04 October 2010

Being a soft-hearted farmer

Sharon Astyk posted this today:

Blackberry is elderly, and there's a good chance he'll spend this winter the way he did part of last winter. Victim of the other roosters, and run down by the cold, eventually I moved him into a box in the woodshed with a bantam hen to keep him company. I don't really want a rooster in the woodshed for the winter, any more than I really wanted to go out in the pouring rain to gather up soggy poultry. But the chances of Blackberry going under the knife are nil. If the woodshed it must be, so it will be.

The real farmers who read this may well be rolling their eyes at me. This is proof I'm not a real farmer, right? After all, real farmers have to make their bottom line, they don't have room for all this messy sentiment.

Blackberry, however, is special. He is beloved. And the very fact that a rooster could be beloved, to me, seems a good sign - it means we are being attentive. We are watching closely enough, that we know our creatures well enough to develop relationships. And we know our economic realities well enough to know that we cannot allow relationships to emerge in every case.

I do want to stand up for sentiment in agriculture because I would argue that our industrial society discourages real sentiment, the emotion that emerges from knowing things, and exchanges it for sentimentality. This is an exchange that runs deeply to our detriment, in part because it enables us not to know things.

The love my children and my husband and I have for a rooster who gives back more than ordinary chickens is a way of expressing the love we have for our farm in general - fierce, protective, passionate. The whole thing is alive, and sometimes to keep it living we cannot do everything we'd like to. But we can pour out our love in selected places, keep an honest and just relationship with even the animals that don't get all our love, and pour into the land and its creatures the complex realities of our passion and sentiment.

Oh, yes.

I replied:

Around here, we call it 'winning the Immunity Challenge' (not that we ever watched Survivor, but we did get the general gist of the concept around the water cooler at work). There are some animals that just ... earn their retirement.

We have a hen, "Little Red", who is ancient by chicken standards (she was probably 2 when we inherited her from neighbours who were moving away , and that was 5 years ago), and she'll never go in a pot. When she passes on, she'll probably get a marked grave, of all things. Most of the other chickens we don't even recognize much less name - and if they die, well, the carcasses get tossed on the compost pile with minimal ceremony. But not Red. She is a character. Just the other day I was outside knitting and she actually jumped onto my lap! What a cool chicken she is. I’ll miss her when she’s gone.

And then there is the LGD who is getting on in years ... he will be given a dog house with plenty of straw and 'senior dog rations' until he breathes his last, even if he hasn't got it in him to chase coyotes anymore – because he has earned that through years of service to us and his flock. If his life becomes nothing but suffering, we will pay the extra to have the vet come out here to ease his passing, rather than subjecting him to the trauma of leaving his home, so that our guardian dog's last sight is of his beloved flock and his people. He, too, will have a marked grave, and we will cherish his memory for years to come.

The sheep ... well, they're too valuable as meat, even the ones we love - so the wonderful ewe with OPP will have a quick and merciful death at the hands of our trusted butcher and we will honour her life by making the best use of all of her ... maybe we'll ask for her horns so we can make buttons or something, but she has to go. It would not be a kindness to let her slowly suffer from lung troubles, and OPP does not affect the value of the meat - so we do her the most honour by making full use of all she has to offer us, and keeping her suffering to a minimum.

It seems silly, on the face of it, to care for our creatures so. We are soft hearted, but I don’t think that is a bad thing – it helps us to honour the animals in our care. I think it was your kids, Sharon, who said "all meat has faces". When we know the faces of our meat, when we honour them with a clean, quick death and our gratitude at the table, we do right by the creatures we are responsible for. When we grant retirement status to those animals we have a soft spot for, it's part of the same attitude: we remind ourselves that these creatures have value, that their feelings - even as animals - matter to us, and that we wish to give them the best care we can.

I think it makes us better farmers, if we care for our animals' comfort. It helps us 'hear' them when they voice their distress, because we are used to listening to them as ‘real voices’ – not just a mindless bellow. Keeping their feelings in mind when we design their shelters and plan their feeding ... caring that they have good lives - even if they are normally short ones - means that we are good husbandmen (is there a gender neutral term for that?).

Industrial scale farming has no place for caring for the animals. Real, family scale farming does. I think it’s a good thing.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:31 pm

    I am a city dweller and haven't been on a farm since childhood...I am so glad to hear the sentiments expressed by you and your friend! I have always felt that we should really thank the animals for their gifts to us, but I have been so disheartened by factory farming practice, that basically I have had to just push those feelings down in order to be able to continue eating meat and animal products. I did briefly experiment with vegetarianism, but it didn't last long and I ended up overeating and gaining weight (which I lost with no effort once I resumed eating meat products) I really don't believe it's healthy, but I can't reconcile the thought of such mistreatment of animals. Just because we kill them doesn't mean we have to torture them. It is only natural to develop relationships with them, some very special.I am currently researching more humane and healthy meat and animal products, I do not want to contribute to factory farming anymore.


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