Why I Farm

As a farmer, I am part of the dense, varied and vigorous symphony of the prairie, one of the many reasons why I farm.
By Bryan Welch
February/March 2007
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Beano, Buster and Bryan.
Photo courtesy NATHAN HAM
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Twenty-five years ago I was an enthusiastic hiker and backpacker. A skier and a climber. I probably spent 45 days a year in the outdoors and slept outside five or six nights a year. I lived in a city, and I tried to get into the nearby mountains every chance I had, but it wasn’t much.

These days, I watch the sun come up several times a week. I know what’s blooming and which birds are coming through. I know how it feels to be outside on the worst night of the year watching coyotes try to open the door of the henhouse. Now that I am a farmer, I see much more of nature than I did when I was outdoors purely for recreation. For me, the difference between hiking and farming is the difference between listening to music and playing music. As a hiker, I enjoy the dramatic rhythms and splashy vistas of the mountains. As a farmer, I am part of the dense, varied, vigorous symphony of the prairie.

Raising our Own Meat

I write this during the most bittersweet of our seasons: late fall or early winter, depending on the day and the weather. It’s the time of year when we kill the animals­ — the cattle, sheep and goats — that we raise for meat for ourselves and our friends.

Just a few months ago they were the spirits of spring, filling the pastures with the joyful, bouncing exuberance of new life. In a few weeks their meat will be in my freezers, and my friends’, on our tables and in our bodies.

People often ask, “How can you eat your own animals?” Sometimes it’s a sincere question, meant to explore the emotions associated with raising your own meat. But often it’s more of an accusation, as in: “How can you be so callous?” So in response I might ask, “How can you be so cruel as to eat animals without knowing them? Without knowing how they lived? Without making sure they were treated kindly and with respect?”

My father, both my grandfathers and all my great-grandparents were grass farmers. It’s quite likely that every generation of my family since prehistoric times has followed a herd of grazing animals — either wild or domesticated — through its lifetime and down its nomadic path across the ages. We have always lived in direct contact and in a kind of kinship with the animals that provide our food. I believe it’s a “natural” relationship in the deepest and most profound sense of that word.

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should raise their own meat. But it’s perverse, isn’t it, that many people in our society seem to consider it more civilized to eat animals they don’t know? Meanwhile, industrial agriculture treats meat animals as nothing more than cogs in the machine, without regard for their happiness or basic well-being.

From the time I could walk, I was invited to help my relatives care for their livestock. I was about 10 when a neighbor hired me to milk his goats and feed his rabbits. I took to it. I enjoyed the animals and I enjoyed the people. I found that people who shared their lives with livestock were, on the whole, caring but not sentimental.

There’s a Buddhist wisdom in the stockman’s cool compassion. The best of them seem to understand that our own lives on this Earth are as irrefutably temporary as the lives of the animals, and that we should provide as much simple comfort and dignity to our fellow creatures as we can. After all, aren’t simple comfort and dignity among the most important things we wish for ourselves and our children?

So we’re careful, on our little farm, to let the animals live in ways that seem natural to them. None of our creatures lives alone. For any social animal, to be alone is the worst thing. All of them have access, every day of the year, to natural food and clean water. They reproduce just as they were created to reproduce. They live their lives on healthy, familiar pastures where they feel secure. When we handle them, we handle them as gently as possible. When we can’t be gentle, we try to be quick.

Even though I’m proud of the happy, healthy lives we give our animals, I feel a profound twinge of sadness as I watch them grazing in the colorful autumn grass. But it’s a feeling I want to embrace, rather than avoid. It’s the sadness associated with life’s astonishing richness and vitality. It’s the sadness associated with mortality. It’s the sadness we feel as we consider our own impermanence and the impermanence of everything on this planet, everything mortal we hold dear, the sadness that makes life poignant and sweet.

It’s sad when animals I know well and care for reach the end of their lives. But it would be far worse if I didn’t feel this profound connection, this profound gratitude, this profound mortality.

Life in the Pasture

A few years ago I was working on a fence far out in a new pasture, and I kept smelling food. I checked my pockets for old sandwich wrappers. I checked the toolbox for snacks. I smelled the cuffs of my work shirt. Then I realized I had been sitting in wild onions, the wild onions that stay green all the way through the Kansas winter. They smelled like hamburgers.

