Monday, June 24, 2013

The "Me" in Meat: Part 1

I have to hand it to Vegetarianism, it got me to Cold Antler Farm. My interest in food politics started with animal rights and had I not pulled back the curtain during my college days and started learning about the industrial food system I would not be on my own farm right now. I'm certain of that.

My friend Kevin was a vegetarian and I looked up to him. He was my age but seemed to have a handle on the world I didn't. We were friends a year when I started asking him more about his diet. Without being preachy he explained his reasons and how most of them had to do with animal cruelty. At first I thought by cruelty he meant death itself, the basic idea of killing animals for food. But it wasn't that at all. Kevin wasn't opposed to the food chain as much as he was opposed to the modern industrial bastardization of it. I had no idea what he was talking about.

So I educated myself, mostly through the Peta Website and Vegan activist books and videos. I became a student of the modern animal rights movement, and this gave my life a verve and purpose it didn't really have before. I stopped eating meat and dairy and (of course!) lost weight. This grew my self confidence as well as my activism, feeling like not only could I become a healthier person in the body but in spirit and ethic as well. To keep my ideas fueled I watched the videos of slaughterhouse abuse. I read Buddhist works on kindness and mindfulness in every choice we make. I talked to others of like mind and we all agreed - unnecessary suffering was wrong and eating animals was unnecessary in a modern world with options. To me there was a line drawn in the sand. Caring, decent, people were on the side that said no to eating meat. The other side was taking part in mass suffering and worst of all, didn't care.

I could not help but feel superior to those either too apathetic or weak to give up a base pleasure in the name of animal suffering. And while I wasn't eating animals, I was collecting them. I had two dogs and two ferrets in my first post-college apartment in Knoxville and my own pets ate better than most kids in my neighborhood. And whenever I was confronted with my for choices my answer was plain, almost indisputable to those who disagreed. I told them I didn't eat meat because I didn't have to. There were other choices in modern civilization (I always emphasized the word Civilized here) and if my choice meant some one didn't have to die I would make that choice.)

I soon switched to a Vegan diet and for the next few years bounced between pure veganism and lacto-vegetarianism. I could not imagine ever going back to eating meat. I was happier, thinner, and inspired. I thought animals were happier because of me, and my family was polite enough to hide their rolling eyes when I ate Tofurkey for Thanksgiving or ordered a salad when we went out to dinner. In my mind very meal I didn't eat meat meant some critter was being let free from a cage. I lived this way for nearly a decade. Not once did I miss the taste of meat, nor did I cheat on my diet. When I am dedicated to something, to anything, I am all in.

But when I moved to Idaho back in 2007 things changed for me again. This was my first year learning that chickens came with breed names and personalities. This was the first time I ever planted a real vegetable garden, baked bread, and raised fiber rabbits. I made a connection with my first ever sustainable grass farmer friend: Di Carlin. Meeting her was a revelation. She was the person who made the book, Made From Scratch (my first book) possible because she showed me that a normal, everyday person with zero farming background could raise some of her own food in the backyard. At this point I was eating eggs and dairy so I got chickens from her and suddenly my world shifted in ways I didn't even comprehend at the time. See, the Universe just handed me a whole new animal: livestock.

My chickens were not pets. Di did not teach me that, what she taught was husbandry. From her I learned that chickens were animals in my care and deserved the same amount of attention and affection as any dog or cat, but they were not dogs and cats. They were employees. Employees with a very good human resources department and personal cheerleader, but they were different because we had an agreement neither the house pets or wild life and I ever had to contract. Chickens were "mine" but there were here for a specific reason, to lay eggs. They lived outside the house in a coop, never inside. This is all elementary stuff but remember I was a hardcore vegetarian who never had a relationship with animals in this domestic, professional way. I had never had this distinction made out to me before. I only knew animals as either pets, wild animals, or my fellow human beings. And none of those three versions lived in my backyard and pooped out omelets.

When I started making quiches, egg breads, french toast, and other goodies from my free range hens I realized that there was an alternative to the Battery Cage Horror Sites from Peta. There were these free-range chickens, living a prime life and helping mine too. I tried to think of why there wasn't more backyard chicken propaganda on Peta's site because here I was caring and living with animals and working as a team of human/livestock we both had better lives. I had healthier food and a local source of protein and they had magically escaped (along with all the other hens at Di's place!) from being a bird in some factory farm.

Soon I added a pair of rabbits, a hive of honey bees, and started learning how to garden in small raised beds. Chickens had delivered me this new attitude about food. Eating wasn't a black and white issue anymore, it had the colors of a golden hive and a bursting garden. I still avoided meat but my attitude was changing. When Di was having a slaughtering day at her farm I agreed to help with a 26-bird farm process. All the other people working at plucking and gutting were both delighted and confused that the vegetarian friend of Di's was there. They asked for my reason and I said, out loud, that I wasn't against people eating meat, just the factory farm version of the modern diet. "So why don't you eat this chicken? It was grown in our Idaho backyard on clean food, free ranging" and I mumbled something about how I was still a practicing buddhist and it had been so long since I ate meat it felt weird starting up again. Clearly, the buddhist bit wasn't a good argument. Suffering of sentient beings was the reason most buddhists I met abstained, not the idea of food. By helping with a slaughter and not eating the meat I was in the most odd paradox at all. What was going on with me?

I moved to Vermont after only 13 months in Idaho. My job laid off 80 people when the economy sank in 2008 and I was only unemployed two weeks or so when I had a job interview lined up in Vermont. Orvis needed a web designer and I couldn't think of a better place for a farmy vegetarian than Vermont. Idaho was starting to make me question my choices on diet, what with these free-range chicken meals and ranches. But Vermont would have a plethora of liberal, animal loving, veggie folks right?