A word on compassion in farming

chicken tractor

Omnivorous Complications & Oversimplified Thinking

Along with the rising interest in where our food comes from and how it’s grown, many people are educating themselves about how farm animals are treated. For the most part, I’d say it’s a good thing. Many of our food animals are raised in absolutely unacceptable conditions.

However one consequence of this raised-consciousness is a lot of all-or-nothing, non-sensical thinking. Unfortunately, it’s easy to have black and white opinions when your experience is strictly philosophical.

Now, I’ve had my own misgivings about our omnivorous nature. One of my first jobs was in the kitchen at McDonald’s, and it wasn’t long before I was off meat, doing rock-paper-sizzors with the other vegetarians to be able to work the bun station instead of the grill. Something about regularly coming home smelling like a Big Mac makes one question their meat-eating habits. I figured I’d had a hand in killing enough cows during my tenure at the grill station and didn’t eat any pork or beef for six years.

Since then I’ve returned to eating meat, and we have raised our own fowl for sometime. The first time I came home to find one of my chickens in the crockpot, I cried. I married a man who grew up hunting, and that combined with my experience raising my own protein (although I admit I’m still too squeamish to do the deed – I’ll get there) has changed my attitude towards meat in general, and I can now truly understand how complicated the issue is.

When Good Intentions Go Wrong : Why abolitionists and farm animal sanctuaries miss the point

Lots of folks look at the horror of industrial animal production and believe the answer is to not eat meat altogether. This is completely understandable and natural. I have a deep respect for people who choose to abstain from meat and animal products. However, the abolitionist vegan point of view is underpinned by a major misunderstanding of sustainable farming, and the nature of farm animals in general.

If we want to get rid of all the harmful trappings of industrial agriculture, farm animals, FOOD animals, are an essential component of a small-scale, sustainable, deep-organic, ecologically sane food system. A small, essentially closed-loop farm like we aspire to be, requires an on farm source of soil-nutrition. Animals serve this purpose with simplicity, elegance and grace. This is how nature functions, and how our farms should, too.

Our animals not only provide us with essential manure and nutrients for the soil, they turn the soil, break pest cycles, harvest sun energy via the pastures, store that energy in their bodies, provide supplemental protein like eggs, renovate our pastures, manage potentially invasive weeds, turn our waste products into food and beautiful manure.

Our animals are here BECAUSE WE EAT THEM. The heritage breeds of chickens we raise have been bred for over 100 years to elegantly meet the needs of farmers just like us. If we didn’t eat them, they wouldn’t exist. Putting them away on a farm animal sanctuary robs them of their purpose and turns what could be a productive, purposeful life into one of consumption only.

My chickens live a good life. They are loved and well-fed. They are allowed to express their chicken-ness, breathe fresh air, eat green grass, preen, scratch for bugs, take dust baths, enjoy the companionship of other chickens, sleep in the sun. When it comes time for them to grace our table, we will enjoy them having a full-understanding and deep respect for the life that was given in order to sustain ours.

Death is an Essential Part of Life

We are all meant to live and die. Even I will be lunch one day. My body will feed the worms and the soil I will have lovingly tended all my life. We can see death as cruel and grotesque or as perfectly elegant and unwasteful. I prefer the later.

This simple truth of life – that everyone dies so that someone else may live, is a difficult one for us to face in modern society, and by our not facing it, we have convinced ourself that it is not true. This basic misconception about the nature of life can only have a negative impact on both our own lives and the quality of life of those around us. We must come to terms with it before we will learn to truly respect and honour life as a whole.

A word from Joel Salatin on Compassion in Farming

Joel Salatin is one of our guiding-inspirations here at the farm. We have been fortunate enough to meet Joel on a couple of occasions and even lucked out and got to eat dinner with him at one conference.

If you have watched Joel on YouTube, I can tell you he is exactly like that in person. Some who aren’t so ah – evangelical? about their farming practices might find him over the top (and he kind of is) but if you are passionate about food and farming, you will find him one of the most uplifting, inspiring people you will ever meet. He has a can-do attitude and doesn’t mince his words. You know where you stand when you’re talking to Joel.

