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If I had a beard, I would have stroked it smooth in the wrestling, wrangling, and writing of this post. Do you ever have something you want to say and because of an awareness of the possible sensitivity of the topic you tweak a script in your head? So reader, take care, I'm going to try and carefully, respectfully, and diligently wrestle with one of the more difficult roles of raising animals.
You know, don't you, that I am selective about the images and ideas I post here. You can come see how we really live anytime - the water is almost always ready to refresh your tea cup, or if a cuppa smoky Joe is for you, come on in. Dive into our rich, messy, relational, adventuresome life and share it to the full. But, I've spoken of this before. Homesteading, farming, redeeming a lost house and property is hard core. I try to not overwhelm with pictures of the mess, the lengthy weeks of unfinished projects cluttering up useful spaces, or the baser elements of working with animals.
But, it must be done. I cannot share this life, or your dream of country life, raising your own food, being more self sufficient, (if that is what you long for), and fail to include the eyes forced open, jaw set, heart racing moments when you look into the eyes of the animal, give thanks for its life and how it will sustain yours, and then pull the trigger or draw the knife.
I've recently shared with you the defining moment when in our down time, following one of our major projects, we responsively and somewhat impulsively decided to bring animals to the farm. Our initial ambition was to personally reject the feedlot model of bringing beef to our family table. We were horrified and grossed out at our ignorant participation in what we have come to believe is an unsustainable and unsuitable industrial production paradigm.
(An important aside here...there is a lot of passion for a lot of folks surrounding these topics. I hope I'm able to avoid a sanctimonious or righteous tone. I believe their, our, passion is appropriate But sometimes, our passion acts as a roadblock to kindness, respect, and civil discourse. My experience is that passionate people have much to agree on, but are strangely prone to focus on disagreements. Although that focus is not wrong, it can lead to wounding words and blind assumptions that do harm. I pray we are spared.)
Mercifully, our first year was easy. Grass grew abundantly. We experienced zero predator problems. Water flowed freely and it was neither too hot nor too cold. And, our cows were particularly amenable, cute, and powerhouses of feed conversion. A good season assisted us in our first slaughter since our yield had come easily. That is, we worked hard, but were easily rewarded. And, oh, there was a delightful increase of satisfaction, variety, and flavor at the family table.
You saw it, didn't you. The word jumps out at me. Slaughter. It must be done to complete a season's cycle and to fulfill the purpose for which the animal was brought on the farm. But no matter how many times I swallow hard, set my resolve, and do what must be done, I find that each time I grow more sensitive and appreciative of life's rythyms, rituals, and sacrifices.
On on small scale, we are accomplishing what we set out to do. That is rewarding. But it comes at a cost. Yes, we make up front financial commitments each season hoping for a return, but that is only a part. We invest time, sweat, hours, muscles, space, free time, and freedom to actively enact and advocate change in food supply practices. We do it for ourselves. We do it for our customers. And we do it for our animals.
Humane practices have become so important to us. And, we are such rookies. With only two seasons under our farm belts we barely know what we're talking about. But, the quality of the animal's life matters to us, and not just because of the product yielded, but because of a reverence and respect for the design and dignity of the animal.
This year was hard. Extremes of weather and personal circumstances tested our limits. In hindsight, we took on more than we should have, but who could know that so many variables would converge with such intensity? The animals required much of us, and there were times when in exhaustion or defeat we would find ourselves guilty of the very practices we critique. We'd fail to get fresh water in the most timely manner, or we wouldn't move animals to fresh pasture soon enough, and the balance would quickly tip into a redirect of energy and attention so that the animals were better served. That all required more effort. And with greater effort the yield is more hard fought, and in our case, emotions more fragile. Near the surface.
Alternately, because of greater emotional exposure, we find ourselves more grateful and more broken at the end of the season. Grateful that we were able to finish the animals and the butcher says the product looks great. He says, "You guys nailed it." That's no small praise and we trust our customers will concur.
Broken because when we bedded the cows down one last time in a confined pasture we knew we'd greet them at the fence in the morning with a rifle. I can see the place they last lay from my bed. Their imprint is still fresh in the grass, and even though our laying hens make short work of cleaning up the nasty business left behind, there are sections of green carpet that are still slick red.
Yesterday we killed our cows. How else do you say it? Quickly, steadily, without wavering the trigger pulled back and the barrel released it's bullets in quick succession, and cows bent low, yielding their lives to us.
Friend, come to your table with thanks for the life sacrifice an animal made to sustain you. Remember the farmer who serves both you and the animal. Join me in gratitude for eyes to see this beautiful broken life we share. And, please, if you still long for a little piece of this grand journey, be resolved to do hard things.