By Garland Mason
In eighth grade my history teacher asked each of us to choose a political topic to research, and to write a letter to one of our state senators with our opinion on the issue. I chose animal rights. I’d always loved animals and had a wide variety of pets, including some beloved chickens I’d had since I was eleven.
Through my research I learned about animal abuse in agricultural systems—confinement and grossly inhumane treatment. I was so shocked by what I learned that twelve years later I can still recall certain accounts I had read.
Upon completion of the project I wrote a letter to my senator regarding inhumane treatment of geese for foie gras production. Geese and foie gras probably didn’t make it to the top of his priority list, but nevertheless, the project had a lasting impact on me. I stopped eating meat and declared myself a vegetarian.
During my sophomore year of high school, after over two years without meat, I became severely anemic. My doctor strongly encouraged me to begin eating meat again. I obliged her, but under these circumstances: I would not acknowledge it as meat. I felt so uncomfortable with meat that I completely disassociated it from ever having been part of an animal. And to my shock and disappointment, I reallyliked eating meat.
I continued to eat meat in this manner for some time, and it wasn’t until I spent a summer living and learning on Sterling College’s campus farm in 2007 that I realized that there was another way. I realized that beef cattle, pigs and chickens could have a dignified life even if they were part of a production system.
After leaving Sterling I enrolled as an animal science major at Cornell University to get to the bottom of things. There I learned the ins and outs of conventional large-scale agriculture. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, but my classes gave me an excellent understanding of biology and how it can be applied to animal health, behavior and ultimately, production. I found that the biological processes could be easily applied to smaller-scale, more sustainable methods of production.
When I met my partner Ollie in spring of 2011 we quickly bonded over our love for animals, as well as the products they produce. Ollie and I began raising our own meat animals soon thereafter, and we got our first pigs that fall. I wondered how I would feel, the pigs were the first meat animals I had such an intimate relationship with. When the pork finally arrived on my dinner plate, however, I had never been more comfortable eating meat.
We now raise all of the meat we eat, including beef, chicken, pork and goat. I feel comfortable knowing that my animals lead happy and healthy lives. They are outside in pastures where they are able to live out all of their animal instincts, be it lazing around in the grass, pecking and scratching, rooting for minerals and tasty roots, or jumping among the boulders in the hedgerows.
If you eat meat and aren’t entirely satisfied with the conventional system, perhaps it’s time to try something else. Remember, small-scale farming was the only way meat was produced prior to the industrialization of agriculture. The farmers market is a great place to find high-quality humanely-raised meats. There you’ll have the opportunity to meet the farmer who raised the animal–so don’t be shy! It’s your chance to ask any questions about how the animal lived, what it looked like, heck, it probably even had a name!
In my experience, the more I know about the meat I eat, the more comfortable I feel with my decision to do so. It also helps ensure that the meat has come from a farm that truly respects their animals.
Garland Mason works for the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, heading up the New Farmer Initiative and Farm-to-School and Institution activities. She lives and farms at New Traditions Farm in West Tinmouth, Vermont.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.