Philosophy of a Vegetarian Butcher

I’m a vegetarian. Lacto-ovo. For almost a quarter century. I also harvest (as it’s so appealingly called these days) meat for my omnivore family. In addition I’ve found it gratifying to teach others how to respectfully take the life of a gentle beast and convert its life into sources of life for others.  I don’t find this a conflict at all.

Vegetarianism in all its forms is a luxury of time and situation. In my case, I have never liked to eat meat. When I was a kid, the only way I enjoyed it was if it was marinated and then cooked to well done. I don’t like the taste of fresh milk or eggs – especially healthy, farm eggs. There is just something about my system that doesn’t crave, enjoy, or seem to need meat. But I am fortunate to have access to homegrown fruits and veggies and an amazing spectrum of local products, rice from our region, beans from many places, organic tofu, amazing cheeses, and numerous other foods and supplements that seem to provide all I need. But to practice abstinence from animal products as a superior lifestyle is to disrespect indigenous cultures throughout time, those living in less bountiful societies, and indeed, our own origins as a species.

To believe that vegetarianism is more evolved and more ethical is the ultimate arrogance. It implies that humankind is above and separate from nature – indeed we seem drawn to this paradigm in almost every aspect of how we treat the planet and its systems. When it comes to eating meat, however, humankind can rise to a level that our non-speaking predator animal kin cannot – we have the potential to take the life of another creature for sustenance with respect, honor, and appreciation. It’s the lack of realizing this potential that is the true tragedy.

To blithely shop the supermarket meat department, its refrigerated cases stacked with tidy rows of bright claret steaks; to selectively dine on primarily just the choice parts of the animal – bacon, chicken breasts, lobster tails; to expect flesh to be inexpensive – all of these things support and create high efficiency, large-scale farming, where the animal, the human worker, and the environment pay the price. Meat, of any kind, should be relatively costly and eaten in proportion to what the animal, the workers, and the land can, without undue compromises, provide.

I don’t expect everyone to be able to learn to slaughter and butcher. Even 15 years ago, I harbored a prejudice toward friends who were able to kill their own chickens, it just seemed a bit barbaric. I was raised on a farm by parents who were not from self-sufficient upbringings. But they aspired toward that. In addition to a massive garden, orchards, and a home-scale wheat grinding mill, we also raised animals for milk and meat. But others were paid to kill and process them. It was so hard for my mother, in fact, that she would load me and my sister in the car and take us to town on the day the kill truck came. I took the next step. And my children have a more innate sense of balance regarding life and the food chain than even I do.

In 2003 I told my husband, a happy omnivore, that I wanted to raise a batch of meat chickens. He was uncomfortable with the idea. He was raised on what I call a rural suburb – small lots, dads that worked 9-5 and whose farm skills were topped out by mowing the front lawn. So we made a deal. I’d do the entire processing, serve it up, and if he and our girls could tell me that the meat wasn’t superior, I wouldn’t do it again. You can guess who won – we all did.

The first goat I butchered was named Minerva. She was an adult Nigerian Dwarf doe, but without a good future. Other than being cute, she wasn’t a good milk goat, had an unbalanced personality, and was very noisy. To have given her to a pet home would have likely doomed her to a string of unhappy owners and poor living conditions. I had taken the lives of a few goats before – using a bullet to euthanize them for various sufferings. But I had never processed a larger animal into meat. I printed out instructions from the internet, bought an inexpensive set of butchering tools, and steeled myself.

I made a good portion of the harvest into jerky. I’ll never forget what happened next. I handed a slice to my youngest, an animal lover whose dream was to one day open a cat sanctuary, but who also relished a good steak. She skeptically put a bit in her mouth and chewed. Her eyes widened and she said “Is there anyone else we can off?” The wall had been breached.

