The plowed acre where the crop farmer grows grain and vegetables displaces millions of living things. There are all kinds of studies and estimates of insect populations, but the most conservative of them indicate that tens of millions of individual insects live on an acre of prairie or forest, significantly fewer if that land is cultivated and only a fraction survive if it is plowed, fertilized and sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.
A lot of people would like to believe in a myth of innocence, a myth in which human beings, if they are sufficiently enlightened, do not contribute to the painful deaths of other creatures. That is a wholly unrealistic vision, of course and indulges a cartoonish understanding of the natural world. If a hunter hadn’t eaten Bambi’s mom, something else surely would have.
I respect the discipline imposed by a vegan lifestyle. Like any rigorous exercise it demonstrates a commitment to an ideal, and that’s admirable.
But I’ve chosen to exercise my own compassion through active engagement with the natural world as a gardener and a farmer. I don’t feel my lifestyle is any less fair to our fellow creatures than the lifestyles of my vegan friends in town.
If it is slavery to be consumed by other creatures then we are all slaves to that aspect of nature. Predators, bacteria and viruses victimize us all and, eventually, we are all consumed.
Questions of fairness – toward animals and people – do help us make decisions on the farm every day. Like most people who raise sheep and goats I used to castrate our rams and bucks within a few days of birth. The surgery was unpleasant and, presumably, painful for the animals. So I tried leaving them intact and separating them before they were fertile, at about four months of age. That worked fine. They miss their moms for about a day or so, then seem perfectly happy in the “boy’s club.” And some customers – Africans and people from the Middle East – prefer them that way. A happy accident.
My wife and I try to fairly accommodate our predatory animal neighbors – coyotes, opossums, raccoons, hawks, foxes, skunks, eagles and bobcats – by using protection animals and a secure chicken coop rather than shotguns and poison bait. The donkeys and mules work in the pastures with the sheep and goats. The dogs live in the yard with the chickens and turkeys. So far so good. We lose a chicken or a turkey once in a while, but it feels like a fair system of sharing, all in all. Once in a while I have to scare a skunk or opossum out of the chicken house myself. They generally take the hint. One tiny skunk and I had a recent confrontation in the chicken house. He didn’t spray me, but he thought if he looked fierce enough I might back down. He raised his extravagant tail and bounced across the floor at me. When I didn’t retreat, he scooted out the door. Imagine my relief.
When I ask myself the question of whether our life on the farm is fair for people or animals, my conditional answers don’t solve any existential riddles. The question does give me a continual series of ideas about how we might change our practices to live more fairly:
1. Although the farm probably reduces the overall consumption necessary to produce the food we create, we know we could consume less. We’ll continue to operate equipment as efficiently, and seldom, as possible. We’ll buy local biodiesel fuel.
2. When we trade cars, we will make fuel efficiency a priority.
3. We want to generate our own electricity for our home and barn and maybe to power a new electric car when one is available.
4. We want to change the binding on our hay bales to natural, biodegradable sisal twine.
5. We try to use, and reuse, all our tools and materials to their full potential so we don’t consume or discard any materials unnecessarily.
6. We will keep on trying to manage our farm to better protect the natural environment, to provide habitat for wild animals and to make it as productive as we can while protecting natural resources.
7. We’ll welcome guests who want to learn more about conscientious agriculture.
8. We’ll keep on writing and talking about it.
9. We want to manage our money carefully to earn more and spend less so we can give more away.
10. And we’ll be actively engaged in this inquiry for the rest of our lives. It’s a great project, improving the fairness of how we live. It has captured our imaginations.