While sitting in the hunting blind, my father's deer rifle resting across my thighs, I kept thinking of an accusation someone wrote to me months ago here. The comment came from a member of the Animal Rights movement. My life online as a farmer is public and whenever I post about raising animals for food, I hear from these folks. Usually their comments roll off my back like rainwater off a Toulouse, but this one had sharper teeth. I think about it often. It was so simple, and poignant and somewhat troubling. He said I raised animals for meat because "I enjoyed killing."
It made me think of an elementary school trip to a local river for a biology class. I watched in absolute horror as an unchaperoned student dropped a huge rock on a recently beached fish. The fish was still alive, just, and this kid chose to smite it like an angry god. I was too late to stop it but watched as the pitiful dying animal exploded into a slimy mess. I shot angry words at him, "Why did you do that?!" He said, calm as an accountant explaining a W-9, "I wanted to see what would happen? He was going to die anyway." At that moment I wanted to punch him as hard as I could, but was too afraid of him to take a step forward. I was disgusted at the unnecessary act of violence, but his calm reasoning for such horror scared me.
Decades later, sitting in a camouflaged hut--hoping beyond hope to shoot a deer--I was anticipating taking a life on purpose. Had I become that calculating boy with the rock?
You enjoy killing... The words make me shudder. And yet there I was, hunting. And this season a pig, a sheep, and several birds were slaughtered here for food. I helped other farmers process their animals as well. I know the inside of a chicken the way I know the pockets on my jeans. Death is as normal here as a spell of bad weather. It is temporarily unpleasant, but natural, normal, and most of all necessary. It does happen and I'm glad it does. Without it this small farm would be a petting zoo of horrors. It has changed me in many ways, certainly my thoughts on death, given me greater peace with it. Life isn't a movie you are the star of, farming taught me that. Life, with a capital L, is a constant cycle we are supporting characters in (at best). Those of us who forget that, or have never learned that, can draw hard lines in the sand based on species, but not many small farmers can. I have learned being glad about taking lives is not the same as enjoying killing.
While there are plenty of people living in cities who understand agriculture and its relationship with ecology, there are plenty who do not. I hear from the ones who don't. The modern animal rights movement appears to be a collection fervent pet owners far removed from a life with animals. Listen, living with a french bulldog in an apartment is not a life with animals. When I talk about a life with animals I mean living with and alongside nature and having to compete with other species to make a living. The people who criticize us are not dealing with the food chain unless they are ordering off a menu. It's a distance hard to take seriously from a deer blind in 18˚ weather, especially from an environmentalist's view.
If I take a doe I have just provided healthy food for me and mine a thousand feet away from where I sleep. Ordering pad thai in Boston with tofu shipped in diesel truck from California and spices flown in on planes is not the "green option," and we all know that. Nor is it the "cruelty-free" option either. Just because meat isn't on the plate doesn't mean a war-torn family in the Middle East isn't suffering so you can have a fossil fuel-based economy that flies exotic ingredients to your table.
Eating ethically is complicated and political and when I am told a meatless meal is morally superior to my doe's back straps it feels like talking to a child who never turned on the news. Eat in any way that feels correct to you, I do not care. Posts like this rise when the question of the morality of eating meat is questioned with farm-ignorant self-righteousness. Philosophy majors discussing war is weak tea to a soldier's story. I have seen first hand the complicated, cruel, dance that farming alongside nature makes you learn. I was vegetarian for nearly a decade, certain as could be, but didn't know the first thing about agriculture outside statistics and factory farming horrors. Things change when you go to war.
I do not enjoy killing. I am not the boy with a rock. The word we use around here is harvest and that isn't some adorable euphemism for murder. When you harvest corn or vegetables you do so after months of planning, hard work, and preparation. You order chicks from the hatchery the same time you order seeds from the catalog. You raise them both all through the seasons with the plan of taking their lives for food storage. This is a harvest, regardless if it ends in blood, bacon, or beans in a mason jar.
And that harvest is the reason I was concerned by that statement, because without a doubt I love sharing these meals with friends. Some women ogle over jewelry or clothes, but I leer at recipes and ingredients. Right now a leg of lamb is slow cooking with a bottle of homemade red wine and I'll be fasting all day just to prepare for such a fine dinner. It's a lamb that was born here, died here, and his mother was bred again and will give birth in early spring. I'm wearing a knit hat from the flocks' wool. I spent an hour outdoors this morning with them; feeding, watering, checking fences and noting they needed more loose minerals in their bin. A storm is coming tonight so I am canceling plans with friends to make sure I get a load of hay in the barn and their shelter prepared for the snow. I have tank defrosters to set up, hooves to trim, and lambing season to prepare for. If a coyote comes to claim one of those lambs, I will shoot it. If a neighbor's dog riles them up, I'll march that dog home and have some harsh words with his owner. This is my flock. It clothes me. It feeds me. I write about them, teach alongside them, my dog herds them as the greatest joy in his life. These are not beached fish I can't wait to drop a rock on.
If some broken synapse in your brain connects the happiness of a family sitting around the table with a lamb dinner with ruthless killing, you need to give yourself pause. The question is not if they enjoyed murdering an innocent lamb because during that meal they are warm, safe and surrounded by loved ones. That's about as logical as asking you if you enjoy necrophiliac grave-robbing because you like French fries? And the farther removed you are from my world the more you forget that every amazing meal, vegetarian or not, began with suffering and death. Just because the lamb looks more like your French bulldog doesn't make it a bulldog or more important than that plant. Nature doesn't believe in animal rights. It believes in balance.
I know this viscerally. I am telling you this from the front lines. It isn't about enjoying killing out here. It never has been. It's about understanding that your dietary choices do not elevate you above biology. You and I, we are animals. We are a part of their story, they are not a part of ours. And to judge from a distance is not solid footing for flaccid accusations.
The question to ask isn't if I enjoy killing because I am a small farmer. The question is are you terrified of death, because you aren't?