I’m a farmer who cares about living within the rhythms of the annual cycle of living and dying. I might have fairly complicated human ambitions, but those are tempered by a grounded sense of the soil and the climate and the sunshine and the rain. These things help keep me mostly honest, at least when it comes to my agricultural endeavors.
I live out here on the homeplace because I like it. I enjoy living with plants and animals around me. I am part of the place’s ecology. I am a living and breathing creature, albeit one who can wield immense power via tools like fencing and knives and fossil-fuel-driven engines.
So that’s why I’ve chosen to explore a concept that I’ve struggled with over the years: vegetarianism.
I want to say first and foremost that I’m 100 percent pro-veggie. I grow veggies by the truckloads. I eat them every day. I feel strongly that people eat way too few green plants and way too much other junk. I am concerned about American fatness and heart disease and diabetes. I think most Americans would be better off if we quadrupled our intake of vegetables. My recipe for a better nation would include more farmers growing more and better veggies and more people cooking and eating them.
I’m also a good enviro with street cred. I hate factory livestock operations. I don’t like monoculture. I believe in preserving wilderness. I feel strongly that our society’s inability and lack of political will to deal with greenhouse-gas emissions is likely harming both human economy and nonhuman ecology in incredibly negative ways. I think we should work hard to decrease fossil-fuel emissions. I am, and have been, an activist involved with each of these issues.
I don’t believe in the mainstream agricultural prescriptions of genetic engineering, indoor meat production, or anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. They do more harm than good, and they are all very expensive, short-term solutions to the long-term question of how humans can feed a growing population.
Heck, I even struggle with the very concept of agriculture and civilization as a way of being human. I don’t like to kill animals. I am not that comfortable with the concept of living beings as my “property.” I don’t feel good about the concept of “owning the land.”
With all that said, though, I still eat meat. I kill and cut up and cook the animals I’ve cared for and fed. I sell animals to people who do the same. In my West Missouri climate, and with the land being what it is, animals are an essential component of a functioning ecosystem.
I really don’t know how to explain myself to vegetarians other than to say that we have this land around us. It’s made of soil and topography and vegetation. The sun shines. The rain falls. Things grow. Other things eat the things that grow. And other things eat the things that eat the things that grow. As my dad likes to tell my kids while we’re fishing, “The big fish eats the little fish, and that’s what makes the world go around.”
This all crystallized in my mind this week, so I had to speak up. I’m a consistent Grist reader, and there has been a lot of discussion over there recently about whether or not you can really be a good enviro while eating meat. Should we really rid the world of cows since they burp and fart methane? Is PETA really targeting small-scale, farmer-friendly butcher shops with billboards about the ethics of meat eating?
I think a lot about the practice of raising and eating animals. I struggle with the ethics of living the way I do. I am not comfortable with how agriculture is sometimes dependent upon the death of other creatures.
But then again, this week began the annual cycle on our farm of newly born babies from momma animals that need our care. Two of my goats birthed in very cold weather. Like it or not, these creatures require me to help them with feed and protection from the elements. They require me to separate them from predators and even from their goat friends so they can have their children in peace. They need me to give them clean water to drink.
I’m not even sure what all of this means. I’m not trying to be too high and mighty. There is no way that the common act of raising a few animals and some produce is heroic. Instead, I’m trying to explain a confusing situation. I’m sure the more PETA-minded would liken me to some kind of dictator. But that’s not how it feels when I’m playing nursemaid to a first-time goat momma who’s trying to make sure her babies are alive and well. That’s not how it feels when I hook up a heat lamp that gives these goats warmth and a chance to survive a harsh winter’s night. That’s not how it feels to live with the creatures I live with, despite the questions and conundrums of living an agricultural life.
Now, I don’t expect these words to talk anyone out of vegetarianism. I don’t even expect most people to understand my point of view. I don’t fully understand it myself. There’s a lot more to say on this topic, but I guess I want people to understand that even us farmers might not feel glowingly about our state of affairs. We have questions, too. At least, some of us do.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.
Photo by Bryce Oates