Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hard Harvest

Yesterday, we took another step-- a giant, uncomfortable, yucky step-- in the direction of "real farmness": I brought a vanload of sheep to a slaughter facility in NH.

Now, I knew it'd be a hard thing. But I had no idea just HOW hard a thing it'd be.

These animals were not pets, but they had names, a history with us, distinct personalities. And so I faced the drive with trepidation, reasoning with myself all the way. Self, I said, We can't afford to keep 21 sheep,the money and food from these sheep will ensure that we can afford the others. What's more, these animals, by virtue of health, build or all-out spookiness, are not suitable for breeding and keeping, and we can't, in good conscience, sell them as such. Furthermore, we've given them good, carefree lives, better by far than those of the animals in supermarket freezers and this is just part of the process...

Oh I reasoned alright.... but this helped my reluctant self not a bit. I drove the two hours with a heavy heart, barely able to look back at the make-shift pen behind me.

And when I arrived at the USDA facility (USDA sounded a lot fancier on the phone than the scattered warehouse the place turned out to be) I began to tear up immediately.

What I really wanted was to turn around and go home. I wanted to, but I didn't. Some of these lambs had been presold for meat, and so meat they would be. Besides (here's some more rationalization...) Keeping this bunch would add close to 10 dollars a day in hay expenses, a burden our farm, and family couldn't bear. So I opened the back of the van, and helped the handler shoo my little group into a holding pen.

I didn't say good bye. I didn't even dare to look at them. I went into the small office and went through the paperwork; I checked off which cuts, which parts. Then I went out to my empty van, put it in gear, and cried for about an hour. Really. It thoroughly, thoroughly sucked.

I sat in a bagel store parking lot for another hour, re-justifying. Checking off all the reasons why this was the right and logical thing to do, and I felt like crap about it just the same. I thought about going back to retrieve my sheep-- WAIT! Never mind!-- but once their feet touched down in the dirt of the "facility" they couldn't return to the farm to transmit whatever bacteria and illness they might have com in contact with. It was done. A done deal.

I had planned to go to work after the drop off, but this was overly hopeful. Honestly, I didn't know what to expect, didn't know the day would be so out and out miserable.

Perhaps "real" farmers are used to this process, and bringing animals to slaughter is just like any farm chore for them. But It's caused me to question the whole farm premise.

When we began this enterprise, we hoped to grow good quality wool and breeding stock, and perhaps also some meat to feed our family. The trouble with this model is that meat is the farm product people want the most. We have had no trouble selling meat lambs, and if we had 20 more, we'd probably be able to sell them as well. Local meat, with good reason, is in.

Wool, however.... wool is slow going, expensive to produce, hard to market and such a specialty product. Ditto for roving. Our wool is beautiful, knitters love it, but there are a lot less knitters than meat-eaters out there.

And breeding animals? Well, we've been able to find breeding homes and fiber homes for some of our lambs but we had 11 this year, and the economy's in the toilet and several big Icelandic Farms have dispersed this year, so... nope, not sustainable.

Before yesterday, meat seemed like it might be a way to go, but I'm feeling pretty shaky-- okay, REALLY SHAKY-- about that now. Dan and I like to joke that the sheep are our retirement plan (This is a joke because the sheep COST us a heck of a lot of money each year and have yet to break even close to even.) But we cannot continue to pour money into the farm without the sheep at least earning for their own keep.

But the meat idea is a lot more real for me today than it was a week ago. I do not want to get callous about death. Yesterday,I talked the one of the young handlers at the slaughterhouse while picking up the hides of the animals I'd dropped off. The conversation went something like this:

Me (blinking back the day's ever present tears): "It must be hard, what you do..."

Him: "Oh yeah. It's not easy to get the cuts right. People think they can just do their own. Like my buddy who got a moose yesterday. I told him it ain't so easy"

Me: "No, I mean the killing part..."

Him: "Oh, THAT. That's easy. We do 250 animals a day. That's the easy part..."

When you go to the supermarket or buy local or order a deli sandwich at subway, somewhere, somebody has unloaded a bunch of scared animals off a truck into some ugly warehouse and asked somebody to kill them. That reality was pretty abstract for me, until yesterday. Even locally grown, free ranging meat is not a pretty thing to contemplate. At least not right now. Perhaps if we had a traveling butcher who'd come and do the slaughtering right here on site... perhaps at the new, "state of the art" facility opening up a few towns over this year, one designed by Temple Grandin to minimize stress... Or perhaps, I'll go back to the primarily vegetarian diet of my 20's, win the lottery and and buy hay for our growing flock like nobody's business....

Or, perhaps things will look different in a day or two.

If you've been involved in this process, or plan to be, I sure would appreciate some advice or feedback on this.


Everett said...

I can understand and sympathize with your predicament. First, know that it WILL get easier - whether that's a good thing or not is for you to decide.

If you really do want out of the killing cycle (on your farm anyway) you could consider what many people are doing - and my website talks about - which is to bring extra income into your farm by renting out cottages, cabins or rooms for people who want a farm vacation. Rural agritourism is a growing industry as more and more "city folk" long for some fresh air away from the tourist traps.

In this scenario you would keep a few lambs as "pets" for visitors, especially children, to watch and perhaps interact with.

Whatever you decide know that you are already thinking about what you eat and how it affects the world and the animal WAY more than most people do. And that's a great thing.

Christy said...

I don't know if this will make you feel better but it does get easier. Never easy, but easier. I did animal research for years when I was in grad school and the first few times I had to kill and dissect animals was awful! I cried and hated it, but it got easier. I made sure to do it quickly and to treat the animals with dignity everytime, but the actualy killing part got easier.

Cheap Like Me said...

Thank you for this wonderful, thoughtful post. We purchased a quarter "beef" this year, and when I walked through the cutting room into the office to pay, I thought, wow ... and I thought, is it ethical to feel good about this when I don't even know how this particular place does the killing? I was vegetarian for 10 years and bought the local, organic beef mostly to please my family. But on the non-vegetarian side, your rationale is all appropriate - they lived a good life, and humans have been eating animals for a long time ... and yes, that means the animals must die, but so must we all, some day. And the sheep would look funny pushing around those wheeled walkers in their dotage, anyhow.

Julia said...

And I was starting to get a little sheepish (pun intended) about having to kill one of our chickens. I think I could not yet face your sheep issues either. Thankfully I dont have to make decisions like yours at this time!

Thalia said...

I think that if I were in your shoes, I would have done very similarly... with both the rationalization and the horrible feelings.

I don't know if it helps, but I think that both of those feelings - the need to maintain the farm and your family, balanced with the killing of the sheep for meat - are right, valid, and appropriate. It probably doesn't help. But I think you are in a position that family farmers have been in for many generations.

And, by the way, have you gotten on Ravelry ( or etsy ( to sell your wool products? They are great places for fiber "addicts" to find great small farms to support!

Jill said...

Been there, my husband took it harder than I did. We named all of our meat lambs "lambchops" , "rack", "hey you", for example, never pet them although it can be hard when they are so darn cute.

Enjoy what you have, we had to sell and leave them behind because of job layoffs. USDA (it is amazing what it good for the government) is easier than living back in an apartment in the city.

And, I'd love to buy some fleeces but the website isn't letting me view them.


Anonymous said...

yes it gets easier but not an easy thing to do. Remind yourself that was the purpose of the animal to start with. It's no different than say catching fish or pheasant hunting...

Great job I love you site.