At the young and impressionable age of twenty, I read the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer from cover to cover. The book provides a detailed discussion and account of what it means to eat meat in the age of industrialized agriculture, but at the time, the main points that I took from it were graphic descriptions of the horrors of factory farming: from people falling to their deaths into the cesspools of animal waste to the torturous treatment of pigs and cows. It’s an educational, honest, and sometimes brutal read, and once I’d finished it I decided to become a vegetarian basically overnight.
This book was my first exposure to the concept that I should be questioning where my food comes from rather than just blindly consuming whatever is put in front of me. And to think this had never crossed my mind until I was twenty years old! I, like the majority of the American public, had spent my life eating whatever my family could afford at the supermarket, which was often the cheapest and lowest-quality food one can purchase. I trusted that the powers that be (as in whoever magically supplied the grocery store shelves with foodstuffs; I had no idea where any of it came from) could only legally and morally provide the public with at least somewhat-healthy food options.
Sure, I knew that chips and soda were a less healthy (and much more delicious) option than salad, and I knew the basic outline of what had been presented to me as the indisputable food pyramid, but that was about the extent of my nutrition and agricultural knowledge. After reading Foer’s book, I was mortified to learn that I had been cluelessly supporting concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs (I had also just picked up that new vocabulary term) for my entire life, and I decided that becoming a vegetarian was an instant solution to my food-ignorance crisis.
As is usually the case when one is a naive undergraduate college-student, I assumed that my newfound vegetarian regime was a highly-educated and noble choice. I would happily recite information about factory farming to friends and family and insist that becoming a vegetarian was an excellent way to become wholly aware of the relationship to one’s food. I stopped eating beef, chicken, and pork. I would read labels at the supermarket and make sure there wasn’t any hidden gelatin in the gummy candies I was buying and ask for “no bacon” when I ordered a veggie burger at a chain restaurant. I had a freshly rejuvenated meat-free conscience and I ate Tofurkey and tofu and all sorts of other mysterious meat-replacers with abandon. I also voraciously consumed a lot of bread, pasta, corn, and an assortment of other industrially-produced vegetables—most of which were non-organic and all of which came from a supermarket. I also ate a lot of processed foods. As long as they were meat-free, I was doing a reputable thing, right?
Five years after starting this vegetarian escapade, I quite unexpectedly (as I’m sure you can imagine from what I’ve just told you about my lack of agricultural awareness) left what had become a rather boring routine in Seattle and found myself working on a small farm in northeast Oregon. While we had a vegetable garden, orchard, chickens, and Nigerian Dwarf goats, intensively grazing a small herd of beef cattle in order to restore pasture health was by far the main focus of the farm.
For my first year on the farm, though the dots about food awareness were slowly starting to connect, I continued to only eat vegetarian meals and would strategically avoid telling friends and family that the cattle we were raising were for beef. I would casually say, “Oh yes, we have cows, goats, chickens, and a large vegetable garden!” then quickly change the subject to how well the tomatoes and raspberries were coming along. I clearly still had major qualms with the idea of killing animals for food, and since I had been (annoyingly) preaching vegetarianism for the past five years, how could I go back on something I had so passionately believed in up to this point?
Well, with a little age, experience, and a painful reality check, I realized that while I was practicing vegetarianism and had adopted a self-proclaimed identity of being a food-conscious person, neither of those things were actually true.
While I wasn’t eating meat, the vast majority of my food was produced from industrialized agriculture and I was, therefore, promoting an institution that kills thousands, if not millions of animals every year. While I was not directly consuming any large mammals, what about the other creatures affected by industrialized agriculture? What about the insects, the field mice, the birds, the snakes, the moles, and the birds of prey that eat the mice and moles and snakes that are all wiped out by agricultural monocultures? Or the fish, beavers, otters, and entire complex river-ecosystems that are being destroyed by runoff from pesticide use and soil erosion? What about all of the species that have gone extinct (or are nearly there) because of the millions of acres of prairie that have been continually plowed and tilled? What about all of the processed and packaged food I would blindly consume, that while may not “directly contain” any animal byproducts, was still full of mysterious chemicals, was wrapped in plastic (which would eventually end up in the ocean or landfill), and moved across the country by diesel-powered trucks which emit carcinogenic fumes?
Like I said, the dots were finally starting to connect, and these realizations about our completely destructive food system were overwhelming and quite depressing (and it still is if I allow myself to focus on it).
However, I was finally coming to terms with reality and I could now start making more informed and conscious choices in my own life—the first one being to start eating the meat I was raising and to be proud of the fact that I raise beef cattle using a regenerative model.
