I shared on Instagram last week that we lost two lambs because I didn't clear the ewe's milk ducts when I checked on them after they were born. I still feel a heavy weight about being responsible for their loss, but I've switched from beating myself up to carrying a responsibility for doing better. Making a mistake like this has actually catalyzed my learning, and feeling bad about losing those two lambs has actually helped me care more about the minutia of my management.
In struggling to adjust to animal losses, I have begun to notice that other farmers -the ones who are doing it right- feel horrible about the deaths that happen on their watch. My friends, Craig and Jen at Rockside Ranch, almost scared me initially with their stories of dismembered chickens and shriveled stillborn piglets, but I realized that those images affected them because they are brilliantly conscientious farmers. I really believe that farmers who don't feel bad about death are probably not the farmers you want raising your food.
Full disclosure: I am an omnivore and I raise animals to eat them. I spent many hours last year trying to reconcile the connection between eating meat and death, cementing my own justification for it while responding to vegans online. It's still too strange for words to witness the raw disassembly of living beings, but getting food on the other end of that process makes it worth it. What feels less noble to me, is the inevitable deaths of animals that don't become food for anyone. Little sparks of life snuffed out by bad genetics or sloppy management. These deaths feel frustratingly unjustifiable.
Last June I looked in on our brooder of 30 brand new heritage turkeys and found a wreck of tiny bodies strewn about in the straw, gasping for air. It was only days since their arrival and some had brought with them a fatal respiratory disease that typically arises from poor sanitation in the hatchery. Half of them died.
The worst of it wasn't really the loss, since I talked the hatchery into refunding us, but I felt horrible that those tiny birds travelled so far just to suffocate in their own bronchial fluids. In my conversation with the hatchery's sales associate, I passed along the comment I had learned from several industry-leading turkey breeders that pneumatic E. coli can often from unsanitary eggs. I could literally hear over the phone that the man was rolling his eyes, and it made a splash of white hot anger wash over me as he dismissed my gentle critique. Of course a business that large would be comfortable with a larger margin of error than our minuscule operation, but that sales associate wasn't the one filling an empty pizza box with the dead. I believe that it matters to God when even the littlest animals die so shouldn't it matter to us?
Buying organic is great. Sometimes, however, organic food comes from the same big farms that casually pick out dead animals like they're sorting dirty laundry. Agribusinesses that house tens of thousands of creatures in tight quarters just can't escape disease (and sometimes cannibalism!) so they've learned to medicate the heck out of those animals and they've become numb to the high volume of senseless death that happens inside their walls. It's impossible for giant factories to replicate the care and attention that family farms provide.
When you purchase your food from somebody who is emotionally invested in the animal from which your food comes, you can bet that they devoted themselves to learning the best management techniques for the highest quality product. Sure, we're a little emotionally unstable at times, but it's totally worth it! Just give us hugs, ok?