Thursday, March 7, 2013

Meeting our meat

The first time I read Peter Singer’s book “Animal Liberation” was the last time I ate a chicken wing, or any other animal flesh for that matter.  Previously ignorant to the horrors of intensively managed factory farming and the cruelties of industrialized animal husbandry, I decided then I could no longer support a system that was predicated on the suffering of animals. It was my introduction to eating as a political act – and that was over 15 years ago. 

My husband, however, is not vegetarian, so when our children, now 11 and 8, were born, we decided to raise them as omnivores. Still more vegetarian than not (as I do most of the cooking), they are given free-choice of what to eat. I struggled with this for a long time; I’d eschewed animal flesh for a reason that I felt passionately about, but I didn’t want to “wrong” my children’s father (or other family members) in their eyes, which I felt I’d essentially do if I promoted a strict and exclusive vegetarian diet. And while I certainly wouldn’t call them particularly enthusiastic carnivores, they do like their meat.

To reconcile this inner conflict I decided if my children are to eat meat, I want them to know where it comes from -- the flesh-and-blood animal, one with a face and personality, not the shrink-wrapped package of cuts from the grocery store. And that means connecting their food with a farmer. Except for a ornery, make that nasty, goat that we butchered for the freezer a few years ago, I’ve been buying meat from local farms that raise their animals humanely. I could feel good, or at least better, about the meat they were eating. The meat is more expensive, sure, but it's not like we need to eat meat every day. (Remember the specialness of the Sunday evening roast?)

And then I got the turkeys. 

As small farms in Canada can only raise 50 turkeys a year outside of the supply managed system (and as quota is extremely expensive, most small farmers can only afford to raise non-quota birds) eaters (in my area, at least) usually need to pre-order their Thanksgiving and/or Christmas bird in February direct from the farmer. I’m just not that organized, so most years I'd end up buying a grocery store turkey. But the year before last, as I rubbed it with seasoned butter thinking about the life it had before arriving in my kitchen – the stress and overcrowding, the crippling leg conditions brought on by growing oversized (and more profitable) white breast meat, the fear, the pain – I decided it seemed an inappropriate and hypocritical way to celebrate the seasons of gratitude and giving.

So last spring I decided to try raising our own Ridley Bronze turkeys. During the 23 weeks they lived on the farm I can honestly say they had an amazing life with long days spent roaming in the sunshine, scratching for bugs and pecking at greens. The day that they went to the abattoir was a sad one, but when the time came to prepare the Christmas bird, I did so with heart-felt gratitude, knowing that I had given this animal the very best life possible. And while I still didn’t eat any of the meat (at the moment I’m just not interested in eating animal flesh, no matter how it’s raised), my family (including my dad and husband, who both love meat) raved that it was simply the best, tastiest, most delicious turkey they had ever tasted.  I don’t think the bugs and sunshine can take all the credit.

Shortly afterwards I started re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and I came upon this passage:

“I can’t claim I felt emotionally neutral as I took these creatures [baby turkeys] in my hands, my fingers registering downy softness and a vulnerable heartbeat. I felt maternal, while at the same time looking straight down the pipe towards the purpose of this enterprise. These babies were not pets. I know this is a controversial point, but in our family we’d decided if we meant to eat anything, meat included, we’d be more responsible tenants of our food chain if we could participate in the steps that bring it to the table…. You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened, or you can look it in the eye and know it. I would never presume to make that call for anyone else, but for ourselves we’d settled on giving our food a good life until it was good on the table.”  

As Kingsolver’s book has inspired countless people to take steps away from today’s industrialized, processed-food pipeline, it inspired me to take a broader look at the meat consumed in our home and my place in putting it there. 

This coincided with a revaluation of how I’ve been managing the farm and a realization that I can no longer afford to keep the barnyard animals simply for the sake of loving them. They needed to provide some sort of “function” and/or further my steps towards a more self-reliant life. For example, the chickens fit the bill as they provide eggs, but the donkeys -- while I loved Cinder and Leeroy dearly, I sold them last fall because I couldn’t justify keeping them as I didn’t yet have a large flock that needed protecting and the cost of hay was skyrocketing. Besides they really liked eating the barn.

