Life (and Death) Lessons on the Farm
Updated: May 22
I recently got the most respectful question from a person in South Africa after inviting them to like our Farm page.
"Greetings Daniel, thank you for inviting me to join New Story Farm's page. I greatly appreciate you thinking of me. I haven't yet joined your page because I need to first understand your thinking behind all the Love and cuddles and grooming shown and given to your most adorable animals and then at some time down the road killing those very same animals and eating them? Please help me to understand how "good folk" such as yourself and your wife are thinking? Surely, it is betrayal of the trust of your animals? I cannot see it any other way. If one wishes to live in harmony with nature then killing should have no part to play in it ? Said with kindness and Blessings"
Since this message came to me a week ago, we’ve been scrambling to get the hoop house plastic on and our two sows gave birth to 18 piglets. I figured as long as I was responding I’d write a blog post so others might also gain some insight into how we view life and death here at New Story Farm.
Firstly, in order to talk about death and nature, we must go back to a few fundamentals of ecology 101. Every living being consumes the bodies or excretions of other living beings. There is no life in a vacuum. Life consumes life. Secondly, if our goal is to restore local ecology we must learn what that ecology was and how it worked before we humans messed it all up and trust that millions of years of evolution worked out what should and still wants to be there now.
Our local ecology was once an oak savanna/tall grass prairie biome. It required periodic disturbance from fire and animals to give it the required disturbance and rest cycles needed to support that biome. Since we live in a system that believes in land ownership, we have to mimic that ecology with some form of domesticated animals. We achieve this by rotationally grazing cows and pigs which mimics what the bison would have done before man took dominion. See, the bison didn't just hang around in one spot, they moved around which gave the prairie time to regrow stronger by utilizing the feces and urine those large animals left behind. The prairie needed the bison and the bison needed the prairie.
Next I feel like it’s necessary to visit spirituality and religion. If anyone reading this has watched an episode of Vikings, they know that vikings had a very different view of death than contemporary westerners. If you've studied anything about pagan or animistic beliefs, their relationship with death was far different to our cultures’ mostly monotheistic religions. They viewed themselves as part of the natural world, not separate from it like most monotheistic religions such as Christianity. They weren't Godless, but rather had many Gods that were linked to the heavens and the earth. They understood that everything is connected and as such when they died, they would rejoin the great cosmic creation in one form or another.
It's difficult to describe the prey/predator relationship to someone that has grown up in a city but ask a hunter, ecologist or even a wildlife photographer, and they will tell you that sometimes it seems as though the prey gives itself to the predator and sometimes it seems like the predator lets the prey go. One could believe that we all have an innate knowing inside us of how things work and when they're supposed to happen and that we all get our turn in the different roles eventually.
To come back to our farm...We named it New Story Farm after both of us read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn which explains how we humans (who are story based beings) are living our lives consciously or unconsciously to rules set out by our dominant culture. If we can recognize how much power those stories have over us, and if we decide that our cultural stories aren't working for us individually or collectively, we can choose to replace them with new stories!
"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now." -Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
So now that we know that ecology and spirituality and cultural stories are all at play here, we can ask ourselves what and how is the best diet to survive and thrive in concert with our local ecology?
We raise animals on a mostly perennial farm. We've got 3 wetlands, 37 acres of native prairie and another 20+ acres of native woods, along with 25 acres of pasture. We eat animals because they are all preforming some ecosystem service here, much like the native wild animals did before man, and they reproduce. How can we love our animals like we do and then eventually kill them, you ask? Maybe a better question would be how can we not and live our values? I was once a vegetarian for 7 years and having grown up with cows, I love them more than the average person ever will.
So why is reverently, respectfully and painlessly killing a cow while it contentedly chews it's cud in the pasture more cruel than mindlessly eating from the industrial food system that requires the wholesale devastation of entire ecosystems in order for them to grow monocultural, annual, commodity crops?
Cuddling with and saying thank you to happy and contented pigs just before they were killed.
I often invite vegans to find their closest cornfield (which shouldn't be too hard seeing as 90 million acres are dedicated to this crop annually throughout the country) and walk out a few rows to sit down and look around and listen. What they will find in non organic corn is nothing. Nothing alive. Silence. Even organic corn they will find very little alive.
Monoculture corn field on left, perennial silvopasture on right, which looks healthier? One is natural and the other is not—can you guess which?
That is because monocultural plantings of corn or soybeans are not the native habitat for anything on this planet. By comparison, our cows can happily eat around ducks' nests in the pasture and step gingerly around the thousands of frogs and snakes that seek refuge here. That one cow will feed me, my family and my neighbors for a year along with foraged greens and medicinals from the land and our organic garden. It seems ethically clear cut to me because I've experienced all sides of how food is grown, I understand ecology and my spiritual beliefs are at peace knowing that someday I will be food for other living organisms on this fine, green planet.
Is it easy to kill a four legged friend of mine? Of course not! I insist on doing the killing myself for many reasons one such is the fact that the animal knows me, therefore is calm even with me standing right next to it. I want that beloved animal to have a peaceful death, just as I would want for my own death. Another reason I do this myself is that every time one of us consumes meat without doing the killing, we are passing that responsibility onto another person and generally that other person works within the current industrial system and their job is killing animals 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. No human in the the history of the earth, until recently, has ever had to deal with the emotional and spiritual stress that killing on such a scale must cause. I am emotionally drained after killing one cow or a couple of pigs in a day but feel more connected to my food, the Earth and more at peace with being in this world than I ever did when I was a mindless consumer.
When killing an animal on our farm, we give thanks to them and hold space for ceremony and reflection before, during and after. We give thanks to that animal every time we sit down to a meal. It gives us a reverence and authentic connection that I feel most people would envy in our push-button, convenience-based culture.
Am I saying everyone should eat this way? No, but they should endeavor to eat ecologically appropriately food with respect and gratitude for the stewards that raised it and all the beings that gave their lives so that they can live.