It's a challenge to describe the place where I take my livestock when it's time for them to cease being my companions, and to become my product instead. I call Steve's Meats in DeSoto, Kansas, the "packer." And, indeed, when I stopped off there this morning they had about 800 pounds of beef frozen and packed, ready for me to take home. It filled the freezer to the rim.
The beef was originally "Julia," a 2-year-old black angus heifer who didn't bear a calf this year and was therefore not a good candidate to be a member of our breeding herd. And the "packer" is the place known variously as the abbatoir, the meat market or the slaughterhouse.
I choose to grow my own meat in part because I like animals. I enjoy sharing my life with them. And I don't like the way industrial agriculture treats them — confining them in unhygienic conditions and loading them up with unnecessary drugs and unhealthy feed. I believe that many of industrial agriculture's practices are cruel. I enjoy seeing my small herds of cattle, sheep and goats carrying out their natural lives on our pastures, which are also charming wildlife sanctuaries where the domestic animals share space with a rich variety of wild things.
I could eat no meat at all, of course, but that wouldn't diminish the pain in the world. Every animal population is kept in check by death, often in the jaws of a predator. If humans didn't eat meat, there would be no cattle, sheep or goats. There would be no need for them. Still, the wild things that took their places on my pasture would be killed and eaten. It's nature's way.
We are, by and large, an omnivorous species. Setting aside the question of how we evolved and whether we're meant to eat meat — a topic that I have heard debated all my life — most human beings eat meat. And most people eat meat without any first-hand knowledge of the realities behind carnivorousness. They live their lives consuming animals with whom they never have any direct contact. I'm surprised how often my friends and acquaintances decline to buy meat from me specifically because they have "met" my animals. Or they refuse to meet the animals because they think they might want to eat them or their progeny someday.
I'm conscious of my own strangeness when I walk out in my pastures, as I did this morning after filling the freezer, and feel a great joy rising in me as I stroll among the livestock and witness the little occurences that make up the fabric of their lives. Our tame little polled-hereford bull was bunched in among the cows when we walked out. They were in a social mood — rubbing their chins against each other's backs and grazing in a bunch. The grass is brown, right now, but the clover is green underneath. Nevertheless, when they raised their heads to look at us they had great wads of brown grass — mostly last summer's big bluestem — in their jaws.
Our border collie, Mop, likes to spend all her time among the livestock, and she's struck up a friendship with "Princess," our newest angus heifer. The two of them nuzzle and lick one another. It's probably not good training for a stock dog, but it's real cute and Mop's mostly just a pet anyway.
I feel no contradiction in my affection for the livestock and my appetite for their meat. I have something like a religious feeling for the process that begins with the soil and the sun, rises up through the cattle and sheep and becomes our Christmas dinner, and in turn contributes to the vitality of my own wife, children and friends.
At Steve's Meats this morning the back parking lot was crowded with about 40 people gathered around the handling pens where farmers like me drop off their animals. In the pens were about 50 goats and sheep, and three or four cows. But the people crowded around the pens were not farmers. They spoke at least four different languages I could pick out but not recognize. They appeared to have come, not too long ago, from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
I've heard that for orthodox followers of the prophet Muhammed, animals must be butchered according to specific rules under the supervision of spiritual leaders. The crowd at Steve's this morning appeared to be a gathering of diverse followers of the Muslim faith, and they were haggling with a lean young Missouri stockman who had delivered the pen's population that morning in two big stock trailers. He appeared to know his customers well, and to enjoy them. I overheard him telling an elderly woman with the facial features of sub-Saharan Africa, "I know you have lots of money, so don't try to tell me you don't!" They laughed together.
One of the employees told me the scene was much the same every Friday morning. The young stockman has apparently made a specialty of the Islamic meat trade. Kansas City is nearby, and there are enough traditional Muslims there to create a demand. It looked like he'd probably purchased the animals at auction from a bunch of different ranchers. Once his buyer selected an animal and they agreed on a price, the stockman was paid and the butcher killed, skinned and quartered the animal. By the time I left, the earliest customers were taking their meat to their cars in big buckets and plastic bags.
Behind this colorful scene lies a religious practice that ensures the followers of the faith will remain familiar with the living, breathing, sentient sources of their food.
My wife and I talk every day about the interaction we've had with our livestock. We like to be familiar with the events of their lives. She'll tell me how the little doe goat "Buttercup" is starting to assert herself, butting the older does aside to get a hand-fed treat. Or I'll report on the strangely affectionate relationship between our ram, Duke, and the mule, Zero, who guards the sheep and goats. (I don't refer to Zero as "our mule." Zero wouldn't approve.)
Ultimately, we share our lives with these animals. And they, in a far more explicit way, share their lives with us.
Photo by Bryan Welch
Rather than making me sad, this somehow makes me feel an immortal part of the miraculous natural setting in which I live. My exposure to death — the death of animals for whom I've cared — does not make me fear death. Perhaps it should. Instead, I have a feeling that my animals become part of a bunch of people I know, and I feel optimistic to have my body become part of other living things once I'm done with it — or it's done with me.