A Farmer’s Perspective

(by Michael Ruhlman, guest blogger)

Diane St. Clair left a career in the New York municipal health system for a farm in Vermont where she now raises cows to make and sell butter. Some folks think its among the best butter in the country. I’ve been corresponding by email with her for about a year now about food and writing matters. She’s a good writer and a smart farmer. She came across my rant and wrote me the following email, which I’m reprinting in full, the perspective of someone who makes her living from and coexists with animals:

Michael

Saw your food rant today on the small farms blog, which I came upon by accident when googling ‘critique of organic farming.’ It was quite entertaining, along with Bourdain’s counter-rave (talk about someone who needs to be on lithium…but that’s part of the entertainment). I saw no farmer perspectives on this issue. I saw the NYTimes article, lobster in coffin, etc. My immediate response was, another Whole Foods consumer gimmick to make liberal foodies feel ok about their food choices, of course, seen within the context of having just finished Pollan’s book and seeing Whole Foods in a completely jaded way.

Is there a difference between cats, cows, lobsters, geese? I think a lot has to do with culture–we don’t eat horses, they are our pets. Is there any difference in terms of animal behavior between a horse and a cow or a pig–absolutely not. As a former horse owner and a current dairy farmer, I believe they are absolutely the same beast in terms of trainability, personality (cows are nicer), attachment to humans. It’s just that culturally, we accept the ingestion of cows, not horses, and thus treat the former as food animals, with all the bad stuff that implies.

It is ironic to me that the animals we eat, we treat the worst–shouldn’t we treat those animals with the utmost care–feeding them, as we do, to ourselves and our children? I love my baby calves–but if a bull is born, I raise him as humanely as I can–on green grass, in the sun, drinking lots of milk, I try to have him killed on farm (if I am eating him–if he is to be sold, he has to go to a slaughter house–makes no sense) and then I eat him for the next 6 months. The bottom line is that every species on the farm should have a chance to be what they are, do what they do–the cows to eat grass, the pigs to root around, the chickens to dig in the grass and run around, etc. Sure I’ll milk the cows (PETA doesn’t like this) and I’ll eat the pigs and chickens. But they had a good life and did not suffer in the end. It’s all any of us can ask for.

The foie gras thing–it’s a tough one. Should crating veal be illegal? I think it should because you can raise veal that tastes better uncrated. How about chickens–shouldn’t there be industry standards (laws?) about how many hens can be crammed in a cage? I think there should be because you can raise better chickens that way. You can’t get foie gras any other way than it is currently done–that’s the tough part. I guess the day that you eat foie gras you have to balance your karma out by sending a donation to Heifer International or something.

The good thing is that people are talking about food in a new way–thinking about where our food comes from; the fact that cheap food costs us down the line, in terms of the environment and our health; that just because something is labeled organic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainably produced; and what do we do when our modern sense of ethics–all living things, including grass, have feelings–clashes with age old cultural traditions, ie. eating foie gras.

What did you have for dinner? I had a grass fed lamb chops, grilled, with a curry emulsion, over couscous and a salad from the garden. Couldn’t be better–absolutely no guilt.

Diane

9 thoughts on “A Farmer’s Perspective”

  1. Michael,
    This topic is one very much on my mind, and I have explored it myself (with the input from two ranches whose meat I eat) here…at least one person was inspired to make some changes in the meat she is buying.
    I really appreciate your rant, and the clarity you bring to the discussion of humanely raised meat versus the true evils of factory farms. I wish there were a larger forum in which these things could be discussed, but for now, many thanks to Megnut for letting you guest star here on her blog.
    P.S. I ate parts of a pig at a farm dinner yesterday that I wouldn’t want to know I ate, but everything was so tasty. Ignorance, in this instance, surely is bliss.

  2. Thanks for sharing this – lots of great points. I especially appreciated the point about treating the animals we plan to eat with the utmost care. This makes so much sense!

  3. I would like to point out that Diane St. Clair is an edge case. I claim that almost everybody who eats meat not only can’t raise their own animals and form a bond with them, but they can’t even know for certain if the animals they consume have been treated humanely. For example, consumer advoactes dispute that Horizon Milk is Organic. Last year the New York Times released story about how most salmon labeled as wild was actually farmed. Holding up an outlier point as rationalization of unethical behavior is disingenous. All of the meat she consumes may be humanely raised, and you may eat some of it too, but you compromise yourself when you rail against the meat industry but then continue to consume meat of unknown origin.

