con·tract [n., adj.]noun 1. an agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified. 2. an agreement enforceable by law.
All farmers share in an underlying responsibility to be a diligent steward of the land they farm. The philosophy of leaving this world better than when you entered it is nowhere more applicable than in farming. Whether you grow vegetables or raise livestock, the weight of the responsibility is significant, all of us entering into a binding contract, closely detailing the mutual relationship between you, the farmer and them, the produce, earth or animal.
True, we have virtually no experience raising produce or crops at scale, but we do have quite a bit of experience raising livestock, both currently and in the past. So, speaking specifically about animals, this contract specifies a small, but weighty set of requirements that have a direct and monumental impact on the quality, quantity and longevity of your relationship with the other party.
It is the expectation of the livestock to be provided with adequate shelter, quality feed and ample hydration. They expect to be provided with these necessities on a daily and routine basis to ensure adequate growth rates and quality of health.
- It is the expectation of the livestock that they will be handled with a level of force that is commensurate with their size and personality. No undue stress or force shall be pushed onto each animal than is absolutely necessary.
- It is the expectation of the livestock that they are allowed to exist with natural behavior. The farmer shall provide an environment that ensures both adequate freedoms and safety to support stimulation.
- It is mutually understood, that as most livestock exist for the provision of food, that the farmer ensures a quick and painless death. Post-mortem, it is expected that life of the animal and the former relationship be honored and minimal, if not zero, waste is produced.
It's by these basic rules and stipulations that we try to abide daily. While mistakes are an inevitable part of the process, working in an earnest and honest fashion towards these principles is non-negotiable. It would be the same expectation that any human being would expect from a positive relationship with another human. It's much the same as how parents enter into the expectations of the life of a child. While it's not nearly the same relationship, nor should it be, the overarching principles are the same— to uphold your end of the deal as best you can.
The impetus for this post was this past weekend's processing of chickens. There was no drama like the previous post and really nothing remarkable to speak of. However, as we cleaned the chickens and saved out the comb, feet and innards I felt a sense of satisfaction, and yes, maybe even superiority over how the average person eats. A badge of honor that I know how to not waste an animal. But what I realized, as I thought about it over the next few days, was that this sense of superiority was unfounded. This was us, simply upholding our end of the contract we entered. No pats on the back deserved, and certainly no entitlement to any other feeling other than doing our job. It's this part of the contract, the lack of waste of life, that is arguably the most important. You, the farmer, have the responsibility of thrift and respect that is the foundation for all farmer-animal relationships. This responsibility is perhaps the largest difference between a farmer and even the most conscientious consumer. We have no luxury of ignorance. There is no ignoring the taking of a life, the waste produced and even the economic impact of making those decisions.
In the end, the existence of farming is to produce an edible product. In our case, to raise an animal for the purpose of food, a plate on the table for friends, family or our customers. That's a heavy responsibility when you stop and consider it. For the provision of food on the table, it is your agreement to provide them the best life possible, with respect for both the pre- and postmortem. It's simple, 100% doable and the first philosophical agreement one needs to have before even thinking about raising an animal for food. It's also one of the most difficult pieces for the consumer to wrap their head around, the idea of building such tight personal relationships and commitments with an animal you're going to eat.
It's in those times and discussions that I'm reminded of something told to me by a NJ farmer, Jonathan White of Bobolink dairy. He told of a story where he was at a market and sharing some cured meats that he had made from one of his beloved cows, Gertrude. I don't recall the exact place of Gertrude in the herd, but I know she was at least one of the oldest members of the herd, perhaps even the first. The story went something like this:
Jonathan: " Try some of this bresaola. " Customer: " Wow this is great. Is this one of your cows? " Jonathan: " This is actually Gertrude. She was one of our first cows and one of my favorites. " Customer: " How could you eat a cow you know? " Jonathan: " How could you eat an animal you don't? "