I settled down to watch Okja after morning chores. Unlike (what I assume) is the majority of the audience watching this movie, I raise pigs for pork. Right before refreshing my coffee and settling into a worn easy chair - I had just fed breakfast to eleven pigs in their forest paddock behind my home.
I loved this movie. It was so well directed, shot, and acted. It walked the tightrope of magical realism and stark morality play with graceful, beastly plods. I felt a range of very human emotions told through the story of an CG animal. Okja, the film’s namesake, was a the Pete’s-Dragonesque giant pig. I laughed and cried. I can’t recommend it enough.
This film touched every age and relationship I’ve had with animals. I was the little girl with an imaginary friend. I was the animal activist in my twenties. And now I’m a pig farmer, raising animals alone on the side of a mountain. Every version of my story was portrayed in this perfect movie and I would like to explain why those roles have changed.
In college I became a vegetarian and remained one for nearly a decade. My reasons were strikingly similar to the tone of the ALF characters in the film; compassion over greed. I saw the grainy slaughterhouse videos. I read the statistics about the environment. I could not understand how everyone was just okay with it all? My diet turned into edible activism and I went from believer to fundamentalist. When people challenged my views I felt satisfied with the certainly that I maintained the moral high ground.
At this point I had never spent time on a sustainable farm. I had never talked to people raising animals ethically. All of my information and decisions came from the industrial model. The same kind we see in the movie with assembly-line grimness and depraved beasts. By this point in the film how many of us have forgotten the paradise Mija desperately is trying to return Okja to is also a farm?
In my strictest vegetarian days I thought about eating meat with the nuance of a jumbo eight-packs of crayons. A few bold ideas that were sturdy and aggressively tangible. They were big, bright, important - but woefully limited. I didn’t care. They were all I needed to color my beliefs on food.
Post-graduation I started a career in advertising. While most of my friends worked in cities I landed jobs in Tennessee, Idaho, and Vermont. Those locations offered me a range of rural addresses. Living beside farms with a little space of my own to garden and keep chickens and bees started to change how I felt about food. I was becoming a producer and not just a consumer.
It also changed how I felt about farmers. Now the people who were intentionally raising the animals I still refused to eat were becoming neighbors, friends, and lovers. I was learning how they felt about their animals and why. I spent time around livestock and stopped seeing them as large cats and dogs. They are a category of mind and heart apart from wild creatures and house pets.
Meat was still off my plate, but the sustainable farm movement was VERY attractive to me. Eating close to home felt safe, environmentally responsible, and fresh food simply tasted better. I now had friends who treated their livestock better than most people treated their relatives. My jumbo crayons were growing smaller with wear and new colors were being added to my pack as experience grew. Things became uncomfortably complicated as my spectrum enhanced.
I started to acquiesce to why others would eat meat they had a relationship with. Then I found myself feeling guilty when offered a grass-fed burger at a backyard party because I knew how much work went into the gift. How the sales of the meat were paying for the roof the host slept under. How his children were growing up alongside nature and animals because of this cycle of effort and sacrifice. The same animals whose manure, blood, and bones were used in the following spring’s garden. I personally wasn’t eating these animals but the vegetables I was consuming instead sure as hell were. How often we forget the carnivory of organic vegetables.
As I became more and more involved in local farms and learned about responsible eating with an environmentalist’s mindset - ideas based on giant factory models had to change. I now knew folks raising meat turning their noses up at the diesel-transported tofu in the local grocery store for being ridiculously wasteful and selfish. Here, in this place in the world we happened to live, the growing season was 100 days and that meant eating an ecologically responsible diet including local meat raised through the majority of the year on harvested sunlight we call hay.
Conversations with vegetarians that were once a celebration in solidarity felt like talking to someone who was firmly pro-life - unable to even tolerate the gray areas of my reasons. Meat was murder to them but to me it had become a part of nature’s grand plan. I was no longer a believer that my humanity was a reason to rise above the omnivore diet. It was a reason to embrace it.
I became a full-time farmer. I left my career in the ad office and more crayons joined my collection. Now colors like organic fertilization, growing seasons, pasture rotation, soil erosion, wildlife management, fossil fuels, and animal welfare vs animal rights added to my crayon collection. Eventually I had the 64-pack with a sharpener in the back and could not understand the girl from college anymore. My world of black and white certainty was now a Pollock canvas. And all of that experience and time dedicated to food—a life change and a diet change—was part of my viewing of Okja.
Hearing people say they were opting out of meat after seeing the movie felt awful. It was like being a social worker hearing her friends say they just watched a movie about child abuse and were finally motivated to make a difference. But when pressed about how they were going to help the victims - perhaps fostering a child, volunteering at a hotline, or donating money to a shelter....They just announced they weren’t ever going to have kids.
I am not interested in changing your diet if you don’t eat meat. Your reasons are your own. But if you do I have something important to ask you. Keep eating it, but please, eat less and eat animals raised right. if you want to help farm animals live better lives support better farms. Do not walk away from this good fight. Help those of us returning to better practices, outside, working alongside nature.
There are people who will read this convinced my farm is no different than the factory in this movie. There are people who will not dare add more crayons to their packs, fearful of changing an idea that is both identity and comfort. But the The villain of Okja isn’t any one person or place, it’s the system. A monster that is perverting nature to meet human flaws of greed, overpopulation, convenience worship, and most importantly, emotional distance from the most intimate thing we ever do: eat.
Okja’s a fake pig in a movie I watched on Netflix. But plenty of real animals are suffering inside a horrific system that don’t have to. Support farmers choosing sunshine and fields over concrete. Eat less meat. Be mindful when you do that who you are eating preferred to remain alive and take a moment for gratitude. It makes for a complicated relationship in a world already complicated, I know, but the end result is a rainbow of agency and understanding you couldn’t begin to imagine before. And it is beautiful.