I’ve noticed lately how the sheep and goats sometimes dine on the green onion shoots. If I sit still, they’ll come over to visit, and I can smell onions on their breath. I like to watch goats eating the seed-heads off sunflowers, and I puzzle over the way sheep like to trim the grass down to a slick butch, like the manicured greens on a golf course.

At the end of a day of farm work I smell like the animals — I reek of them. I also never come in at the end of the day without a new story, some new bit of amusement provided by one of our animals, each of them whimsical, imaginative and utterly unique. I’m outside every night, checking on the livestock and closing the chicken house. I watch the night sky and see the ice crystals when they form a halo around the moon.

I get a lot of blood, dirt and manure on my hands and clothes these days. I get calluses and scars. I get a lot of laughs watching my animals figure out their lives and I get pretty sad when it’s time to kill them. I have a lot more death in my life than I did before. And, ironically, that’s part of the reason why I feel like I have a lot more life in my life. That’s why I farm.

— Bryan Welch is the publisher and editorial director of Mother Earth News. He and his wife, Carolyn, raise grass-fed cattle, sheep and goats on a small farm near Lawrence, Kan. For more stories about the farm, read his blog, Rancho Cappuccino.

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Brad_2
8/15/2008 10:27:14 PM
I was a vegetarian for ten years, and have only recently begun consuming more animal products (including pork, chicken and beef raised by my neighbors). I'm slightly embarrassed by some of the critical responses to this article, and think we're squandering an excellent opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about the "cost" of food, be it animal or vegetable. Vegans and vegetarians have always done good work and have boldly taken on the challenge of thinking about the moral and ethical implications of their diet, but I wonder if they (or if any of us) really go far enough? While I often hear meat eaters wrestling with their decision to kill or consume killed animals, most non-meat eaters I know happily graze without much consideration of seasonality, food miles or environmental impacts, at least beyond a mild attachment to the organic label. This lack of ambivalence is troubling. Also, while I agree with Bryan's notion that taking responsibility for death adds life to his life, I'm also troubled by the article's attempt to reconcile the killing, as though it can be thought through once and be done. For me, as I now eat and in some cases kill animals, I am both troubled by this choice AND feel that it is the most responsible and honest life that I've discovered. I'm somewhat reassured and terribly challenged by this quote from Wendell Berry, referenced in the recent "Chicken Harvest" article: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do it knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructively, it is a desecration.” I would very much appreciate a turning of the tables here - why don't we all comment on what is most ethically challenging about the eating life WE'VE chosen? Don't know, can't say? You haven't thought hard enough. Thanks for a thought provoking essay, Bryan.

Bryan
8/12/2008 3:36:57 PM
Thanks, Kevin. - Bryan

Kevin_3
8/12/2008 11:58:24 AM
I enjoyed your article Bryan. I would have to agree with you that knowing how the animals that supply our meat are treated is an important thing for us to consider. We should show respect for any living creation, be it animal or plant, but all things are put here for a purpose. We don’t condemn the wolf for eating the dear for that is all apart of nature. So many of the comments to you bewilder me. Not that I do not understand their viewpoint but when you compare eating meat from a cow to eating your mother or college roommate that leaves me scratching my head. Thanks for a very insightful article.

Bryan
7/31/2008 8:57:34 AM
The fact that our existence depends on the suffering and death of other living things is not a “moral difficulty,” in my opinion. Other creatures will use my body for nutrition someday. Fair trade. I see it as part of the indescribable poignancy and beauty of life. It does seem like a moral imperative, to me, that we don’t squander life or diminish its variety and richness unnecessarily. My point is that vegetarianism and veganism are admirable spiritual disciplines with their roots in compassion, but they are not morally superior to eating meat any more than a cow is morally superior to a wolf. Veganism is often inspired by compassion for living things. I applaud that compassion. But when the vegan or vegetarian accuses the meat-eater of a lack of compassion, I take exception. I know and care about the animals I eat. I know I am responsible for their death - and their life. Just because you don’t know the family of foxes destroyed by the plow doesn’t make you any less culpable for their destruction. - Bryan

Joey D
7/30/2008 10:39:55 PM
Brian, if I understand you correctly, your point seems to be that there are necessary evils involved in raising and harvesting crops. And from your article I gather, from its pathos, that you believe there are some such evils involved in raising livestock as well. Therefore, since both methods of food production are morally problematic in their own ways, your conclusion is that you should partake of the products of both methods? Slaughter the animals for meat and blight the land for crops? Or do you not eat any crops, seeing as how they are produced in "biological wastelands," as you say? You see, what I don't understand is why you list problems in a situation while implying at the same time that these things are somehow not problems. With meat you say that there is "more death in your life," and that this fact results in you feeling that there is "more life in your life." Maniacal serial killers also feel this way. With crops you say that their growth and harvesting is somehow "agricultural fascism," yet we can safely assume that you do in fact eat plants. Are there any moral dilemmas in your life that actually cause you to act in a way other than by instinct? Or are your actions, in general, unaffected by your objective recognition of the moral difficulties involved therein?