It has been my privilege to grow to the point of being able to share these moments with others. Hopefully helping them on their own journeys of returning to balance in the food chain. Life is sacred and so is death. Both must be respected and neither can be avoided. If you aren’t ready for direct involvement with this process, you can still try to honor it. Purchase only “expensive meat” from local farmers who care and are involved with every step of the harvest – even if that means they oversee the animal’s last moments at an FDA approved facility; if you must by from an unknown source, seek out humane certified producers or failing that, organic; don’t eat fast food meat; don’t eat much meat; and finally, try to eat the meat in proportion to what the animal offers, after all there’s much more to a pig than bacon. If you have children, you can guide them toward a level above your own – let them raise an animal, help a farmer harvest meat, learn to cook meat, and above all, never to waste meat.

I sheep farmer friend once taught me the following mantra, and its one omnivores should live by: “Every animal deserves a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good chef.” Amen.

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Coming to Terms with Animal Cannibalism


One of Amelia's Cute Rabbits

It was my task, this last week, to care for our daughters rabbits while she was out of town. Amelia breeds Netherland Dwarf rabbits- cute little two pound balls of fluff with tiny ears and puss-in-boots eyes.  Amelia loves to make thorough lists, so she left me with detailed instructions, including nick- names (I guess in case the rabbits didn’t recognize when I called them by their regular names), of all of their needs. Two of the females, Ariadne and Kassandra (aka Kass), were due to kindle (that’s rabbit-speak for giving birth) while Amelia was away.

So you probably have all heard that rabbits will occasionally eat their babies, right? Well, knowing that and actually coming upon the act in progress are two very different matters I am here to tell you.  I am pretty tough. I can steel myself to the euthanasia of a suffering animal or the beheading of a meat chicken, but this left me horrified and feeling ill.  I won’t go into too many details, but let me sum it up by sharing that I didn’t imagine that the baby would be vocally protesting the act.

Amelia assured me, later on the phone, that there was nothing I could have done. The doe (that means girl rabbit, girl goat, and girl deer) went on to have three other kits, which are at this writing all still in one piece…  Mia explained that sometimes the first baby delivered will get stuck and in the process of the mom trying to help it out become injured. Nature then tells the mother to destroy the injured baby in order to protect the other kits from a predator being lured to the nest.  So that’s good, right?

I tried to think of a lesson behind this incident, some layer of meaning to help minimize the horror. I realized that this is probably similar to the repulsion that some might experience if they came upon a farmer skinning a chicken, dismembering a lamb carcass, or dispatching an unwanted bull calf. For some reason, we humans seem to want to totally separate ourselves from the death and destruction that is part of the animal kingdom. While you may not want to see yourself as an “animal” we are the top predator on the planet. (Which is really quite a lovely thing when you think about it- no T-Rex or other massive, long-fanged carnivore stalking us at night)

With no particular logic, we want to remain omnivores- eat our bucket of fried chicken or baby-back ribs and hold a backyard barbeque while also holding onto this inane ability to be repulsed by the realities of raising and harvesting animals. In some parts of Europe it is actually illegal for the farmer to remove the horns on their goats, a veterinarian must do it. Never mind that we remove horns to prevent future suffering of an entire horn being ripped off by fencing. There are other movements to disallow, or at least look upon with repulsion, practices that cause temporary pain but guide the animal population toward a better future, including a future on our table.

Don’t get me wrong. I ardently believe many animals suffer needlessly in the desire to provide inexpensive food for a population that, as a whole, doesn’t seem to really need much more cheap food. I believe that if we paid the cost of raising our meat, milk, and egg supply kindly, that both the prey and we, the top predators, would benefit. But no matter how you slice it (no pun intended) eating meat involves death and some suffering. Unless we do not intend to live in balance with this planet, we have to come to terms with the harshness of existence. Ha, I say live in balance with the planet as if that were really possible for our species. We seem to have a drive to live outside of any balance. Even being able to type on this computer and post to a blog site that is available for people all over the world is rather outside of nature, don’t you think?

So while I might have to conclude that our species is unable to be a completely accepting part of the much referenced “circle of life”, I will take the lesson of bunny infanticide as my own personal reminder that even here on the farm we are removed from nature and some of its harsher realities. I will also remind myself to be gentle with those souls even farther removed when sharing some of the farm/livestock activities that we consider commonplace.

