A friend asked me the other day, after having such an intimate relationship with cows, whether they seemed sacred or whether I still thought, “Man, I could go for a cheeseburger.” It may seem a little strange, but both inclinations really have emerged within me over the last month and a half. It seems to me that a big part of livestock farming is coming to terms with death and its necessary relationship with life. Each month, we send two or three of our lovely ladies to the butcher; we do this for several reasons—some cows have recurring health problems such as staph infections or mastitis in their udders, and this may affect their ability to produce milk or compromise the health of the rest of the herd. Some are bad mothers, some low milk producers, some lose fertility with age, and others have bad behavior that put the farmers’ safety at risk. It feels a bit strange, like we are playing God, but we have to make room in the barn for new heifers and, after all, are a business, which means we need to conduct practices that keep us profitable. So, once a month, we load the chosen ones onto a truck, and they come back to the farm a few days later in plastic packaging in the form of steaks, ground beef, various organs, and bones for stock. The butcher also saves their horns, which we use for some of our biodynamic preparations.
Last week, when our sow, Betty, had her litter of piglets, she sat on one of them, and it died shortly thereafter. A visiting school group witnessed a rather horrific scene later that day—apparently pigs have some cannibalistic tendencies, because she ate her dead offspring in front of this group of elementary school kids! We are unsure what, precisely, causes this instinct—we told the kids that she ate the piglet to avoid attracting predators, but the truth could just as easily have been that she was peckish after giving birth and simply needed the extra protein. Either way, she has shown no signs of cannibalism since, and the rest of the litter seems happy and healthy.
Yesterday, I had my closest encounter with death yet. I spent the day at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, which hosted the Growing Farmers Conference, which was a gathering of young farmers in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. The conference had an interesting mix of workshops, some focused on policy and advocacy work and others on the nuts and bolts of sustainable farming. I went to one focused on public policy and the farm bill and one about land tenure and land access, which were both fascinating but pretty cerebral. In the afternoon, though, I shifted focus pretty drastically and got a tutorial on slaughtering and butchering chickens. We learned to hold the chickens in a way that would keep them restrained and calm, where to slit their throats to sever the two arteries but without damaging the spinal cord, allowing the bodies to bleed out and making the meat last longer. We plucked the feathers, removed the innards, and carved the meat, eating nearly every part of the bird, including the blood, which can be fried up and tastes more or less like scrambled eggs. Amongst the various organs, we also discovered eggs at various stages of development, from complete and ready to be laid, to yolks without their whites or shells. My favorite organ, by far, was the gizzard, which was hard and metallic blue. Over the course of its life, the chicken swallows many small rocks, which are stored in the gizzard and used to grind its food before it enters the stomach, and when we cut open the gizzard, these pebbles fell out. Although I’m not sure that I would use the word “fun” to describe my experience, I can’t deny that I’m fascinated with guts, with death, and with otherwise gruesome things. Moreover, this experience felt like some sort of rite of passage in my farming career; on some level, my interest in farming is about seeking right relationship with my food, and taking part so directly in the process of killing these chickens felt like an acknowledgment of my own agency every time I eat meat.
Quote of the day: “Industrial agriculture, built according to the single standard of productivity, has dealt with nature, including human nature, in the manner of a monologist or an orator. It has not asked anything, or waited to hear any response. It has told nature what it wanted, and in various clever ways has taken what it wanted. And since it proposed no limit on its wants, exhaustion has been its inevitable and foreseeable result. This, clearly, is a dictatorial or totalitarian form of behavior, and it is as totalitarian in its use of people as it is in its use of nature. Its connections to the world and to humans and the other creatures becomes more and more abstract, as its economy, its authority, and its power become more and more centralized.”–Wendell Berry in his 1989 essay, “Nature as Measure,” found in his collection, Bringing It To The Table: On Farming and Food