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!

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