Of all the decisions we contemplated when we began farming a decade ago, choosing to farm livestock was the easiest. That meant we would care for livestock, and then eat animals we cared for.
There were four reasons why this path was so clearly right for us then, and continues to be today.
The first reason is that we love animals. All animals. One of the things we joked about when we first bought our sprawling acreage was that we could have as many pets as we wanted. Here I am holding one of our dogs back when we lived in a suburban HOA (when our clothes were always clean and I had an awesome head of hair) 🙂
My wife, Liz, is attracted to pet stores the way Winnie Mandela is attracted to shoes, so it was easy for us to dream of raising chickens, cows, pigs, sheep and any other animals we could get our hands on.
But if you love animals, you can’t eat them…can you?
How Can You Eat Animals You Love?
Our love of animals brings up a paradox for many people and leads into the second reason why we chose to raise (and eat) animals. The paradox is, how could we love an animal and yet kill it for its meat?
Get updates from Small Farm Nation!
When there's new free content, podcasts or videos, I'll let you know!
When it comes to eating meat there is a clear line of division among people. The majority, being products of an environment where meat is cheap and plentiful, think nothing of consuming it.
Then there are those who, acting mainly out of what they view as compassion for animals, choose to not eat meat. They derive their protein from other sources and take comfort in their perception that no life is harmed in order for them to eat.
In reality, it’s well known that countless lives of insects and mammals are sacrificed to sustain a vegetarian diet.
Even though vegetarians often tout perceived health benefits of their diet, in my view the health benefits are not the reason they originally sought a diet free of meat. Rather the decision was based on moral grounds, and it is these values that are put forth as a moral challenge to the world’s meat eaters with the claim that it is unethical to eat meat.
If you look closely at the reasons cited, vegans indeed have a point worthy of consideration. After all, the factory-farmed animals that give their lives for our dining pleasure endure, by most definitions, horrid existences.
Laying hens packed in battery cages unable to ever spread their wings or take a dust bath. Broiler chickens sardined with 30,000 other chickens in houses longer than football fields. Sows, separated from their babies by farrowing crates. All the factory-farmed pigs only knowing metal and concrete, never able to act on their instincts to root.
Then there’s the cows, who in some respects have it worst of all. Whereas the turkey, hen, broiler and pig only know an artificial climate-controlled world, virtually all cows in this country are born on pasture and nurse their mother. At weaning, the calf is separated from its mother and put on a double-deck trailer for a two-day trip. It hops off and is greeted by thousands of cows all standing knee-deep in muck and eating, not grass, but 32 pounds of antibiotic-laden grain per day.
Perhaps you can see how vegans and animal rights activists can make a valid argument that there are indeed ethical and moral consequences to consuming meat. And that doesn’t even get into the environmental issues associated with factory farming, as I debated with a PETA spokesperson in this Fox & Friends interview.
So why then do Liz and I feel so strongly that it is not only ethical, but also critical that we raise animals for human consumption?
If we chose to not eat meat, that decision would have flown smack in the face from how humans have evolved. Spare me the argument that “we don’t have to eat meat.” We have these incisors, canines and molars for a reason: we evolved as omnivores. And omnivores eat plants AND animals.
So, in my view it’s fair to put forth the moral challenge that meat should not be consumed, but it’s equally fair to consider a non-debatable truth: humankind evolved to the point we are at now by consuming protein from animals that lived or were raised naturally.
We didn’t want to play God with our evolutionary path, so honoring how we humans got here was the second reason we chose to eat meat.
But is it Morally Ethical to Eat Meat?
Having decided that we enjoy meat and dairy, let me turn to the core question raised not only by animal rights activists, but by ourselves as animal lovers. Is it morally ethical to consume animals?
It seems unreal to me that there was a time when we were blissfully unaware of what a CAFO was or that the animals that gave their lives for us lived such utterly tragic existences. How could we have been so blind?
Like most people in our society we had become unknowing participants in an industrial food system. This wasn’t voluntary on our part any more than was learning the English language. It was the environment in which we were raised and like most we never questioned it, at least not for a long time.
In one very important way, homesteaders and sustainable farmers are completely united with animal rights activists. We all share a complete and utter contempt for industrial factory farming methods.
But upon close examination of the ethical reasons often put forth that form the foundation of why meat should not be eaten, I find the compelling indictment is not against eating meat, but rather an indictment against factory farming methods.
