About once a week I get an email or comment from the Animal Rights contingent. It is expected and usually I do not engage. I need to remember that when I published my first book I was a vegetarian raising a few laying hens and pet rabbits. Readers who knew me as the 25-year-old girl they read about (at the time just farm-curious and toying with the idea of homesteading) meet a very different woman on my current blog. To read that book and then pop into a blog where just seven years later that same vegetarian is raising hogs, lambs, and poultry for meat is unsettling and shocking to some readers. And so I get these notes from what I call the Angry Vegetarians. The folks who feel personally betrayed, not just for my change of diet but my change in ideas. Yesterday I was called a murderer. I've been called that many time, and in some emails, that is the nicest part of the correspondence.
The following is a letter to that Angry Vegetarian and to any others who may feel the same way. But before you read it please understand that this letter is not directed at the vegetarian diet in general. I have no qualms with it, at all. Millions of people avoid meat for religious, health-related, or various reasons of preference. This letter is not directed at them. This is a letter for the angry folks who think not eating meat makes them morally superior to those of us who do.
Dear A.V. Club,
I recently received your note, the one that accused me of being a murderer. I understand why you are angry and I applaud your compassion. I understand because I was a vegetarian for nearly a decade, the same breed as yourself actually. Meaning; I chose the diet because of a love for animals, passion for conservation, and concern for our diminishing global resources. Avoiding meat seemed to be a kinder, gentler, and more ecological choice. I supported PETA. I had ads in Vegan magazines for my design website. I am no longer a vegetarian and do raise animals on my small farm for the table, but we have more in common than you may realize.
It would be foolish for me to try and change your mind about eating animals, and I have no interest in doing so. The vegetarian diet is a fine diet. We live in a time of great abundance and luxury, and that means choices! Never before in the history of the human animal have so many options for feeding ourselves been presented like they are now. If you want to eat a gluten-free, dairyless, low cholesterol, and mid-range protein diet based on whey extracted from antibiotic free Jersey Cows- you can. Your great grandparents could not. There was no almond milk at the Piggly Wiggly and ration cards kinda ruined that conga line anyway. But now there is so much food and your diet is as much a personal a choice as your religion and sexuality, possibly even more personal. So understand I am not writing you this open letter because you don't eat meat. I'm writing you this letter because you called me a murderer.
Murder is a legal term, meaning the unlawful and premeditated act of taking a life, usually with malevolent intent. To call me a murderer is to imply that I broke the law and there is malice intended in my actions. When animals are harvested here for food, I assure you there is none. There is only gratitude, respect, and blessed relief. I do not enjoy taking animal lives and the bulk of my supposed premeditation include looking up recipes. I am not a murderer.
But I am a killer.
You are 100% correct. I kill animals. I raise chickens and rabbits from young fluffballs in the palms of my hands and mindfully bring them to the age of harvest when they are killed and stored for food. If I don't do the killing myself I hire a professional butcher to come to my farm and harvest the pigs I raised for myself and friends. I am also a licensed hunter in the state of New York, where I stalk deer and wild game of all sorts. I also do this with the intention of harvest. I am a killer for my table and I fully understand the seriousness of that statement. I also understand why you are disgusted by it. You are disgusted because you see me as taking sentient lives when there are alternative choices as bloodless and innocent as the down on a Muscovy duckling.
I know that I do not need to eat meat to survive, but I also know now that it is impossible for me to live without killing. It is impossible for you, too. I think this is the heart of our misunderstanding. This is why PETA and the FTCLDF are not working together to be one giant powerhouse for good and ending animal suffering. Most animal rights activists do not acknowledge (or perhaps are not aware) that every meal includes death. The simplest backyard salad from your own organic garden to the fake bacon in your shopping cart -- both take lives. I have simply chosen to take lives in a way that causes the least amount of suffering and causes the least amount of wasted global resources. And yes, it means there is blood on my hands now.
I know that is hard to understand. It was hard for me, too.
I was a vegetarian and animal activist before I was a farmer, but that was all about passion for me and did not include much science. The only things I read about meat and the environment were based on giant corporate farms. I did not understand anything about ecology, biology, wilderness, and the personal responsibility of eating local. But what I really didn't understand was agriculture. I mean I was totally ignorant. I did not think about anything but ingredients on the package, never questioning the methods or politics behind them or the larger picture. As long as my dinner did not include animal flesh or animal products I was content in my righteousness. I was a pro-choice vegan. To be blunt, I didn't think things through.
