Friday, July 17, 2015

The Circle of Life

I was recently interviewed for a local non-farm magazine, and one of the questions that I was asked is one that I often hear: how do you find peace with the slaughter process when it is obvious you love your animals?  I am very comfortable raising animals for meat, I work hard to raise my livestock well, and I am proud that I have the skills to personally butcher my own meat.  To be able to say that, though, has been a journey for me.

When I was a child, my grandfather was raising hundreds of sheep at Harrison Farm.  I loved to spend time with him on the farm, and he was quite appreciative of a willing helper.  I learned quickly as a child how to drive a tractor, castrate a lamb, stack hay in the barn, and trim hooves on sheep.  I knew that my grandfather's father had earned extra income as a butcher, but my only connection to meat processing as a child was simply the knowledge that the sheep were raised for meat.  It was on my 21st birthday that I actually ate lamb for the first time!  As an adult, however, it became very important to me to better understand the products that I raised.  Thus, I eventually followed in my great-grandfather's footsteps and began processing my own meat.

When I began raising my own herd of goats as an adult, I started with a small group.  There is nothing cuter in the world than a baby goat, and I became attached to all the babies born that first year -- even the three boys.  I initially hated the thought of selling them for meat.  Nature, though, seems to prepare us for every task.  All these years later, I still learn the lesson every season that the adorable baby boys grow into aggressive beasts that head butt me leaving painful bruises, knock over buckets of grain wasting valuable feed for the herd, and relentlessly bother the adult females as soon as testosterone kicks in.  These traits become nature's way of telling me that it is time for the boys to fulfill their destiny.


When I began to work at the slaughterhouse, I initially thought I would just do paperwork.  Then I thought I would package the meat, but not cut it.  That evolved into doing basically every task except those on the kill floor.  Eventually, though, I realized that a responsibility of managing a business is understanding every task that you ask of your employees.  Thus, I began working the kill floor and doing everything from bleeding to skinning to eviscerating.  When you work on a kill floor, it forces you to examine your feelings about life & death.  I knew how hard I worked to raise my own animals.  As I began to buy animals from other farmers for the slaughterhouse, I realized that my experience was not unique -- livestock farmers are a remarkably dedicated group that will forego their own personal wishes to ensure that their animals are well.  If it a holiday, animals must be fed.  Whether the farmer is healthy or sick, the animals still need care.  Even if a farmer wants to take a vacation, animals must have attention.  

Along with the recognition that farmers work incredibly hard to raise their animals well, I also gained the understanding that humane slaughter is a quick & respectful end.  I openly use the term "love" when I speak of my sheep & goats.  I care for the mothers on a daily basis and know their individual nuances. I look after the babies from their birth, and spend long days -- and late nights -- ensuring their health.  It is important to me that they receive prudent care during their life and that they are shown respect in death.  The humane standards under which American slaughterhouses operate are dedicated to ensuring that death is quick & respectful for the animals that offer their life to provide nourishment for humans.  Working on a kill floor permitted me to completely understand the role that animals play in the circle of life, it forced me to contemplate my own role, and it allowed me to gain skills to be able process meat -- thus feeding my family & my community.  I work hard to earn money to buy quality feed & hay for my goats, and in my "free time" I labor in my barn to provide good care for my animals.  Eventually I know that I will die, and the worms will eat me, and their efforts will improve the grasses, that will ultimately feed more animals.  It is truly a circle of life.

This week I sold five goats & a lamb.  They were healthy & hearty creatures.  I am extremely proud of the hard work that I put into raising them, and I am grateful that they grew into fine creatures.  I miss how adorable they were as babies -- but I still have a massive bruise on my arm that reminds me of their aggressiveness as adults.  They will nourish people in my community, and their sale allows funds to support the rest of my herds.  I am grateful that my grandfather taught me the importance of investing hard work into raising animals.  I am fortunate to have had opportunities that allowed me to discern my own feelings about the value of life & the experience of death.  My only regret as I sent those boys down the road to the auction this past week was that I did not get to eat them myself.  It is gratifying as a farmer to see successful results from hard work!

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Confederate Battle Flag

Full disclosure: my favorite book since the age of 8 has been Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  I fell deeply in love with the story as a child, and as an adult I am still fascinated by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.  My enthusiasm for the story extends to the movie as well, and I value it as the story of a deeply flawed character who refuses to give up despite the challenges placed in her way.  I have a (nearly) life size poster of Rhett Butler in my office, I have numerous books about the movie, and I posses an endless array of Scarlett & Rhett items (even a Christmas tree ornament of a teddy bear named Rhett Beartler).  When my mother was alive, we usually watched the movie together over Christmas break.  One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Scarlett tries to find Dr. Meade to assist with Melanie's terrible childbirth as the City of Atlanta is under siege.  She races to the train depot, where she finds complete chaos and endless rows of dead and dying men.  The camera focuses on Scarlett's complete dismay and total fear as she observes the death around her, and then -- using a specially developed camera for a memorable long shot -- it pulls back to show the hundreds of bodies piled up at the train depot.  As that long shot concludes, a tattered Confederate battle flag is shown flying above the scene of death below.  

For the historian in me, that scene from a fictional movie captures the existence of the Confederate Battle Flag during the time that the Confederate States of America existed.  The people who flew it were humans -- humans who experienced joy and pain and folly, just as we do today.  My direct ancestors fought for the Union, but their cousins still in Virginia fought for the Confederacy.  It truly was a war that divided families, ruined lives, and set our country back developmentally.  I am not offended when I see the Confederate Battle Flag depicted in a historical manner: example given, at the Alamo there is a collection of the seven flags that have flown over Texas, including the flag of the Confederacy.  I do, however, applaud the state of South Carolina for removing the flag from being flown under state auspices at their capital.  The reality is that this flag is the emblem of a defeated nation; it should not fly in an official capacity.

During the time I spent as a McCloy Fellow in Germany, I was intrigued by the efforts of the German people to learn from their country's actions that led to World War II.  The German people have worked to renounce the atrocities, learn from them, and move forward.  The historic sites which we visited were very straight forward in explanations of historic fact.  The German people of today seem to own the past in order to learn from it, and then move forward away from it.  The old axiom is true that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.  

I thought of my time in Germany this morning, and my observations on that country's efforts to learn from its own divisive history.  The Wall Street Journal carried articles today on the signing of the law to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the South Carolina capital, as well as another article on efforts to remove other symbols from the Confederate era.  I wholeheartedly support removing the flag from a state capital: the insignia of another nation -- and one that tried to defeat our own -- should not fly in an official capacity.  Nor should it be used for political purposes that detract from our efforts as humans to promote a society of understanding, love, and respect.  The historian in me, however, is quite concerned to see further efforts to remove all Confederate symbols.  If we remove our history, we cannot learn from it, and we set up future generations to repeat it.  History must be a continual education for those of us in present times, that we might create a better future.  

When I read Gone with the Wind, it is clear how the author utilized older characters to try to tell the young how terrible war truly is.  The young men are full of fervor for battle, convinced that they know best -- and they ignore the older generation who is opposed to war having lived through the Mexican-American War and the Cherokee uprising.  As the book plays out, it becomes clear that those voices of experience who argued against war were the wise ones. This fictional interpretation illustrates the folly of ignoring history.  History happened.  Learn from it, and become a better person.  Be a part of building a better world for the future.  We must make wise decisions to improve our world -- even our own individual daily choices -- and unless we learn from our common history as humans, we can never move beyond the poor choices of previous generations.