You know, when I think about it, when I was watching the momma bunny-before I figured out just what was happening- I am pretty sure her already large brown eyes were opened wider than normal, perhaps beyond instinct she was experiencing her own bunny brand of dismay, horror, and mortification. Truly living in nature must be the harshest reality of all.

Living Simple Ain’t Easy

We live a life that many would consider to be blissfully simple. Our electricity is generated by solar panels and a small micro-hydro power turbine run by our seasonal stream, Brown’s Gulch. We homeschooled our kids and live in a tiny cabin, augmented by a large, communal type space above our dairy barn. I don’t get manicures or pedicures or even polish my nails (who wants polish bits getting into the artisan goat cheese we make?). I rarely style my hair and don’t mind shopping at The Goodwill. We have wood heat, no air conditioning, cook meals from scratch, and raise chickens for meat- I, the strict vegetarian, do the slaughtering and butchering of this kindly-raised, healthy protein source for my meat-eating family.

This morning just about the worst thing that could happen to an off-the grid system occured. We had a total blackout. Bizarrely, it occurred at the precise time, 5:15 AM that our alarm clock is set to ring, or in our case a background white noise is turned off. So the silence is what usually wakes us up. But this time not only the sound ceased, but also the glow from the digital display went dark and the fan bringing cooling air in the window spun to a halt. It took about eight seconds to realize that something was seriously amiss.

We live in a part of the country where it is common for rural power customers, the on-grid people, to have periodic power outages during inclement weather. An ice laden tree branch takes down a power line or a heavy wind pushes lines together, blowing a transformer. While we have done our best to not feel a little smug when the rest of the community can’t flush their toilets or use their cordless phones while we are blithely flipping on light switches and posting to Facebook , I will confess to the tiniest hints, just the tiniest, of smugness.

Well, when you live off-grid, the power only works when you properly maintain and monitor your power “plant”. After five years of vigilance, it only took two days of letting our guard down to do possible irreparable damage to a battery bank that would cost around 10 grand to replace.  Our oversights were a combination of leaving the diversion load on (it is meant to shunt surplus power to our hot water holding tank), not having the generator in the emergency start mode (when it is supposed to automatically start if the battery bank drops to critical levels), and topping it off with a dead generator battery (so it wouldn’t have started even if it had been in the emergency mode).

So now, with the generator running and the sun shining on the 36 photovoltaic panels, we wait; Vern researching the likelihood of reviving the batteries and both of us figuratively crossing our fingers that the worst thing that could happen will soon become just a lesson in complacency.

 

 

A Farm is Not a Peaceful Place

One of those rare peaceful moments, seeing the moon setting behind the mountains to the west of our farm

A Farm is Not a Peaceful Place

There are times when our life is peaceful. But they are rare. Everyone wants something, or has something to share. The goats want to go for their walk or a hen has just laid an egg. The guardian dog sees a deer or the wild turkey has heard an echo. Our daughter has a question, our intern has a question, someone on the phone has a question, or a stack of emails are yelling in my head with their unanswered questions.

If you get up early enough in the morning, it might be peaceful. You can listen to the sounds of the night and see the silhouette of the mountains in the east. But as soon as you open the barn doors, the animals are aware of your presence and their expectations become your priority.

There are moments when everyone is satisfied, and you can hear yourself think. But it doesn’t last. Even at night, the noise, the fears, the possible suffering- that you are responsible for preventing- creeps in and startles you awake. It might be a dream now, but it could be a reality at any moment.

So many things, so many people, need you. You can’t complain about your boss, you are them. You feel responsible for the life that you have- by association- dragged your loved ones down into.

Everyone thinks you are living “the life”. They philosophize and compare. They don’t understand. They have jobs they can walk away from. They have weekends. They might even have health care and retirement plans. Our retirement plan is to be able to stop before regret dominates.

The farm is noisy, the farm is demanding, the farm is our life, our life is not our own. We love the farm, we hate the farm. We are the farm.

