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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Why I Farm

By Bryan Welch 

Tags: farming, rural life, nature,

It's the most bittersweet of our seasons, late fall or early winter depending on the day and the weather. Tomorrow it might be 20 degrees and driving sleet or it might be 70 and sunny.

It's the time of year when we kill the animals — the cattle, sheep and goats — we will eat next year.

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. Often I think it's more of an accusation: "How can you be so callous?".

So 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?".

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 humane to eat animals they don't know? Meanwhile, industrial agricultural treats meat animals as nothing more than cogs in the machine, without regard for their happiness.

Even though I'm proud of the happy, healthy lives we give our animals, I feel a profound twinge of sadness now, as I look out over the animals in the pastures. It's not the sort of sadness I avoid. It's the sort of sadness I embrace.

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.

A few years ago I wrote about a chilly day when 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. They'll come over to visit if I sit still, and I can smell onion 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.

Twenty-five years ago I was an avid hiker and backpacker. A skier and a climber. I probably spent 45 days a year in the outdoors. I slept outside five or six nights a year. Even though I lived nearby and I tried to get into the mountains every chance I had, it wasn't much. Even then, I realized that I was missing a lot.

Now I'm outside every night, checking on the livestock and closing the chicken house. I see the ice crystals form a halo around the moon. I watch the sun come up several times a week. I know what's blooming and which birds are coming through. I know what the dirt smells like as the seasons change. 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.

I know I still miss a lot, but 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 love the dense, varied, vigorous symphony of the prairie.

I get a lot of blood and dirt and manure on my hands and my 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.

Yeah, 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 of life in my life.

That's why I farm.

Photo by Bryan Welch

12/7/2009 10:43:51 AM

Thank you for your wonderful article! It echoes my sentiments exactly. I grew up on a farm and have been working hard to get back to one of my own. I think that it's very important to have a personal relationship with your food. It's a lot more meaningful to eat something that took work and sometimes heartache and joy to raise (or grow for that matter!) As for the people who choose not to eat meat; I respect their choice but it's not one I choose to make. I have no problem eating animals that I know had a good life.

3/30/2007 9:52:10 AM

I grew up on a farm and struggled with the killing of the animals every year for food but we did know that during their short time on this earth they had an awesome pastures, good food, warm comfortable stalls. However everytime I drive by a farm with 1000 cattle sleeping in their own manure that hurts even more. So I do eat less meat so I can afford meat from animals who were treated with respect and love before they fed my family.

3/15/2007 9:36:48 AM

Thanks for your comments. Indeed, I am aware that one can live a healthy life without consuming animal products. And I believe it’s an admirable, visible form of compassion. However, I don’t believe this absolves us of nature’s most fundamental reality: When we consume food, other creatures die to create that food. Any plowed field is a relatively sterile environment in which few animals can exist. Every acre of soybeans, corn, wheat or any other food farmed in normal ways is an acre stolen from the creatures who would live there otherwise – and they either are killed by the process or are never born since their theoretical parents fail to thrive for lack of habitat. A natural pasture, on the other hand, can be a rich wildlife habitat. My cattle, sheep and goats displace other large grazing animals, surely, but they leave plenty of habitat for smaller animals that, on my pastures, amount to hundreds of species. I’m also aware that a human being can theoretically survive on fewer acres of total land if we consume only vegetable products. I would argue, however, that a natural pasture is an example of humankind living in harmony with nature. And if two-thirds of my calories are produced on natural pasture carefully managed as wildlife habitat, then is my total impact on the animal world more or less egregious than a vegan diet dependent wholly on plowed-field agriculture? I don’t know the answer to that, and I’m not sure the answer can be fully described. At any rate, it’s complicated. So I have chosen to convert my grass into meat, and my animals into food. I don’t believe it’s a superior – nor an inferior – ethical choice when compared with vegetarianism or veganism. It was nice to hear from you. - Bryan

3/14/2007 8:50:05 PM

Your article just leaves me fealing very sad. You seem to not recognize that it is not necessary to take the life of other sentient beings in order for us to survive -- or better yet to thrive! I hope that you will read, The China Study by T Colin Campbell.

3/6/2007 6:11:20 PM

You seem to think that the only 2 options we have are eating meat from animals that we know and eating meat from animals raised like cogs in industrial wheels. You conveniently overlook the third option: to NOT eat meat. The above article is the single most selfish piece of writing I've ever had the displeasure to read. " But it would be far worse if I didn't feel this profound connection, this profound gratitude, this profound mortality." Far worse for WHOM, I'd like to ask? Surely not for the animals that you are raising so that you can enjoy their flesh. All this boils down to is that not only do you feel that animals are put here so that they can serve you by being food, but to add insult to injury they apparently have to also provide you with "a sadness (that) makes life poignant and sweet". Here's a thought: let your animals live the lives they were meant to live, and plant vegetables for yourself, your family and your friends to eat. You might learn that you can have a lot of life in your life without causing pain and death to those that you feel are there only to serve you. Who knows: you might even feel the poignancy and sweetness that comes from considering another being to be of intrinsic value rather than to just see its value to you.