The truth is there is no meal we can eat without killing. None. A trip to your local grocery store for tofu and spinach leaves may not include a single animal product but the harvesting of such food costs endless animal lives. Growing fields of soy beans for commercial clients means removing habitat from thousands of wild animals, killing them through deforestation and loss of their home. Songbirds and insects are killed by pesticides at legion. Fertilizers are made from petroleum now, and those fields of tofu seeds are literally being sprayed with oil we are fighting wars over. Deer died for that tofu. Songbirds died. Men and women in battle died. And then when the giant tofu factory harvested the beans they ran over those chemical oil fields of faux-food with combines that rip open groundhogs, mice, and rabbits. Tear apart frogs and fledgling birds. It is a messy and bloody business making tofu or any of that other non-murderous food.
What about organic tofu and vegetables? That doesn't include chemical fertilizers and the companies are mindful? Right? Well, that is correct. But if you are not using oil to fertilize your crops then you are using organic material: manure, blood, bone, fish, etc. You may be a vegetarian but your vegetables are the most voracious of all carnivores. That small farm at your local green market needed to lay down a lot of swine blood, cow bone, and horse poop freeze-dried in bags marked "ORGANIC" to grow those carrots so big and sweet. Animals are an integral part of growing food for us, as food themselves or creating the materials that feed the earth. And the earth must be fed.
And let us not forget the miles on the road these vegetarian options must travel. That oil-free organic tofu sure needs a lot of diesel to get here to New York...
You can not ignore this. You can't call a small farmer a murderer and turn a blind eye to the groundhog ripped in two, the owl without a nest, or the blood spilled for oil halfway across the globe through military force. I mean, you can ignore it, of course you can. You can also search the internet for people killing pigs and call them names, but that doesn't make you right. There is nothing you or I eat that wasn't once alive save for some minerals. Plants and mushrooms are living things, just as alive as animals. And we take their lives wholesale and without regret. In the words of Joel Salatin, " ...By what stretch of arrogance do you think a life form that looks like you is more important than a life form that doesn't?" Though I know you may not appreciate that quote. After all, Joel is a murderer, too.
I eat animals I raise myself because I want to eat local food that causes less animal suffering and empowers my local community. I live in upstate New York. A place where farming vegetables does not make sense. This is a far cry from southeast Asia or southern California. Our growing season is around 100 days. What we can grow here in bulk is grass, and by extension the meat that eats the grass. We can let hogs range our woods and eat grubs, vegetation, and nuts. We can buy local non-GMO feed grown by our neighbors and give our animals full lives, outdoors and on pasture! Eating meat here is eating in a way that respects our region's food shed.
We can graze our animals in ways that returns good nutrients to the soil and heal the earth. We can grow two or three harvests of those grasses and feed them to animals like sheep, cows, and goats all winter. This is what my part of the world eats if they are serious about saving the environment. We can do this without using a lot of oil, close to home, and harvest the animals we know without driving to a store to waste gas, plastic bags, and pave another parking space. When I kill a chicken I end one life. A life I was present for, grateful for, and worked hard for. I have a hard time taking criticism seriously from someone who swipes a credit card for a bag of groceries they have convinced themselves is more righteous, having never weeded a row or hefted a bag of feed. A really hard time.
My "murdered" pigs were raised from babes, seen to several times a day, carefully tended and lived a life of ample space, porcine company, sunshine, mud puddles, and rooting their snoots in the dirt. They were raised with the help of a small village of folks who bought shares of the pigs to help pay for my livelihood. These people are counting on me to help them buy good food that isn't laced with antibiotics or factory farm atrocities. And while raising these pigs I purchased feed from neighbors raising non GMO field corn and soy, a rarity these days. I employed a small butcher and his staff to come to my farm so these pigs never have to be loaded into a truck and driven away to a slaughterhouse. They have had one bad day, one bad moment actually, and that moment surprised the hell out of them.
Eat in whatever way invokes respect and gratitude in your soul. Be grateful we live in this time of contrived and soon-to-be over luxury and abundance. But do not come to battle here, accusing those of us raising good meat of murder. Those are fighting words, unkind words, and for someone so intensely passionate about treating animals well you seem to have no issue treating human beings like crap. I'm an animal, too. I would appreciate some ethical treatment.
So, yes. I am a killer. I take lives and eat the flesh of sentient beings. I farm and fish. I hunt and stalk. I fully embrace this primal and beloved part of my person. I do this with great joy and appreciation, savoring every bite of effort, community, time, and grace those meals include. Each slice of bacon or bite of roasted chicken comes with a couple dozen faces of neighbors and friends. It comes with stories of carrying buckets in the rain, of catching escaped piglets, of never leaving for a vacation or even visiting my family for Christmas. I am a solider for my soil, stationed here at these 6.5 acres to create mindful, healthy, food because I think it makes a better and more peaceful world. And that world is not found in the fake meat section of the grocery store, darling. Life is not a storybook where you get to ignore the fact that the Three Little Pigs boiled a wolf alive. Eating meat you raised means eating food infused with integrity, sweat, loyalty, determination, love, friendship, memories, loss, perseverance and respect. And none of these things are ingredients you will find on a package of tofu no matter how close you look.