I Don’t Wanna Be a Rock Star!

No “Rock Stars”, Please!

Gianaclis Caldwell

I have an issue with the current reverence that the term “rock star” is supposed to infer. I know, people are just trying to show their admiration, respect, whatever, but really, “rock star”?

Our cheese has been called a rock star. We, as cheesemakers, here at Pholia Farm have been called rock stars. (And this has all been in recently published books, by the way) And I have been called that by some lovely, well-meaning people as a way of introduction to others.

Let me confess that my own ego is not immune to the attention that such a term brings, but then isn’t that part of the problem?  Ego is great, when kept in a proper captivity, but let it loose on the stage of life, with adoring fans feeding the beast with accolades and applause, and it quickly becomes a monster. A monster that for some reason our culture insists upon worshipping.

And I am nothing! Imagine the difficulty of fighting off this beast when you actually really accomplish something- or are truly gifted.  Thank goodness that hasn’t happened!

I don’t believe our species, our culture, or our world needs any more rock stars, real or perceived. If we could only learn to idolize the true leaders, heroes, and quiet pillars of life, wouldn’t that be something?

Oh, anyone seen Steven Tyler’s new music video…?

The Legend of Goat Milk as “The Most Complete Food Known”

The Urban (Rural?) Legend of Goat Milk “The Most Complete Food Known”

Gianaclis Caldwell

Okay, just Google it. “Goat milk complete food”. You will find the venerable Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) quoted repeatedly (I counted 14 different citations on the first two pages of searching) in such turns of phrase as “as the Journal of American Medicine states, goat milk is the most complete food known” or “according to the Journal of American Medicine, goat milk is the most complete food known”. Hey, maybe you even have this quote on your website or in your brochures, if you are a goat milk producer and fan like I am.

Even a recent issue of a beloved dairy goat magazine devoted an entire article to the topic (reprinted from a natural news type website) and citing the JAMA with the same quote.  While I am all for promoting goat milk as a fabulous food, I instantly become skeptical when hearing a prestigious source quoted without also being properly attributed.

So I went to the JAMA website and did a search of their article archive. The only reference I found was a letter to the editor in Volume 120, # 4 published in September of 1942 that asked if the following quote (which the reader read in another publication) were true: “The Journal of American Medical Society states that goat milk is the purest, most healthful, and most complete food known.” The editor responds that no such statement could be found in the JAMA. That was over 50 years ago, people.  If anyone has found an attributable JAMA source for this quote, then please share it and set me straight!

Is there really such a thing as a “complete food”? If you Google that term, you will come up with a lot of claims that bee pollen and hemp seed are the most complete foods known. (Not surprisingly, the JAMA is quiet on the subject)  Even if true, just think how many bees would have to work overtime to provide enough pollen to sustain one 150 pound person or the number of hemp plants you would have to grow (although some people might think that would be just groovy)  What I am trying to say is that this obsession with the “perfect, most complete food” is kind of silly.  We are meant to eat a variety of foods- the fresher and less processed the better. The focus should be on “the most complete diet known to man”.

If you are interested in comparing (a bit more objectively, perhaps) cow, goat and human milk, then I recommend going to http://drinc.ucdavis.edu/goat1.htm  and reading “Dairy Goat Milk Composition”.  After reading it, you will likely conclude that most milk types offer a lot of nutrition, but none are perfect. And don’t forget that HOW milk is processed and treated after it is removed from the mother (be she cow, doe, ewe, or woman) has a huge effect on the retention of vitamins and minerals, the loss of enzymes, and the alteration of proteins and fats. There is a saying that I love to repeat (but I don’t know the source) that “milk was never meant to see the light of day”. In other words, milk is at its best when going straight from teat to tummy. (That is my quote and you can use it if you like)

So get out to the barn; milk your goats (who I think are the most completely wonderful animals known); drink their delicious milk; appreciate the gift that they, as beasts, and their milk are; and then double check your quotes and what you repeat.  And after all, since when do we really need the American Medical Association and their Journal to validate our own good taste?

July 10, 2011