterhouse counts as a vacation day.

Even though selling directly to the consumers allows them to make about twice from each pig as it would fetch at auction, hawking four-packs of pork chops is inefficient; a good week at the farmers’ market grosses $1,500 and the markets are only open six months each year. Last year the farm swallowed up more than $10,000 in gasoline alone. Add in the costs of seeds, additional fertilizers, broken equipment, and Pavelka and Ellison are lucky to break even.

And because they grow their own grains and grasses — soybeans, corn, alfalfa and oats — for feed, the pair have the troubles of both cultivation and husbandry to deal with.

Pavelka and Ellison laugh and brush off the question about why they continue to do it. But on a day when the sun was warm and the wind blew across the grass Ellison offered what may have been his most direct response.

He smiled as 22 cows and their two-week-old calves trotted past to a section of pasture he’d just opened up, with knee-high grass, woods and a stream. He looked contented and at peace as he smiled.

“What else are we going to do?” Ellison asked. “Sit around and wait to die?”