Thursday, September 15, 2016

Some Thoughts on a Visit to a Slaughterhouse, on a Long & Trying Day as a Farmer

Right is right, even if everyone is against it.  Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it.  This thought greatly influences my actions in divisive situations.  I keenly dislike being involved in disagreements, but I have become more comfortable speaking out when someone's words or actions are unacceptable.  I detest when others make judgements without accurate knowledge or understanding.  I have been in several uncomfortable situations where my own family members have turned on me when I would not join their bandwagon to hate on someone.  Because I try to judge individuals with accuracy based on both their good qualities and their poor qualities, I refuse to jump to a judgement of any form without knowledge.  This has led to strained relationships with some of my extended family, when I would not wholesale condemn those they disliked. In turn, it has made me more willing to stand by my instincts & analysis, and has eventually led me to understand that people who judge without reason are not people I need in my world.  I am at peace with that, even if it creates difficulty to some extent for me.

I share that personal reflection to offer some understanding of how I recently became involved in a social media firestorm over a slaughterhouse in Hilliard.  The Columbus media has recently covered the story of a gentleman who has purchased 5.136 acres (the figure which I found on the County Auditor's website), and has started an on-farm slaughter facility.  This gentleman is residing in the home on the front of the property (per the Columbus Dispatch), and has animals and a small custom slaughter facility on the back part of the property.  From interviews conducted by the local broadcast news & print media with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the regulations have been met for this custom on-farm facility, and the owner is also in compliance with necessary codes for Division of Meat Inspection and Ohio EPA.  As the property is over five acres, it meets the land requirement for a business to be classified as agricultural exempt -- meaning that it is regulated by agricultural codes. 

A few days ago, one of my best friends posted an article on social media related to this business -- and many people commented on it in a manner that was derogatory toward livestock production and meat processing.  I replied to comments asserting that slaughterhouses are a key part of the farm community, that they provide jobs & pay taxes, and that they offer food to our community.  I consistently maintained that if this business has met the needed regulations & codes, that I would encourage the neighbors to simply give it a chance -- knowing that the Department of Agriculture would absolutely shut it down if it was not meeting legal standards.  This led to some negativity directed toward me in further comments, despite my efforts to provide perspective and keep asking that people simply give this business a chance.  Beyond that, those who were opposed to the business kept saying it was unethical, without giving any factual information on how it was unethical.  

I raise livestock, I ran a slaughterhouse, and I care about the farm community.  I also strongly dislike seeing people judged based on speculation and not fact.  Thus, I reached out to the new slaughterhouse, and yesterday I went for a visit.  Considering that I was simply interjecting myself into their business day, the workers were very polite.  There were three with whom I spoke, two of whom were just part-time help for a busy week.  I talked shop with the third gentleman (whom I understand assists with managing the operation), and he shared with me how sales had been lately.  I visited briefly with a couple who had gotten an animal processed and were departing.  I also visited with a gentleman who was getting ready to purchase a lamb.  I did not get to speak in depth with the owner, as he was interfacing with the Meat Inspector onsite.  

It is funny how I still have an immediate reaction when I pull up to a processing facility and see that state car that indicates a meat inspector is onsite.  I shift into the perspective of looking at the location thinking how an inspector would see it.  When I managed a slaughterhouse, I tried to keep myself educated on regulations and learned to perceive the business as the inspector in charge would.  Oddly enough, I immediately slipped into this perspective again yesterday as I viewed this business.  I started observing scents and sights and sounds, formulating how this business would be reviewed.  There was an aroma of livestock and processing -- much as any agricultural endeavor has an aroma.  There was a dumpster onsite for waste, just as there had been for the slaughterhouse I ran.  Animals were housed under cover, and seemed content.  There were other animals in the field behind the facility.  Nothing was untoward from my initial observations.  I did not see the carcasses laying about of which neighbors have spoken, nor did I see entrails strewn across the back pasture.  The absence of buzzards indicated that there had not been entrails strewn there in the last few days at minimum.  There was no river of blood, there were no distressed animals visible, and there was nothing from my initial observation that was alarming.

I am sorry that this new business has been so distressing to some of its neighbors.  It is never good to experience change you cannot control in your neighborhood.  I would not want to live on that road myself, but for a far different reason: across the road a new subdivision with many, many houses is being built.  I would much rather live next to a slaughterhouse than next to a subdivision.  I recognize that nothing I am sharing will likely change the minds of the neighbors who are residing next to this slaughterhouse.  I would once again simply ask that they give this business a chance.  If the owner violates codes, it will be shut down.  From my work experiences, I have a great deal of confidence in the Department of Agriculture -- and particularly after all the media attention on this slaughterhouse, the Division of Meat Inspection would certainly not let issues slide at this establishment.

