Audubon Expedition Institute alumni magazine Fall, 2008
As an environmentalist who traveled with AEI for two years in the early ‘80s, I believe individual food choices make a difference. In the decades since, many people have come to believe the same. The number of vegetarians and vegans has risen astronomically in the intervening (gulp!) almost thirty years.
During my months on the bus I read Laurel’s Kitchen, one of the seminal vegetarian cookbooks, over and over. I studied proteins and food politics in Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet. I became a vegetarian in those years, and I still own, respect, and reread those books. However, though I often eat vegetarian meals, today I’m a comfortable omnivore. How do I square meat-eating with being a responsible ecological citizen?
I am slowly developing a small farm on which I raise all my family’s meat, milk, and eggs. One of the greatest gifts AEI gave me was a sense of myself as a human animal, a creature of the Earth. In the natural order, things are born, they grow, and they die. As I get older I find I am not horrified by this cycle; I am reassured.
At the same time I believe in small, local food systems. However I live in the High Peaks of the Adirondack Park on acidic glacial scree in a climate with a scant and unreliable 64-day growing season. (After analyzing a sample of my property’s thin sour soil, the local Cooperative Extension recommended thirteen tons of lime per acre simply to achieve basic growing conditions.) This is not farming country. Soybeans won’t grow here… grass barely grows here. There is a reason why the downstate Mohawks contemptuously referred to the Algonquins of these mountains as “Bark-Eaters.”
In these icy parts it is tough to ignore the reality that if Big Oil shut down tomorrow, there would be few vegetarian options available. Milk and eggs, perhaps: but as a part-time farmer I’m aware of the lack of moral clarity surrounding those two standbys. Forget the well-documented horrors of factory farms — what about the 50% unwanted cockerels hatched out in every clutch of future hens? Answer: in commercial hatcheries they are routinely thrown in a dumpster to smother as day-olds. Or the 50% bull calves born to freshening milk cows? Answer: Holsteins are raised for veal in small calf hutches; Jerseys are put onto the meat truck at three days for dog food.)
Arguments for veganism have more black-and-white clarity in the sense that no animal products, period, are eaten. However I am, personally, uncomfortable with a goal that seems unnatural, probably unhealthy, and, in these parts at least, highly dependent on agribusiness.
I respect other people’s choices. But my own solution is that I use animals to turn the grass and brush on my “marginal land” into protein.
My dairy cow is the cornerstone of this tiny farming enterprise. In addition to twenty tons of manure a year to sweeten the fields, my cow provides milk, cream, butter, sour cream, mozzarella, ricotta, farmer cheese, yogurt, homemade Ben & Jerry’s, and every year or so, 400+ pounds of baby beef for the table. Katika was rescued as a tiny black day-old calf shipped to slaughter. She is now six, and has a life few dairy cattle in today’s world are blessed with. Katika keeps her own calf for over a year, share-milking with me. Then the bull calf goes in the freezer — shot by the local butcher while eating happily from a pan of grain at my feet — or the heifer is sold. Soon Katika freshens anew and the cycle repeats itself. Most of the year she is grazing with a calf at her side.
Our chickens give us eggs and occasionally go broody and raise chicks; I keep the pullets and butcher the rowdy cockerels at six months, about the time their mothers flee in horror at their approach.
My sheep flock is helping to clear these rank rocky acres of wire grass, thorns, and scrub amid the balsam blowdown and boulders. Throughout the season I move them daily, and in their wake clover and grass are thickening. The ewes have healthy lives and again, each spring’s ewe lambs increase the flock and the ram lambs live in easy contentment right up until their death in the fall. (My children learned very young that it pays to be a girl in the farmyard.) We eat shepherd’s pie made from mutton and local peas and potatoes all year.
As winter closes in we have a freezer full of beef and lamb. In almost all cases I was there to towel dry the newborn and there to witness the death. In between I have hauled water, pitched hay, shoveled manure, milked at 30° below zero, and called the creature by name. Eating meat in such circumstances feels almost sacramental. Certainly there is never careless waste.
Of course I am sad at butchering time. However I am confident that I am a gentle steward and that my animals lead happy lives, and have deaths without suffering. This is not given to most animals in the natural world; it’s not given to many humans.
I feel very lucky to be able to live in a way I consider ecologically responsible and meanwhile enjoy so much.