So, now, if I’m at a party talking to people about my current lifestyle, I no longer avoid the subject of raising beef cattle, but I do still get some odd looks, typically from city-folk. The look that says, “Oh dear, how could you do something so uncivilized and grotesque?” while they happily eat a hotdog smothered in ketchup (a true vision of my previous self). Ignoring the irony of the situation, this is what I tell them:
I spend several hours every day with our thirty-two cows. We practice intensive rotational grazing/holistic management, meaning that we use electric fencing to set up paddocks that we move every single day, so our cows are on fresh pasture for 365 days a year. They have access to clean water all the time, plus free-choice minerals of organic sea-salt and kelp meal. I can approach every single one of them (though I tend to avoid the bull), and can pet more than half of them. I remove burs from their fur, scratch them behind the ears and on their rumps (much like very large dogs), and I can instantly notice when one of them is sick or acting differently. We don’t deworm them, they receive no antibiotics or hormones, they’re never fed grain, and they’re never confined to a barn. They’re killed in the field grazing with their herd rather than being stressfully loaded into a trailer and carted to a slaughterhouse. I know every cow by name; I know their tendencies; I know their calves.
I also know how difficult it is to say goodbye to one of these beautiful and gentle creatures and I don’t take it lightly. I personally go out on the morning they’re going to be slaughtered and thank each steer individually for their contribution to my own, my family’s, and my community’s health and nourishment. I look them each in the eye and thank them for working every day to restore our pasture’s health and biodiversity—for always giving back to the earth rather than only taking away from it. I thank them for their sacrifice, which allows me to have the lifestyle that I want to have as a small farmer. I scratch them under their chins and lightly kiss them on their foreheads if they’ll let me (though sometimes they demand an apple first).
I then go into the house while my partner and the mobile butcher do the deed in the field. I sit with my two dogs on the couch and listen for the gunshot, letting a few tears silently fall onto my pup’s plush fur, and I whisper goodbye to the cow whose company I enjoyed more than the majority of people that I meet.
The butcher leaves the hide, head, and organ meat in the field, which we process ourselves. We are learning how to brain-tan the hides so we can use the leather. We save the fat to make tallow. The dogs get to eat the unsaved organ meats and other scraps that are left over. We are learning new skills in order to use every part of the cow so none of it goes to waste and I think eventually we’d like to do the butchering ourselves. If any of it is left, it is composted and put back into the earth or left in the field for the coyotes and insects to eat.
I feel lucky that I also get to personally witness the amazing results that cattle can have on their environment. When managed properly, they can completely restore previously overgrazed and damaged pasture-land to a diverse and healthy ecosystem. By simply doing what they were born to do—eating grass and depositing their urine and manure in one area and then moving on to the next—they’re fertilizing the fields, establishing legumes, ridding the pasture of noxious weeds, and encouraging new growth and biodiversity. It’s an amazing process and a beautiful cycle, and to see these creatures so easily and naturally heal the land is both inspiring and humbling at the same time.
This entire process is what allows me to be connected to my food. This is knowing exactly how my food was born, raised, lived, and died. This is being able to personally thank another creature for sustaining me.
So, if the person at the barbecue with the hot dog is still listening at this point (which is highly unlikely), their usual response is, “Wow, that’s really interesting… ” and then they’ll go back for another frank. And to be fair, I’d be right there with them, skipping the hotdog but still snacking on potato salad and chips. Because even though I’m aware of (or at least becoming more aware of) the complexities of our food system, I also know how difficult it can be to escape it… plus, I’m a sucker for a good potato chip.
Clearly, I still have a long way to go when it comes to food independence and knowledgeability, but I am starting to venture down that path. And if I hadn’t read Foer’s book on factory farming I wouldn’t have started questioning the industrialized food system at all, I never would have learned to garden, and I doubt that I would have ever partaken in the homesteading lifestyle. So while being a vegetarian for all those years wasn’t the solution to my food-based ignorance, it was certainly a beginning—it allowed me to start learning what I should eat in order to nourish my body (or in my case, what I was eating that was damaging my body), what institutions I was supporting by doing so, and how I could challenge myself to keep learning and to do better. Now, instead of being a vegetarian who still blindly supports a very complex and manipulative industrialized food system (which is not the only way to be vegetarian, but I’ve met few who have done it differently), I would rather kill a cow. I would rather kill just one cow a year who has spent its entire life grazing on grass in a way that is beneficial to its environment, who will literally feed my family hundreds of meals, who I was able to personally thank for sustaining me. And as difficult as it is to say goodbye to that creature, this is a moral option I can cope with.