  4. I claim that almost everybody who eats meat…can’t even know for certain if the animals they consume have been treated humanely.
    I disagree. I think you can be pretty certain of it if you’re willing to put in the effort. You can purchase meat that’s been Certified Humane Raised Handled. You can go to farmer’s markets and talk with the people who’ve raised the product you’re buying. I’ve done this many times here in New York City. I ask where the chickens live, what their typical day is like, etc. You can go visit the farms where your food is raised to ensure that some sneaky farmer isn’t lying to you about the grass-fed-free-rangeness of that steak you just bought. It just takes some work, but it’s possible.
    And I disagree with you that Michael is “[h]olding up an outlier point as rationalization of unethical behavior is disingenous.” He’s reprinted an email he received in response to something he wrote. The author states she felt the farmer’s perspective was not represented on this issue, and that’s what she’s tried to provide. There’s no rationalization going on, it’s simply another point of view.

  5. S. Parrow writes, “[…] but you compromise yourself when you rail against the meat industry but then continue to consume meat of unknown origin.”
    I could say the same about vegetarians in many cases. It can be argued that large scale industrial vegetable farming with improper use of pesticides and fertilizers does more damage than small scale organic free-range meat production. Parrow, do you know where all of your vegetables come from?
    There are a couple of different viewpoints being discussed here such as whether or not meat should be consumed and what are acceptable methods of farming. Diane St. Clair ‘s email was interesting and enlightening. To dismiss her thoughts as an “edge case,” seems to border on an ad hominem attack.
    Parrow, you’ve made many strong remarks on this thread and others. What is your background? Where do you get the food you eat? You seem to have a very large emotional stake in this issue; what is your end goal in the debate?
    No false pretenses on my side: I am not a food professional. I like to cook and dine out. I eat meat and even fois gras.

  6. I could say the same about vegetarians in many cases. It can be argued that large scale industrial vegetable farming with improper use of pesticides and fertilizers does more damage than small scale organic free-range meat production. Parrow, do you know where all of your vegetables come from?
    For everything not consumed at a restaurant, yes I do. I get a fresh vegetable box every week from a CSA. This season the salad greens have been pitted by insects. No pesticides here.
    Regardless, this is an amazinly weak argument. Even if I were to eat conventional vegetables, the damage caused is still far greater than the damage caused by farming meat. Given that farm animals have to eat something, that something is vegetable matter that also must be farmed, and more often than not is farmed with pesticides. Can you verify that all of the plant matter that your meat eats has been grown organically? If the free range food is being supplemented with grains, then likely not.
    You misunderstood my comment as an attack on Ms. St. Clair. It was no such thing. I was directing my comment at those who use her style of farming to justify their behavior. She has a stronger argument for eating animal products than those who buy a fraction of their meat and dairy from her do. It’s the rationalizing consumers I was targeting (and as westerners aren’t we all rationalizing consumers?).
    I’ve attempted to back up my claims, even if they are found to be disagreeable. I have yet to hear a cogent argument (outside of personal liberty, which is defensible but ironic considering the taking of other lives in the pursuit of that liberty) in favor of an omnivore diet or against an herbivore diet. A few ad homenin attacks have been leveled against me (and vegans in general), though.
    I have no credentials, I’m just a guy on the internet who hates to see animals suffer, and who hates to see humans tear apart themselves and their future for the sake of having a steak.

  7. What did you have for dinner? I had a grass fed lamb chops, grilled, with a curry emulsion, over couscous and a salad from the garden. Couldn’t be better–absolutely no guilt.
    Let them eat cake!

  8. “Let them eat cake” is an unworthy dig at Ms. St. Clair. The farmers and ranchers I know—and dozens of them are my friends—are committed to the backbreaking work because they care to raise food that is clean, and they care to work with the earth in ways that are sustainable. To imply, snarkily, that there is something elitist about Ms. St. Clair’s dinner is truly missing the mark, and mean-spirited, as well. What is elitist about couscous or a salad?
    Another thing is: farmers and ranchers often trade with each other. If she can procure healthy, clean lamb—even with its purchase—good for her.
    I design websites. I am currently working with two ranches (TLC –Tastes Like Chicken– Ranch and Deep Roots Ranch), who give me clean meat and eggs in exchange for my services. I likewise trade services with two of the restaurants here in town, whom I know to serve healthy meat from sources with integrity. Lucky me. Actually, I’m not lucky: I’m blessed.
    So is Ms. St. Clair. She’s doing work she loves, and she’s providing inspiration to many. No Marie Antoinette digs are needed.
    One last note: in the wonderful tome, “Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Good Ways to Eat Them,” (sorry, I’d use italics if I knew how and if I could preview my comment) by Peter Kaminsky, he visits Niman Ranch. I don’t believe they are Certified Humane yet, though the description of their practices certainly seems to fit the bill.
    Rock on, Diane St. Clair. Rock on, Ruhlman.

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