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Friday, December 30, 2016

The Vegetarian Agrarian

Whew, it's been a while. I've decided to dust off this old farm blog and breathe new lift into it (so easy midwinter to say that)! I will attempt to post at least a few times a month so subscribe!! Of course, follow us on Facebook and Instagram for frequent farm updates, photos, and musings from this crazy farm lady. 

I know that I tend to be pretty radical in my convictions. All in the name of a better world, I say. Surprisingly, the one that affects me the most day to day is a philosophy that I hold really near and dear to my own heart. In fact, you might say that I think my heart is open because of this practice. That’s the practice of vegetarianism, abstaining from animal consumption. I find myself talking about this one thing more than most other things including gardens, farming, or Permaculture. There is one particular aspect that I want to specifically give some thought to, and I awoke from a dream this morning with this on my mind.

Animal farming. If you’re a dedicated Permaculture or organic farming enthusiast, chances are you’ve seen Joel Salatin and his amazing Polyface Farm in Virginia. YouTube is chalked full of videos of his farm, tours, chicken processing, TED talks, and presentations that Joel has given. He’s an intellectual, and a spiritual guy. I see the light inside of him when he talks about his farming methods. While, like so many other farms, they include the breeding and slaughter of animals, his approach doesn’t revolve around that, but rather the ideal health and happiness of his animals.

Photo Credit: CrozetGazette
The vision: green pastures with our own animals for meat, and some profits too. I know that vision. Creating it, in reality, is such a different story. More often than not an animal breeding venture ends in a battle of enslavement. The farmer enslaved by his responsibility to the animals which he or she created by enslaving the animals.

Salatin preaches about low infrastructureand, therefore, low startup cost. However, there’s another cost that so often seems overlooked in the initial start-up process of animal farms. It’s labor. I think everyone underestimates how much physical labor it takes to care for even a relatively small number of animals. For example, I spent two years working for a certain type of artisanal farm. It started out with 150 animals. To care for these animals they had one part-time employee plus the owner who was expected to split their time between running the business and caring for the animals. Needless to say, this turned into what I call a ‘mutual enslavement’ situation. Now you’re stuck.

This isn’t like getting into a garden where if you get really fed up you can walk away. You can’t walk away from hungry mouths to feed and yet people seem to do just that. They disconnect, they check out mentally on the situation and relinquish their responsibility because they’re tired. They start only going out to the animals when there is a dire need to do so, attempting to put them out of sight and therefore out of mind. Well, this leads to animal neglect and then animals get sick and die. Don’t underestimate how much this happens. The line between busy and neglectful is the same line. I’ve watched this time and again from people who are really passionate about what they want to do and people who actually care about the animals. They just get caught in mutual enslavement.

Photo: Flickr
The animals at this farm all got worms and hoof rot within the first year that I was there. Some of them died, some suffered, and eventually all of them had to be moved off-farm. Falling into the trap of making different sized compartments in our hearts for farm animals vs. pet animals is dangerous. The good shepherd should know all of his sheep by name, that’s from the Bible, and Wendell Berry’s “On Food and Farming.” If something is found in those two equally impressive texts, it must be important.

Problems of the heart

The most heartbreaking thing about the above situation and similar entrapments is that the farmer, a lover of the natural world, is forced to harden his or her heart toward their own animals. I have relationships with my animals and conversations; they know when I’m in a good mood or a bad one. They know the difference in the tone of my voice when I’m saying “Hi, I’m passing by” vs. “Hey, come over here.” I can tell them apart by their brays.  I know that Mattie has trouble with his hoof glands sometimes, and Lamby will not always follow the group and needs a bit of a keener eye on him. Other farmers who I’ve spoken with think that is ridiculous, they chuckle a little bit and dismiss me as a crazy woman who has too much love for her animals. I respond with, it’s not a problem of too much love which is never a problem. The problems I can see lie in the fact that you don’t think you have room in your heart, or your life, for that kind of love. That is what Buddha would call a hardened heart.