While I could “participate in the steps that bring [meat] to the table” (to quote Kingsolver) by buying meat from farms I trust, it felt a bit like I was passing the buck, this “leaving the killing to others.” More importantly, I love raising animals. But could I raise them knowing I was going to kill them? 

Then I read Catherine Friend’s book “The Compassionate Carnivore.” In a chapter where she asks the question if raising an animal and taking it to the butcher is such a hard thing to do, why raise animals for meat at all? Her answer comes in three parts: one, she loves meat and believes that raising meat is a responsibility she can fulfill; secondly, not all land is suitable for growing crops, but can grow grass, and while humans can’t digest grass, animals can. 

But it’s her third reason that reached out and grabbed my heart: “The third reason might strike people as the oddest, but I continue to farm because I love animals. The irony of this isn’t lost on me. You’d think people who raise animals then actually eat them must not like animals very much, but most of the time the exact opposite is true. It’s why we do what we do. But unless a landowner can afford to keep animals around just to look at (this is called a hobby farm, by the way), the rest of us animal lovers must find a way for the animals to earn their keep and contribute to the economic health of the farm.” 

This reasoning jives with a recent conversation I had with a farmer who explained how raising heritage animals for consumption is the best way to, in fact, preserve their genetic heritage. While few farmers could afford to keep them in sanctuary-type facilities (though I am in no way criticizing or dismissing farm sanctuaries), raising rare and endangered livestock for meat builds consumer demand; the more demand, the less rare they become. (It’s called the principle of eater-based conservation.)

Putting aside the ethics of whether we should eat animals (though even that is something I still have to reckon with, and books such as Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s “The Pig who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals” certainly muddies the waters on that front), I’ve decided this year to raise part of the meat that will make its way to the family table. I’ve arranged to purchase two Katahdin meat sheep (a spring lamb to butcher this fall, plus a pregnant ewe that will lamb this May), two Berkshire weaners, eight Ridley Bronze turkeys and about dozen meat chickens. We’ll keep enough meat for ourselves, but I’ll also be selling some to help offset the costs. (Note: In Canada, it's illegal to sell on-farm butchered meat. All meat for human consumption must be taken to a provincially- or federally-licensed abattoir.)

Over the next year I plan to explore this notion of “ethically-raised meat” by visiting and speaking with other farmers, butchers, abattoir owners, chefs, food security experts, ethicists, hunters, among others, and writing about that, while shadowing (and hopefully, illuminating) that research with my own narrative of experience here on the farm.

People who know me and my long-standing vegetarianism are a bit surprised, even skeptical, by my plan for this year. And to be honest, I have reservations about how difficult it will be when butchering day comes. But as a writer, mother and someone who cares deeply about both food and animals, it seems the most honest way to truly understand the arguments around ethical meat and whether, given our current food and farming systems, it’s even possible and sustainable on a small, let alone a larger, scale. 

Field writes, “When people find out I farm and raise animals for meat, many smile, shake their heads, and throw their hands up in mock horror. “Just don’t remind me that meat’s an animal. I don’t want to know that.”

“Why not?” the farmer in me splutters as I think, Don’t we owe the animals that much?

 Yes. Yes, we do.


Erin said...

I too am all for humanely raised meat, I'm a die hard carnivore :) One question that always seems to go unanswered for me from people who go vegetarian for political or factory farming reasons is "why not hunt?". Hunting seems to be such a wonderful way to have super lean meat raised in freedom and sunshine and since they die anyways of either predation or starvation usually, why not? (cheaper too!) I can't wait to explore creating areas of my own land specifically to support wildlife, but also hope to humanely raise and butcher a few farm animals as well, like you said, it's definitely better for the animal and better for our bank balance! said...

Great question/comment, Erin, and yours is a suggestion that I've come to agree with -- as long at the hunting is done ethically, of course! My husband's brother came here to hunt last fall and the deal was that he'd share whatever he killed. You have to buy "tags" in Ontario (the system regulates how many animals are killed in a season), and he didn't have a doe tag (and does were the only deer he saw)so we didn't get to share in the bounty, but he'll be back this year and I'm going to see if I can go with him for a day. It'll be a new experience, but yes, it allows animals to live a full life and provides meat on the table.

cinnamon gurl said...

This is so exciting! I have a real hankering for raising our own meat animals but we live in the city so the best we could maybe do is chickens. Maybe one day. In the meantime, I look forward to reading about your experiences!