Here’s the note from Joel:

May I vent a little bit? I had yet another run-in with an animal welfare group yesterday and want to use the exchange to help folks be aware that everything and everyone who uses the word compassion . . . isn’t.

Compassion in World Farming, an international organization begun in Great Britain, solicited me to participate in a pastured poultry effort in Georgia and New York City to get more chefs to use pastured poultry on their menus. Started by a dairy farmer in 1965, the organization was instrumental in banning numerous farm practices in Europe and has now turned its efforts toward the U.S., but not legislatively. Here, they are concentrating on individual business changes, and I applaud that.

As the U.S. representative and I talked, I smelled a rat. She told me they had two goals: highlighting best practices and raising baseline standards for poultry production welfare. Sounds nice enough.

One of the requirements is stunning prior to slaughter. There’s the rub. Stunning is a euphemistic way of saying “killing by gas or electrocution.” When you’ve grown up processing animals like I have, you soon realize there is a respectful way to dispatch an animal and a disrespectful way–indeed, it’s arguably more attitude than infrastructure.

At Polyface, we practice essentially a Kosher or Halal kill technique, with deep appreciation for the sacrifice being made that we, in turn, may live. This sacred life, death, decomposition, regeneration cycle is perhaps the most basic and profound foundation of ecology. Everything is eating and being eaten, whether digested in our stomachs, composted in a pile, or fed
through the alimentary canal of an earthworm.

When I pushed her on what she considered humane slaughter, she admitted that Halal and Kosher is all inhumane. This, of course, is the official position of Whole Foods and one of the reasons we refuse to do business with them. To say that every religion, ever prophet, and every hunter is inhumane is unreasonable and prejudicial. It shows an extreme disrespect and lack of appreciation for what could not even be accomplished until extremely modern technology like electricity and vacuum gas chambers.

Whenever you hear an animal welfare group tout “stunning” you need to read it “gassing or electrocuting.” What’s the problem? The problem is that these techniques don’t let the animal bleed out very well, which means you’re eating blood, the one thing even the Bible’s New Testament warns us against eating. This is not old law, it is new stuff. Furthermore, the
infrastructure required to do the gassing or bleeding is extremely expensive and far more risky to human workers. Apparently these groups would much rather jeopardize the safety of humans in their recommendations.

What if I don’t have electricity? Or what if I don’t want to subject my workers to risky procedures and risky infrastructure? To say that humane slaughter can only occur with electricity or lethal gas pushes all pastured poultry producers into a quagmire of cost, personal risk, and compromised product. Interestingly, she admitted that this notion grew out of the industrial processing system and the mechanical, disrespectful (toward animals) procedures used therein. Fair enough. But why tell me that in our artisanal, non-industrial, respectful on-farm processing shed we must adhere to an industrial infrastructure and idea?

In my view, electrocution or gassing certainly don’t portend an attitudinal difference in the workplace. They just complicate what would otherwise be a very simple task. Indeed, I would argue that these procedures create a segregation in what otherwise should be a deeply personal, connected task. The separation itself carries spiritual ramifications.

I find it fascinating that these kinds of groups would tell us at Polyface that we are inhumane for not gassing or electrocuting while they don’t even address the larger issues of, for example, food safety regulations that force processing to be done on such a scale that workers kill animals every day. Even the Old Testament Levitical priests did not kill animals every day–they took turns and drew straws for who would perform the sacrifices for a short period of time. I argue that it is not healthy emotionally or spiritually to kill animals every day. Show me one animal welfare group, from Humane Society in the U.S. to Compassion in World Farming, who is willing to take on the food regulators for creating a small-scale prejudicial system? I’ve never heard it addressed . . . by any of them. They’d much rather create a bunch of anal additional protocols and accuse Polyface of inhumane practices–we’re a much easier target.