Ironically, we share another common trait with so-called “animal rights” activists that we act on in diametrically opposed ways. That trait is a complete love of and respect for animals. But this love is expressed by animal rights supporters’ desire that no meat be consumed, with the obvious implication that no farm animal will experience life at all. It’s expressed by us as wanting to grant each animal a great, natural life, even though that life will one day end and nourish us.
So, fighting to ensure that animals can have the opportunity at a natural life is the third reason why we chose to raise livestock.
But the question hasn’t been answered. We obviously love these animals very much, so how could we kill them?
Beyond the fact that, as stated previously, we feel the need for animal protein, the answer is simple. The rare Ossabaw pigs (pictured above with Liz) we slaughtered as humanely as we could would have never experienced one breath of life had we not only granted the opportunity to them, but also worked to cultivate a market of consumers willing to ensure the survival of their breed by, ironically, eating them. They enjoyed life to the fullest and we enjoyed our time with them greatly.
The same is true for the slow-growing heritage turkeys that sustainable farmers lovingly raise, who would never know life if they did not create a market for their meat at Thanksgiving. Most people want their Butterballs at Thanksgiving and get them for pretty-much free, so it’s hard work raising heritage turkeys and cultivating a market for them. That’s Liz below enjoying the company of our free-range heritage turkeys.
At Thanksgiving, the lives of these heritage turkeys will end (believe me, I know), but at least they had a life. The “animal rights”/PETA alternative is, what…to deny life?
Yeah, that’s more humane. Right.
Clearly, in my view it is far less humane and morally unethical to deny life at all than to grant life and provide the conditions for animals to fully express their genetic characteristics and instincts.
Yet if “animal rights” supporters had their way the world would be vegan and every animal granted a beautiful life in our world would be nonexistent in theirs.
No, no, no! For us the right decision is to condemn factory farming methods, rather than ethical meat consumption. Our aim is to allow animals to enjoy a great life and then be great on the plate. And, just in case you’re wondering, we do name our animals.
Nature Doesn’t Farm Without Livestock
As Sir Albert Howard discovered and said, ““Mother Nature never farms without livestock.”
As I walked among the fields of our newly purchased farm in 2006, my eyes fixated on all that was wrong. Among the bulging clumps of fescue were expansive areas of hard, bare ground, large areas of briars and brambles, and a ubiquitous display of weeds unpalatable to a cow. As a novice farmer at the time, I sought guidance from books written over a half century ago by Sir Albert Howard and Andre Voisin, the 1959 author of what would become a classic conservation book entitled Grass Productivity.
Voisin made a compelling case for rotational grazing and putting grazing livestock with grass at the right stage of forage development for a limited time. Rotational grazing simply means frequently moving grazing animals such as sheep and cowsfrom one paddock to another, with the goal being to allow them to eat or trample forages in their paddock without having time to take a second bite of the plant.
So, beyond our perceived need for meat and our desire to give animals a great life, a fourth reason we chose to farm livestock was because we needed their help if we were to restore health to the land we now cared for. And if you’re gonna give livestock a purpose on the farm, you have to have a plan to harvest them later.
Factory farming is all about changing the environment; clearing land, putting up chicken houses, swine houses and feedlots, bringing animals in, importing feed. The result becomes a pollution problem at the factory farm and a lack of fertility problem on the land.
Natural farming is about using the right animal to do the right job. Putting pigs in the woods instead of clear-cutting, letting cows graze and harvest their own feed instead of trucking distant grain to them. Letting the fertilizer drop to the soil.
That kind of thing.
Animals belong on the land and in the woods, not on concrete slabs and in air-conditioned buildings. They have genetic instincts to root, graze, herd, breed and socialize. Just as we do. They deserve the right to live as naturally as they can, but, let’s be honest here, we humans got to the top of the food chain by consuming them.
Few people mourn the worm that the chicken plucks from the soil. Instead, we praise the bird as we cheerfully mock, “the early bird gets the worm.”
But the worm is dead and the chicken ate it. Then the mother fox eats the chicken as a hawk swoops in and plucks an untended baby fox. And so it goes in the circle of life.
Eating animals ethically is about respecting the traditional food chain, which, whether you like it or not, is a fact of life…and death.
So, in the end, who are the real animal rights supporters? Those who advocate denying life and abstaining from meat, or farmers who grant animals a natural life that ultimately ends?