We were vegetarian for about a decade (my husband was fairly strict but I ate butter chicken when we went to Indian restaurants and turkey dinners at my parents'), mainly for (perceived) health reasons. But our oldest could eat whatever he wanted when we were out and about. Then we started the slippery slope of eating seafood when we were by the ocean and then fish became a weekly thing. With my second pregnancy I wanted chicken all the time, so we learned how to barbecue breasts. Then we started dabbling with other (local, pastured) meats after watching Food Inc and learning that the health problems associated with red meat are really associated with corn-fed meat. Then we figured out my breastfeeding youngest couldn't tolerate pretty much all non-meat proteins (except eggs, those magical magical foods thank goodness) and we had to eat a lot more meat just to keep my milk production up and youngest eating. And THEN we discovered youngest was severely anemic due to iron and B12 deficiencies and it really turned out minds to what important nutrients meat contains. Have you read Nourishing Traditions? It's certainly interesting (fair warning: she's pretty anti-vegetarianism). We've gone from mostly eating grains, vegetables, cheese and tofu, to meat, potatoes and vegetables, most of that change within a year (since Food Inc.).

For me, it was a different passage that stood out from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. (Crap. I thought I wrote it down in my notebook but now I see I didn't.) The passage was about how life depends on life whether that life is animal life or vegetable life or whatever, and we're animals too...

cinnamon gurl said...

Oh - have you seen the Australian show Gourmet Farmer? We just watched it and he learns to slaughter his chickens. One of the women who shows him how is exactly like you: vegetarian who wants her kids to eat good meat and know where it comes from. It was a bit ambiguous though whether she was a former vegetarian or still is... If you can find the show, we really enjoyed it. Like River Cottage but with more mistakes and maybe a bit more humility, somehow.

Miriam said...

What a thoughtful and articulate post. Lots to mull over there.

We have eaten the cockerels from the hatches we have done, and for me the ethical sticking point is the slaughtering. We have an accredited facility just 5 minutes away that will kill and process a chicken for $4, so that's what we have done so far. But it's a horrible thing to bring a crate of chickens there - I'm sure its no worse than any such facility, but the very first thing that happens (visible from the yard) is the chickens get hung up by their feet on a conveyor belt. That alone makes me want to cry. But I haven't felt able to do the slaughtering myself. So I increasingly think if I can't skill it I shouldn't eat it.

I don't know what decision I'll come to. All I know is I'm wallowing in a really uncomfortable, morally inconsistent ditch. said...

Wow, what great comments!

@ cinnamon gurl -- thanks for sharing your experiences being veg/non-veg. It's interesting that I never craved meat at all when I was pregnant (my husband was hoping I'd "cave" and eat a cheeseburger!) nor did I need the extra nutrition while I was nursing -- but I had two good sized babies who were enthusiastic feeders! That said, I do need to watch my iron and B12 levels. I recently got the book Nourishing Traditions and yes, while I don't agree with all of it and I find it's a bit dogmatic and preachy at times (though I'm guilty of that as well) it has some interesting suggestions for nutrient-rich meals. I've also been exploring nose-to-tail eating as I believe that if we're going to be eating animals, we should be making better "use" of them rather than just favour the "best" cuts. I'll be writing about all this stuff in future posts, but thanks for getting the conversation started! Oh, and I haven't seen Gourmet Farmer. I'll see if I can find it on YouTube as we don't have TV. I only recently discovered River Cottage, for pete's sake! I'm interested in home slaughter and done well, it is an efficient and humane way to encompass the entire birth to death cycle.

@ Miriam -- thanks for the kind words as I find your posts both articulate and eloquent! (Are you sure you're a retired Math (not English) teacher?) Thanks for sharing your experiences with butchering. It's another area of the ethical meat debate that I've become interested in. A farmer can do all they can to raise their animals with care and the utmost respect, but all of that can be lost at the abattoir. I recently wrote a feature for Small Farm Canada about mobile abattoirs, which are seen a partial solution to this, and the abattoir crisis in general, but there are some pretty substantial logistical challenges to making them viable (though I know they are legal in B.C). You're not alone in your ditch... there are many farmers (and eaters), myself included, in there with you. As I'll be writing this in the future, thanks to you as well for sharing your thoughts.

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