In fact, these organizations love more regulations. In doing so, they aid and abet the very industrial system they seem to decry. If you want to change something, go for the easy stuff first. A system that makes industrial scale the only viable economic alternative is fundamentally flawed. Why fritter away time and membership dues telling Polyface we’re inhumane if we don’t gas or electrocute? We don’t gas and electrocute for specific reasons: worker safety, product  integrity, religious authenticity. If you want to pick a fight over that, come on.

But may I suggest that these groups would be more effective if they’d strike at the heart of the industrial food system instead of nibbling around the edges? Am I wrong to refuse to support a group promoting pastured poultry in restaurants but who thinks I’m fundamentally inhumane myself? Am I being overly sensitive, not seeing the big picture, not appreciating that we agree on many things? I hope I’m not becoming a frustrated curmudgeon. That is why I’m sharing this glimpse into my life and the decisions we must make. They aren’t always easy. In the end, I find it hard to join in with a group that looks me in the eye and tells me I’m inhumane, all the while refusing to take on government regulations that push processors into worker-destroying industrial models.

I don’t want to just play games. I want to deal with the heart of the matter. I’m accused, in this debate, of being disagreeable and refusing to be a team player; of being too individualistic and majoring on minors instead of majoring on majors. But why can’t these groups major on the majors?–like striking at the heart of industrial processing plants, where mega-scale is itself a major toxin to both food and people? I would rather have all poultry processed like we do here at Polyface than have a single industrial-scale facility. To say that we’re inhumane but a large industrial plant is fine because it gasses and electrocutes is asinine. That, dear folks, is why I don’t participate with virtually ANY animal welfare groups. What starts out as all warm and fuzzy becomes squirrely at the end and I want to stay laser focused on the big issues, the low-hanging fruit, what we should all agree on. If you want to electrocute or gas, that’s okay with me. I don’t agree with it, but I certainly wouldn’t ask for laws to change it.

All I ask is reciprocal respect for my position. In the end, I think gassing and electrocution vs. Halal and Kosher is so far down on the issues scale it shouldn’t even register as part of the animal welfare agendas. But unfortunately, it’s way up there at the top, and ends up obfuscating what could otherwise be a helpful goal. Here’s to a day when ALL industrial processing plants cease to exist because people patronize small, respectful, integrity operations that let their workers do other things besides kill animals. That would fundamentally create a decentralized, transparent food system. Let’s all push for that.

5 thoughts on “A word on compassion in farming

  1. kartwheels

    I love what you have to say and laughed when I read that your chickens are allowed to “express their chicken-ness”.. we used to say that exact phrase about our chickens!!! (We are getting chickens again, thank goodness, very soon… can’t wait!)
    I am going to share this on facebook. I think more people will want to read your well spoken article. Good thoughts!


    Wonderful post! I just finished watching Food Inc. for the second time and it was just as horrifying the second time around. Here’s to more humane, small scale farmers taking over the food supply system!

    1. The Slow Foods Mama Post author

      Thanks! Yes I think Food Inc. is a major perspective-changer for a lot of people. For me and meat it was watching Death on a Factory Farm. I bawled and immediately placed an order with a local family farm for beef and pork. We have our work cut out for us unfortunately – in our area there is only one slaughterhouse that will take pork, and we can’t legally process our own chicken on the farm. Paying $5 per chicken for processing alone doesn’t leave much in our pocket when all is said and done. I’m not sure what the answer is, but education is certainly a good first step.

  3. vivjm

    Great post! I used to be a vegetarian and thought at the time that that gave me the moral higher ground & that was the solution to the horrors of factory farming. But from learning about permaculture & sustainable farming I came to understand that animals are an important part of a sustainable and ethical way of producing food. I then read “The Vegetarian Myth” and felt like I had come home. Yes, in order for us to live, something has to die – whether we eat meat or not.
    A great, thoughtful, thought-provoking post – thank you.

    1. The Slow Foods Mama Post author

      Thanks. It’s certainly not easy – like I said I still haven’t worked up the courage to actually do the deed yet, but I’ll get there. It’s important.

      I also think the more we learn about plants, the more we’ll learn that they are just as keen to live as any animal. If we rule out eating anything that wants to live, that pretty much leaves us with Soylent Green!


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