If you got into farming or homesteading to make money, you should get out of it and go into banking. If you got into farming so you can enjoy the pastoral scenery from the comfort of your living room window, you should get out of it and buy property next to a farm. The only reason anyone should ever have animals on their farm is because they LOVE them. Truly love them. It’s not a good enough reason to have grass that needs eating or a barn that needs filling. It's not even good enough to get animals just to feed your family. Making money is certainly not a good enough reason to raise animals...because you won't make money.

I know that Joel talks a good game and really makes raising meat animal's look easy. So many people think they are going to hatch a batch of chicks or kid their goats and sell the animals to make some cash. Isn’t that what a successful farming model looks like? This is what I call ‘the drug dealing of Permaculture.’ Here is why.

I have to pause here and say, there are many homesteaders who raise their own animals for their own meat, they do it well and the animals are well cared for. While I personally would still think that hardens the heart; it's really up to each person. I am specifically talking about people who choose to raise animals as a source of income for instance, meat animals or really any breeding-based business model. 

Remember when you were a teenager and just found pot? You were like OMG, all I have to do is grow some pot. Then I get to smoke it for free and make money off of all the suckers who buy my pot! It’s a brilliant business model with no flaws sure to take me straight to the moon. How often did that work out for them? I’ll tell you...never. This is because growers invest a lot of time and resources into producing a quality product. It takes some skill and experience just as it takes some skill and experience to get a successful farm model down. It also takes resources, both foreseen and unforeseen, like your time. The people who made a success out of pot growing didn’t do it overnight, they worked at it like everyone else works at what they do.

Sheep rescued from backyard butcher situation.
Not only do homesteaders and farmers underestimate what it will take, they also tend to overestimate the market for their meat product. Polyface farm waits for a large enough order and then drives to urban areas where distribution happens all at once. He also has an inspected slaughter facility at his farm so processing is all done in-house.

Often homesteaders are in rural areas where the demand for home-raised meat is considerably lower. This narrows their market and brings the price of their product down even if it’s better quality. Driving it into the city is only an option for farmers who paid to have their animals slaughtered in an inspected facility, and even then the meat is considered ‘custom’ and must be stamped with “not for sale.” Try convincing urban foodies to buy that! The point is if you are dedicated to producing meat, it’s still going to take some time to develop a market.

Grassy Knoll or Muddy Hole

No, it’s not a Kate McKinnon sketch from SNL however dangerously close. This is your pastoral green farm wrecked. I count myself among the many homesteaders and farmers out there who totally underestimated the amount of vegetation my critters would eat. I went from bragging about never having to pull out my lawn mower to wading through ankle deep trenches of mud in one year. We should all remind ourselves that overgrazing is largely how we ruined the planet in the first place so it’s time we learn the lesson of scale.

Again, I will compare with Salatin whose farm, mind you, is smack dab in the middle of what used to be rich natural grasslands. While his system of daily rotation surely works if followed diligently, keep in mind that Polyface land is predisposed to grow grass. Obviously, his business model was designed around that as yours should be designed around your specific geographical advantages.

I get mocked for having three wethered sheep. People are always saying, “But don’t you want the lambs each year they are so cute?!” Yes, they’re cuteuntil I have to feed or sell them.  This way, I get to enjoy my animals, avoid the heartbreak of separating them, and provide them with the care they need. My farm benefits from their controlled grazing and fertility, I get a wool yield each year from them and the whole thing is sustainable in that way, with very little inputs and no outputs. Would you consider them pets, or farm animals? I don’t think there should be much of a difference.

Photo: Pawel Kuczynski
I think one thing that pushes people into obtaining a bunch of meat animals is panic. They get out on the land and start to feel scarcity and wonder what they will eat out there. Growing fruit trees or having a vegetable garden seems daunting and the time gap between now and when you would have food seems enormous. Maybe you don’t have much of a green thumb yet and your garden didn’t do so well the last year. So, people panic and adopt 50 pigs, because they think that’s equity in food. What is really happening is you just traded the equity of your time and landscape for whatever food the pigs bring in after all the inputs you’ll have to buy for them. So, instead of honing your skills and prepping land for fruit trees, you’re going to be spending time moving, feeding, watering, slaughtering, and trying to sell these pigs.

