Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Birth and death

I think of summer as an easy time for farming. We aren’t fighting the cold and lamb death by starvation. We aren’t fighting the risks of pregnancy, labor and delivery. We aren’t constantly on the watch for metabolic diseases or worms and other parasites. If we’ve been good shepherds, the only animal deaths we face during the summer months are those we impose on the animals. Deaths we choose for them.

What kind of a disconnect exists in the brains of farmers that allows us to nurture a cute, cuddly lamb for three months and then sell it for slaughter. I could say we sell that lamb for meat, but that sanitizes the process. If I am to be completely honest, we sell it for slaughter. That’s why meat processing facilities used to be called slaughter houses.

Jiana, a young friend of ours, dissected a chicken wing at school. She came home that night and said to her parents “Do you know where that chicken came from? The grocery store!” Jiana became a vegetarian that day.

When our girls were little and we only had a few lambs each year, they always named the lambs, even the boys that we knew we wouldn’t add to the flock, and I only served “meat” not lamb or beef or heaven forbid “White Boy.” They both eventually became vegetarians for awhile. Dave and I eat very little meat, more for nutritional reasons than for ethical reasons. The girls and their families have moved back to more omnivorous life styles.

But I am always aware of the fate of our lambs. When we have a buyer, we bring the lambs in from the pasture. They circle the barn and trot through the door into the barn where it has always found warmth, security, and safety. We pen them in a corner and a Bosnian or Somali man steps forward to make his selection. We weigh the lamb and agree on a price. Then Dave helps carry the lamb to the corner of the barn yard where it’s new owner cuts the lamb’s throat.

The lamb looses consciousness in seconds bleeds to death in a minute or two. The fifteen minute process between pasture and death is much shorter than any meat processing facility can provide. Selling the lamb to a meat buyer away from my home involves herding, trucking, herding, selling, trucking, and a final herding into the abattoir.

Scientist, Temple Grandin, has worked her entire career to improve the conditions of animals at processing facilities, redesigning the building, the handling equipment, even sound and light control to keep the animals calm.

Our goal is to shorten the end of life process to minutes, to not subject our animals to the stress of transportation and to sell them from the security of their own barn yard, their own barn. Our technique assuages my guilt, but doesn’t eradicate it. I am, after all, responsible for seventy-five lamb deaths this summer, way more than would happen by those natural causes that I fight so hard against in winter and spring.

I once knew a farmer who shifted from raising beef cattle to raising strawberries. “I’d lie awake nights before taking my cattle to market,” he said. “I don’t lie awake for strawberries.” I could never raise strawberries; I don’t like weeding well enough. But I don’t like killing animals either. It is good that we sell lambs in the summer, right up until the time we put the rams and the ewes together for breeding because then the death of lambs is vivid in my mind as we begin planning for the birth of lambs.

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