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The Omnivore Vegan: "No Meat"

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Tove K. Danovich
Tove K. Danovich

-Tove K. Danovich

This essay is the first part in a series about veganism, humane farming, and animal agriculture in the United States.

New sections from "The Omnivore Vegan" will appear every Thursday on Food Politic.

When most people think of a farm, it's fresh eggs and produce in the morning, milking cows, and, sometimes, sending animals to slaughter. Not so if you're an intern at Farm Sanctuary, a vegan-run haven where rescued animals live out their days free from the possibility that a human would eat their eggs or even shear their wool for a warm winter sweater.

Located in Watkins Glen, NY, Farm Sanctuary has an almost perfect creation story. Founders Gene Baur and his then-wife Lorrie Houston raised initial funds by selling vegetarian hot dogs from the back of a VW bus outside Grateful Dead concerts. They rescued their first animal during a trip to the Lancaster stockyard in Pennsylvania in 1986. Hilda the sheep was found near-death on a downer pile, where animals too weak to stand or be sold at auction are left to die.

Since then, Farm Sanctuary has expanded its reach to both coasts -- the first Watkins Glen shelter, another in Orland, Calif., and the newest one outside Los Angeles. In their last financial statement, they received over $8.7 million in funding, making them one of the largest pro-vegan organizations in the United States. Yet, outside of the animal rights world, the name seems largely unknown. It wasn't until I began researching veganic agriculture, putting the search term "vegan farm" into Google, that I stumbled across them.

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In my real-world life in Brooklyn, I live in an apartment and have not just one but three roommates. A vegetarian couple is in the first room, a vegan on the other side, leaving me -- the only omnivore -- stuck in the middle. If 3.2 percent of Americans are vegetarian, this set up is a far cry from the norm.

I began to think twice before buying meat at the grocery store. Would it make things awkward? What if I ran out of time after breakfast and had to leave without washing the bacon out of my pan?

All of us stayed far away from the subject of meat in conversation. We instinctually knew it was the best way to keep the peace. For me, subtle signs like a panhandle wrapped in scotch tape reading, "NO MEAT!!" made it hard to forget. But as I spent an increasing number of hours reading about food, I began to wonder why vegetarianism had never stuck. Almost every friend I had no longer ate meat and somewhere I'd been left behind.

In middle school, I'd become pescatarian for two years, shocking my extended North Dakota family who wondered if I'd still be able to eat chicken. In eighth grade, when we were supposed to poke at frog organs in biology, I snuck into school before class and plastered anti-dissection posters onto the blue lockers of Whitefish Bay Middle School.

Yet somewhere along the line, one of two things had happened. Either my belief in vegetarianism had become too weak to make me shun burgers or my stepdad's BBQ chicken or I'd stopped being able to connect those videos of animals in factory farms with the meat I saw in the store.

And I needed to know which one it was and why.

I couldn't think of a better way to learn about not eating meat than to go to a place like all-vegan Farm Sanctuary. While you didn't have to be vegan in your "real life" (as we called it on the farm), to intern you had to commit to living by a 100 percent animal-free lifestyle. This meant no leather, no eggs, no honey. I couldn't have bath products that weren't cruelty free, I couldn't wear silk, and, even if I'd gone in the winter, I definitely couldn't wear wool.

To some extent, industrialized agriculture had produced an increase in two groups: one who refused to take part in raising animals for food and another that wanted to do it better. Somewhere along the line, each group's dislike of factory farming had transformed into a dislike of each other, too.

While I was curious about the other side's philosophy, I wasn't planning on converting. No, this was more like trying on a shoe two sizes too small, just to be absolutely sure it looked ridiculous.

The rhetoric of both groups might focus on the evils of industrial agriculture, CAFOs, and the treatment of animals as machines, but they've been in conflict more than they've worked together.

I believed in the thing people have started calling "humane agriculture" and I, too, had often seen vegetarians and vegans as my enemy.

In my mind, by refusing to support the movement of small farmers practicing real animal husbandry, they were taking away from a consumer push that might finally change an industry that raised animals as machines. I was giving those large companies a new movement to invest in while all they were doing was eating vegetables.

It felt too idealistic to imagine that the world would become vegetarian much less vegan; without a path everyone was willing to follow, factory farming would continue. Couldn't they see that it was more practical to be on my team?

I'll admit that I may not have gone in to my internship with the most open mind. On the bus to Ithaca, I'd brought leftover food that would have otherwise gone to waste over the next six weeks. This included a few apples and the last of a reindeer sausage I'd purchased in Norway. The night before that, I'd eaten a New York skirt steak after work.

When Becky, the intern coordinator, picked me up for the hour-long ride to Watkins Glen, she asked me, "How long have you been vegan?"

I paused for a moment, thinking of the empty sausage wrapper I'd just thrown in the trash, "Well," I said, "I am now."

Part Two: "A Chicken in Every Pot"

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