Friday, May 6, 2016

The Tough Realities of Farming

As I walked up from the compost pile, with a stomach in one hand and a knife in the other, while covered in so much blood it had soaked through my overalls to my pajama pants underneath, it occurred to me that with my luck this would be the moment when a visitor would stop by Harrison Farm.  It was not even ten seconds later that I saw Auntie's big white Cadillac pulling into the barnyard.  She kindly inquired if I was trying to save an animal or if I had lost one.  I gently shared with her the reality of my difficult day as a farmer.  Unfortunately, the carcass lying a few feet away was proof positive that I had failed in my efforts to save this goat -- and the chickens were fighting over the lungs just a few feet from the driver's side door of the Cadillac as I spoke with my aunt.

I love to share the joys of farming.  There is nothing that makes me happier than welcoming friends to my farm and introducing them to my beloved animals.  Alas, sometimes the realities of farming catch up with me.  Not every day is a blissful one with adorable babies and healthy mothers.  Most days are rife with the usual frustrations of my world: sheep that waste feed, goats that knock me over, chickens that break eggs, water lines that do not work, old buildings that desperately need repair.  Some days, though, are particularly tough ones.  These days force me to acknowledge the reality of farming.

On the day in question, I took Bonnie Blue Pooch on her morning walk to the barn when we awoke, in order to turn off the night lights and check water buckets.  I observed that Mercy the Goat (in her first pregnancy) had a little hoof emerging from her.  I returned Bonnie to the house and pulled my overalls on over my pajamas -- expecting that this would be a quick exercise in helping a first time mother welcome her firstborn into the world.  Two hours later, Mercy & I were both exhausted from a failed labor.  It was becoming obvious to me that she would not -- she could not -- deliver this baby.  I called my neighbor, who kindly stopped by and confirmed what I feared: nature had completely screwed this one up.  The mother was small, it was her first time, and her baby was so giant that she could not pass it through her birth canal.  The day before she had been a beautiful goat awaiting her first offspring; now she was exhausted and in pain.  I could not rectify what nature had cruelly put upon her.

I am a farmer who raises animals for meat, and I have butchered hundreds of animals in my life.  I want my animals to have a pleasant life and a quick end.  I cannot bear to see them suffer.  I could not bear to see Mercy Goat in pain, and the only solution was to end her pain by putting her down.  The reality is that each animal has the value of what it can contribute to the farm, and that same standard applies to me as well.  If I had sold Mercy, she likely would have brought about $100.  To get a vet to come to the farm, it is a minimum $75 farm call fee just to get them there. To diagnose, medicate, and do surgery would have run a thousand dollars or more very quickly.  I do not have the funds to provide each animals with this type of medical care (even I receive very basic medical care myself!), and there are fewer and fewer vets who do this kind of work with livestock.  The last time I had a terrible labor and I asked a vet to come to the farm, the vet declined the opportunity.  That was the day that I realized that if I was to have livestock, that I had to be competent enough to provide all their care.  And when nature works against me, and I cannot save an animal, I have to be brave enough to provide it with a quick end.

I took my butchering knife, and ended Mercy's pain with a quick stroke of the knife to her carotid & jugular.  This immediately renders the animal senseless, and she bled out quickly.  As soon as reasonable, I performed a Caesarean section in the futile hope of saving the baby.  It had likely died, however, long before.  Perhaps if I had put Mercy down when I first found her, I might have saved the baby -- but I could not have known at that point what lay ahead and just how bad the situation was for Mercy.  The baby was giant.  It was absolutely unthinkable that this petite first time mother would have created such a baby.  In my pajamas & overalls, kneeling in the grass of the barnyard, with a dead mother and a dead baby in front of me, covered in their blood, I had a very significant crying jag.  Katherine before coffee is always a bit scary.  Katherine covered in blood all the way from her overalls to her glasses having a crying jag before coffee is an intensely scary experience.

I wanted Mercy's life to have value, so I then butchered her for my freezer.  She was a healthy animal, and her meat will nourish me so I have strength to work off-the-farm in order to earn money to buy more feed & hay to give to the animals that waste it and knock me down.  I will be sad to eat Mercy, but it is a reality of farming.  She was a good goat, and I will miss her.  I also wanted her child to have value, so I saved the baby to do a necropsy with my student assistant Kaity.  It is incredibly important to me to provide lessons to my interns and my student assistants on the reality & the value of the circle of life.  We are all a part of that circle of life, and learning the role of animals in it allows us to better understand our own role.  

I used the baby to share with Kaity some of the things that I see when a newborn arrives.  We discussed humane slaughter and I showed her how a proper ritual kill is done.  Then we opened up the baby so she could see the layout of the internal organs.  I taught her the trick to tell if a baby goat was born alive or dead: drop the lungs in a glass of water.  If it took breaths, the oxygen will cause the lungs to float.  Even in their death, we can learn things about animals.  Terrible losses weigh on me very heavy, and I was grateful to have Kaity's company after she got out of school that day.  I am incredibly fortunate to have amazing young people who work as my student assistants & interns.  Kaity knew my heart was sad, and she kindly kept my spirits up as we finished processing Mercy's meat.  

Several days prior to this, Kaity had given a presentation in her speech class on how to draw a goat using some pictures of our Harrison Farm goats.  I had asked her to make a picture herself that we could hang on the wall in the farmhouse.  It just happened that Kaity brought me her beautiful painting that day.  It was a tough day, it was a sad day, but it was a day that reminded me how fortunate I am to be at this farm.  To know one's place in the circle of life is a gift, and farming gives that to those who labor in service of the land and the animals.

I believe in my farm, and I believe in the animals and the humans who are a part of it.  I want to share with you that there are joys and frustrations and great struggles, but that this is the work to which I am called.  Through my efforts at this farm, I want to make the world a better place by enriching the lives of those around me through connecting them with animals and with farming.  I want to illustrate to you that farmers care deeply about their animals, that eating meat is an honorable part of the circle of life, that the hard work of farming bears great dividends to those who do the labor.  The reality is that farming is crucially hard work.  It is exhausting and it is physically back breaking.  I am usually tired, and in pain, and broke.  Yet I believe so deeply in farming, and I know I am living out my God-given purpose as a farmer.  I never fail to be filled with joy when my friends meet my baby animals, when my interns master new skills, and when I see myself carrying on the farming tradition of my family.  I hope that my writings allow you a window into the realities of farming, and I hope this encourages you to support the farmers in your own community.  It is the support of our communities -- and the love of our friends & families -- that allows us to keep farming.  And there is no endeavor as noble as the care of the earth and God's creatures.

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