So . . . If the business is following all necessary codes, if the landowner has more than the minimum acreage needed for this operation, if we advocate for personal property rights, and if everything appeared copacetic from my own observations . . . why is this such a controversial issue?  I would point to two reasons.  First -- and my biggest concern relative to local foods -- as a society we have become very disconnected from agriculture, and particularly from meat processing.  It used to be that there was a small slaughterhouse in every community, and being a butcher was a skilled trade.  Now, these neighbors are a case in point that many people find a slaughterhouse to be somehow offensive.  This concerns me greatly.  Farming livestock is a noble endeavor and meat processing is a legitimate manner of providing food to our community.  Without local foods, we undermine America's food security.  I am very proud of the years I spent running a slaughterhouse, I am proud of the butchering skills that I have mastered, and I am proud that animals I have raised have fed so many people.

The other facet?  The owner of this business is an immigrant and a Muslim.  I do not want to believe that people are judging him based on those facts.  Alas, with the lack of clear evidence of regulatory violation, I cannot help but wonder if this gentleman is facing greater scrutiny due to his religion and his culture being different than the majority of the community.  It depresses me that logical objective analysis of this business has been replaced by subjective prejudice.  If the business is improperly run, it should be shut down, but not as influenced by prejudiced perceptions.  I worked too hard for too long at a legal slaughterhouse to have any patience for those who are outside of code.  Conversely, knowing how difficult it can be, I want to support others who approach this business legally.

I started this blog pieces hours ago as I waited on my SUV to be repaired.  I finish it having come into the house to sit down for lunch at 9:30pm.  That is my reality as a farmer.  When a day is difficult on the farm, it is my responsibility to manage it.  My day started when I responded to my neighbor Joseph's request for assistance with a goat.  I headed to his family's home to attend to the goat with the injured hoof.  As I drove back to my farm, I realized a ewe was down in the field.  As I tried to move this very pregnant sheep, my neighbor David drove by and offered his help.  He was obviously on an errand, but immediately pulled in to offer help when he saw me struggling.  I nursed the ewe all day, thinking that she would feel much better after delivering her lambs -- only to lose her late afternoon.  This triggered an emergency c-section in the hope of saving her babies.  They were big & they were beautiful, and alas they were already dead.  

I like days that bring healthy new babies.  I detest days that involve painful losses.  After the loss of the ewe and her lambs, I still needed to bury them.  I managed to drag the huge mother sheep only a few feet when I realized I could not get her out to the compost area by myself.  There in the yard, I managed the easiest solution, which was to remove her internal organs & front legs and carry them separately.  I am very honest about the work which I do, and the reality of the difficult parts of farming -- but you never know how someone could judge you if they do not take time to learn about what you are doing.  If someone photographed me dismembering a sheep in the barnyard, it would have looked quite questionable, even though it was a situation that is easily explained.  

Farming is life, and it is death.  Farmers work long hours, in difficult conditions, for little pay.  I have given my life for this farm.  I work every day to look after the animals in my care.  It is not easy, in any way.  There are beautiful moments that keep me going, and struggles that are overwhelming.  No one can prepare you for what it is like when you yourself have to end the life of an animal you love because it is suffering.  It is only through life experience that a farmer comes to understand their own ethics in raising animals for meat, and finding peace with the circle of life.  There is no text book and no professor that can teach this.  And there is no training for a farmer to find the strength to go without their own medical care and groceries, because they have put the needs of their animals first and exhausted their financial resources.  This is the reality of farming.  It is tough, especially for someone who does it alone.  Most farmers I know work with their spouse, or their parents, or their siblings, or their children.  I do not have those options, and thus I have even more appreciation for the help of my neighbors.  

I could not operate this farm without the kindness of my neighbors, and I try to reciprocate.  They are not perfect -- and I am certainly not perfect in any way, not as a neighbor or a farmer or a Christian -- but we help each other as we can.  I am absolutely sure I have done things which they have questioned.  As if butchering sheep on the lawn is not crazy enough, I am notorious for doing the morning chores in my bathrobe & pajamas.  Despite such eccentricities, my neighbors have been supportive of me and my farm.  We have different faiths, we have different families, we came to this community at different times.  And we support each other despite such differences.  I cannot imagine if my neighbor Joseph had told me this morning of his goat's injury, and I did not respond because we are of different faiths.  I cannot imagine if my neighbor David had watched me struggling with the mama sheep in the field, and immediately jumped to conclusions that I was an unethical farmer.  When you are a farmer -- when you live in the farm community -- you will be much more successful if you learn to work with and support your neighbors.

Friends, judging others without trying to understand them is unacceptable.  When you see something that concerns you, ask about it.  Learn.  Expand your horizons so that you can better discern a situation.  Value those around you.  My farm would not exist -- I could not exist -- without the good people who help and support me.  They have taken time to learn who I am and what I value.  I owe it to these friends to offer the same to the others in my world.  Complaining is an easy route that takes no effort.  Learning does take effort, but makes life more worthwhile.  It took time out of my schedule for me to actually go and interact with the people at the new slaughterhouse, but I am glad that I investigated the situation myself to be able to better understand it.  I want to be a person who offers this courtesy to others -- not someone who judges a situation without trying to better understand it.

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