Bryan
7/30/2008 10:59:56 AM
Thanks to everyone for chiming in! For those who don't form a natural distinction between eating another species and eating our own species, I don't really have much to say. I think nature gives clear instructions on this. Very, very few predators systematically consume their own species. A few do, admittedly. We are not, by nature, one of them. I guess I'll have to disagree with those who claim their vegan lifestyle harms fewer creatures. The pasture is a natural environment, a natural habitat for many species and they thrive there. The plowed field is a biological wasteland suitable, by design, for one species and one species only - a species that exists only to provide nourishment for human beings. If you're looking for an agricultural symbol for fascism, there you have it. - Bryan

Jeff B
7/30/2008 9:08:49 AM
This article is very inspiring. Thanks for writing it.

Joey D
7/29/2008 10:56:37 PM
I have been a vegan for over ten years, and consider myself to be a fairly even-tempered, philosophically-minded individual. As such, I agree completely with what Will has already said with regard to this article, but would take one of his points a step further. Rather than compare these livestock to cats and dogs, why not compare them to our human friends, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers? You've shared good times with these people, watched them grow, shared laughs together. But, hey, a man's gotta eat, right? Time to kill Dear Ol' Mum and get her in your belly! It does not matter how well you treat these animals if you kill them in the end anyway. If, after four great years of college together, I decide to kill my best friend, is that somehow more morally correct than Auschwitz was? If, Mr. Welch, you get to know these animals so well, develop a deep compassion for them, how is it that you become so easily resigned to the role of executioner? Answering this question is the apparent point of this article, yet it fails utterly to do so.

joe_29
9/20/2007 1:52:40 PM
When you feel and care for a plant as much as to an animal you whould feel the same amount of sadness while you are cutting off and eating the fruit. they are both living thinks.and they both deserve to live. but we have no choise. otherwise we wont live. and BTW humens are meant to eat vegtables fruit and meat as our primmates do.

Jerry_32
3/13/2007 7:59:35 AM
In reference to Bryan Welch column on farming, many years ago I moved from the city to the country and began farming, including raising animals to feed my family and profits, as well as growing grains and a large vegetable garden. At the time I considered myself an environmentalist but there was a feeling in me that was uncomfortable when considering the final outcome of the farm animals. When I discontinued raising the animals and concentrated my efforts on the vegetable gardens and fruit orchard, I became much more internally at peace with my lifestyle. Consuming animals for food is NOT necessary for the human species and is the largest contributor to global destruction. We free ourselves to life a more peaceful existence once we transistion to a plant based lifestyle. ahimas, jerry cook

Will_7
3/9/2007 10:22:51 PM
As a Buddhist and as a 30-year vegan, I take profound exception to Brian Welch's outrageous statement, "There’s a Buddhist wisdom in the stockman’s cool compassion." His entire article, Why I Farm," is an attempt to co-opt the word compassion. This has been happening a lot lately, with the "happy meat" offerings in upscale markets that try to make people more comfortable with the completely unnecessary cruelty they are directly causing to sensitive creatures by their choice to eat animal-sourced foods. We live in a culture where we are indoctrinated to see beings as commodities to be used and mere meat to be eaten, and this tragic desensitization breeds ethical numbness as well as a mentality of violence, reductionism, and exclusivity. Welch does not need to eat these animals! We would be outraged if he was writing about killing dogs and cats for food the way he is talking about killing cows and pigs. Do these animals love life less than our pets? Obviously not, but we care less about them and their interests and their terrible suffering. I say this to Welch: Please stop trying to cloak your cruelty and indoctrinated taste in Buddhist or "spiritual" terms. It is neither. You are up against an unyielding dilemma. Pull your finger off the trigger, unclench your grip from the knife, pull your hands out of the guts of tortured animals and switch to a plant-based diet. That takes real courage. Then you'll begin to understand compassion. As you are now, you are just a herding slave, following 8,000 years of indoctrination. Sincerely, Dr. Will Tuttle








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