Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was a vegetarian. Then I became a farmer, and it completely changed my food attitude.
Over the next few weeks I’ll explain why raising livestock and growing produce reformed my view of food politics and subsequently the way I eat.
“Vegetarian” is a broad term that covers a wide spectrum of non-meat eaters. At the far left are vegans, who do not consume any animal products what-so-ever. Moving right on the spectrum, you’ll find ovo and lacto vegetarians, which allow eggs and dairy respectively. To the far right are “vegetarians” who eat fish, which everyone else considers meat. Plenty of folks sit somewhere in between right and left. It goes to show just how varied vegetarian diets can be.
As a vegetarian I leaned to the left. I used to describe my vegetarian diet as, “I don’t consume anything with eyes, except potatoes.” To me that meant eggs (potential eyes), meat (definite eyes), and dairy (source has eyeballs). But that all changed when I became a farmer.
My husband and I bought our farm in February. In March, the first flock of Silver Laced Wyandotte laying hens arrived. If there is any doubt in your mind that chickens are
designed to live in a natural environment, seek out a free-range farm and watch poultry delight in the natural world. I love watching “my girls” bask in the sun and take dust baths as the roosters bug hunt in the barnyard. At Dickie Bird Farm, we do not administer antibiotics or hormones to our birds, but they never get sick. I attribute their high level of health to low-stress, clean living.
Before I farmed, I didn’t eat eggs because I hated the idea of hens confined in a laying barn. I was suspicious of the supermarket’s brilliant white eggs, and their neon pink stamps of approval.
Exactly five months after I began raising poultry, smooth brown eggs with delicious deep yellow yolks filled my fridge and my belly. Farming enables me to enjoy eggs as thank-you-gifts from “my girls” for the happy, quality life I provide them.
In the 1980s Fuddruckers Restaurants had in-house butcheries. My dad took my sister and me to Fuddruckers for an educational evening out. I vividly remember a wall lined with large glass windows that gave customers a clear view of the hanging room. He pointed to the hanging beef carcasses and said, “See where burgers come from?” In retrospect I admire my dad for trying to connect the dots in his little city-girl’s minds.
Average consumers don’t know much about the death and processing of livestock for meat. Before the field trip with my dad, you could have counted me as one of them. As a vegetarian, I kept meat out of sight and mind. But that all changed when I became a farmer.
Today we raise chicken and turkey for meat. My husband and I slaughter and dress the birds on our farm. We typically process birds 2 or 3 times a year. As a famer, I am proud of our healthy, home-grown meat for three reasons:
First, I have participated in the entire life cycle of the animal. I rest assured knowing the animal has lived a good life and a humane death. Second, small-scale sustainable processing is nothing like industrial-sized assembly line slaughter. Poultry is not widgets, and should not be processed the same. Last, I am in complete control. I am certain every single bird is healthy before it is butchered. I sanitize the slaughtering equipment and butchering area so I could eat off it, because fundamentally I do. Additionally, processing fewer birds takes less time, less people, and means less exposure to pathogens.
In conclusion, being a vegetarian allowed me to skirt responsibility because it put meat out of sight and mind. Farming helped me understand that vegetarianism is not a solution to the protein problem. Sustainable production and processing of protein is.
Average consumers don’t know much about the death and processing of livestock for meat. But a new push towards local, fresh and environmentally friendly food, promotes eater-awareness in where their burgers come from.
Remember neighborhood hog killings? Let’s bring that back.
Participating in the death and processing of an animal for food deepens a person’s appreciation not only for meat, but also the life of livestock. Farmers are in a unique position to educate consumers on what it takes to turn pig to pork chop. Providing friends, neighbors and customers an opportunity to participate in the death and processing of an animal on the farm is a fantastic way to educate consumers. A cattleman’s explanation of what makes “grassfed” beef a healthy choice for humans and the environment can have a huge impact on consumers buying decisions. Knowledgeable, friendly farmer-educators just might change the way consumers eat.