photo: Maggie Starbard/NPR
It's more clear now than ever that food production weighs heavily on people, ecosystems and animals, as well as our collective conscience. Surely, we could all do better by starting a rooftop garden, a vegetable farm, or joining a CSA. With one in seven people (that's 1 billion) currently hungry, a radical food movement is crucial. What's more, it's become a cultural requirement for enthusiastic meat-lovers to justify their meat-eating to some extent, considering where 99% of meat comes from and the resources required to raise it. Tradition, taste and special nutrition requirements are typically the fail-safe rationales.
Many who choose seitan scaloppini over sirloin steak from an animal rights perspective balk at most attempts to vindicate killing animals for pleasure, when there are so many alternatives. But does a DIY approach to meat resolve the debate for those who subscribe to the notion that "if you couldn't kill it yourself, you shouldn't eat it"? For a rising number of young butchsters (butcher-hipsters), as I like to call them, the task of killing, carving, and cooking a pig is easy to excuse when the result is ultimately based in accommodating pleasure, power and praxis. In other words, it's easy to rationalize violence when the results are yummy and even easier when the victim's perspective is invalidated.
In a recent NPR article by Kristofor Husted entitled " How One Former Vegan Learned To Embrace Butchering", Andrew Plotsky is profiled as just one of many young people who are taking the life and death of the animals they eat into their own hands, leaving their vegan naivete in the dust. The press loves an ex-vegan who returns to bacon, as we've seen time and time again over the last few years. It's become popular enough for butchers to be proud that they were once vegetarians or vegans - to the extent that I wonder if some make the claim just so their cleaver gleams in even sharper contrast to what they perceive as misled do-goodery. They wear their former vegetarianism like a boyscout patch. Others treat it like an awful condition from which they only barely managed to escape (they "got SO sick!"). And now that veganism is more popular than ever, the lure of counter-culture street cred just doesn't tempt the rebels like it used to. Your parents won't freak out anymore - in fact, they might even be happy.
The novelty of reviving a "lost art" like slaughter and butchery has it's place on the shelf right next to the typewriter and a vintage Davy Crockett hat. Aesthetically alluring in it's homage to simpler times, to pre-industrial working-class values, to the agrarian golden era - slaughtering also has the lure of something quite distinct that a mere fruit and vegetable farm might not: domination over beings that comes with an arsenal. Tools used to kill and chop up bodies are glamorized in images of Butchsters. They stand, in a blood-stained apron, arms crossed, in one fist a cleaver, in the other a boning knife. They look dangerous. They could kill you, and it can't be denied that the lure of that power; being the feared killer and the visual metaphor it creates, plays a large part in the fascination with this trend. If I see one more photo of people wearing a pigs face like a mask, I'm going to... yawn.
The NPR article suggests that, "By killing the animal himself, Plotsky says he strengthens his bond to that animal." In other words, by committing a violent act... you don't actually harm your victim (just ignore their perspective), you instead strengthen your bond with them! Phew, I was worried that harming was harmful, but if it's good for the perpetrator, then it must be good for all parties involved. Who really cares what an intelligent animal like a pig might want, anyway, like to get away from someone who's trying to slit their throat or shoot them in the head. Bonding, for Plotsky, is a monologue, not a dialogue. And if "killing the animal weighs heavy on Plotsky's heart", why not "harvest" something else and get said bonding done as an animal sanctuary? Perhaps it's the simple answer; growing kale makes a much less exciting video for Plotsky's media production company than killing a pig.
The agrarian renaissance is crucial if we're ever to escape from the clutches of Big Ag like Monsanto et al, and I fully support the notion of growing our own food and having a relationship with the soil, but it seems that all the media hype is about the bloody killing. The saying, If it bleeds it leads holds true for the Farm to Table movement, maximizing on the macabre.
When ecologist Garret Hardin wrote "The Tragedy of the Commons", was it a coincidence that he used cows on graze-land to represent "a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen" (Hardin (1968)) ?
I acknowledge that small-scale meat slaughterers and butchsters like Plotsky are not responsible for the ethical and ecological crises of CFAs, but all I can think is that history will repeat itself. The growing demands for meat continue to increase at a rate that small-scale farmers can not accommodate while maintaining sustainable and welfare-based approaches. When money is to be be made, corners will always be cut.
What I'd like to see is more of the vegetable, grain and fruit farmers also celebrated, and not just the high-drama of slaughter. In fact, another small-farm revolution is happening. In Veganic farming, instead of using chemical fertilizers or animal products like farmed animal manure, plants are grown using plants and minerals.
Here is a list of veganic farms in The United States and Canada (source: http://www.goveganic.net):
• Hesperides Organica The farm is located in the Black Dirt region of Orange County, an area with extremely fertile soil. The black dirt is left over from an ancient glacial lake, and has a high degree of organic matter (50%).
• Unexpected Farm They have used veganic practices since they began farming in 2001. On a separate part of their holding live two rescued animals, a cow and a goat, who enjoy 4 acres of fenced pasture.
• Huguenot Street Farm 77 acres in New Paltz, New York. Growing over 125 varieties of vegetables, fruits, and flowers, including heirloom varieties, Huguenot Street Farm runs a 21-week CSA for 200 families in the region. CSA members can also take advantage of a large U-Pick garden.
• Honey Brook Organic Farm A veganic CSA in Pennington, New Jersey, and was profiled in the Winter 2008 edition of the American Vegan newsletter. With 2,200 CSA memberships, feeding between 3000 and 4000 people in total, Honey Brook Organic Farm is called the largest organic CSA in the United States.
• Santa Cruz Farm Santa Cruz Farm is an example of year-round veganic growing in a region with little water and wide temperature variance. The temperature can fluctuate significantly, changing by upwards of 25°C or 40°F from daytime to nighttime
• Reverence Gardens Located in Round Lake, Illinois, about an hour north of Chicago. Reverence Gardens was run as a commercial veganic farm through a customer subscription program in 2007 and 2008, and was Certified Naturally Grown in 2008.
• Sunizona Family Farms Specializes in greenhouse tomatoes, herbs, and salad greens, and they have recently started growing field crops. In 2008 they began to transition their farm to veganic agriculture, and now the main greenhouse and fields are completely veganic
• Spirit of the Earth The centre includes herb gardens, vegetable gardens, forest gardens, orchards, a cherry grove, and an edible medicine trail, all grown veganically.
• Glascott Farm Formerly using pigs as part of their biodynamic farming, Glascott Farm in Ontario is in the transition process to veganic agriculture.
•Ark Gardens An off-grid farm, deriving their power from wind and solar, and they are focused on growing fruits that are high in phytonutrients.
• Janlau Farm Began as a dairy farm in 1973, they decided to stop farming animals in 1997 and concentrate exclusively on field crops. With their fields Certified Organic since the 1980’s, they soon gave up animal-based fertilizer and used field rotation.
• Groleau Garden The garden produces a wide variety of vegetables, and also herbs and berries. It is currently non-commercial, although some of the produce is exchanged with friends and family during the growing season. Much of the harvest is placed in cold storage to be eaten during the winter months, or preserved by canning, freezing, and dehydrating.