My advice, whether anyone wants to take it or not, would be to calm down. You don’t have to provide yourself with all your own food right away; you can take a few years to establish a system. In fact, Permaculture dictates that everyone take at least one year to just observe the land. Do this, and don’t feel guilty about grocery shopping for a while. Use that time to really think about your vision, really think about the diversity of foods that you could produce, really think about what your landscape wants to be, and then design a system around that. The long term benefits will pay off.

The Vegetarian Agrarian

Having a farm as a vegetarian is, in my book, the best of all possibilities. I have relationships with my animals that will never end in betrayal or death. Children who come to our farm can fall in love with all the personalities here and never have to worry that one day they may come back to their friends on a plate. I don’t have to harden my heart to that supposed ‘reality.’ The time that I put into my farm is spent doing things that I love and that improve the land like planting food forests, vegetables, and herbs or soil regeneration, habitat restoration, and fungi propagation. My diet is bursting with rich flavors and homegrown goodness. I don’t feel that we’re lacking in anything. We have to purchase grains but we’d have to do that anyway on five acres. The fruit trees will soon produce enough for us but for now we buy some fruit too. Nothing is wrong with being part of an economy in that way. This is knowing the scope of your scale and staying within it.

One of our wethers, Mattie, scratching on the truck.

I don’t feel competitive with the natural world or like I am trying to catch up with her clever tricks the way I imagine the artisanal farm owners did when they were trying to treat that many animals for a disease that lives in the soil. Above all those other things (part of me wants to delete everything I’ve said and just say this), I can’t emphasize how amazing it feels not to be a part of the slaughter.  To let my heart swing wide open and welcome everything inside, it feels like Truth. The way in which we treat other living beings in this world is wrong and too often overlooked. I would like to re-define our relationship with animals. It would re-define our relationship with ourselves.
A painting in one of my favorite artist's series from Pawel Kuczynski

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Carnivorous Appeals to Antiquity

We here at Soulstice Gardens have been experiencing a lot of mixed feedback regarding our choice to abstain from eating animal flesh. It has all got me to thinking about meat in our culture, the new carnivorous fad diets that make meat-eating seem like the healthiest thing possible, and people's tendency to defend meat consumption till their blue in the face. Even I have gone back and forth on this issue. Some of the research regarding the nutritional benefits of meat products like bone broth illustrate the benefits of eating nutrient-dense foods. Others point to the rise in heart disease from eating such high-calorie meals. If health is your concern, there are vast numbers of diets that are healthy. We evolved on this earth as omnivores, and thank goodness for it because without the ability to eat meat we would never have made it this far. Is it time for us to evolve beyond carnivorism?

So, I am investigating this question: Nutritional or not, is eating meat the 'right' thing to do today? Is there an argument either way? 

The Environmental Side
I would argue that abstaining from meat consumption in today's world is possibly among the most positive things anyone can do for the environment. Every year globally, 56 billion animals are killed in an effort to feed humans meat. Let's pause for a second and think about the enormity of that number, that's 3000 lives per second. Here is a USDA count from 2008 for only U.S. consumption:

USDA slaughter stats 2008
Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Broiler chickens: 9,005,578,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

That was six years ago, and experts today suggest that our current numbers are expected to double by 2020. According to Cassandra Woods from Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment:
"The meat industry also has a significant impact on global warming. Livestock production accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, including 9 percent of carbon dioxide and 37 percent of methane gas emissions worldwide, according to the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative, an international consortium of government and private agencies based at FAO headquarters in Rome. 
More than two-thirds of all agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for livestock, while only 8 percent is used to grow food for direct human consumption, LEAD reported. If the entire world population were to consume as much meat as the Western world does-176 pounds of meat per capita per year- the global land required would be two-thirds more than what is presently used, according to Vaclav Smil, professor of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba and participant in the EVP study."

It is the rise of industrial meat that has brought down small family ranches and destroyed the pastoral scene of a green field spotted with contented cows.