By Kevin Dunham, guest instructor
It’s early morning; the sun has yet to rise over the trees on the eastern hill. The coffee is ground, the kettle is on, my not-yet-two year old daughter is at my feet crying, “Daddy, Daddy, up, up!” “I can’t pick you up right now honey, Daddy needs to make his coffee,” I reply. She’s been up all night with a cold, coughing and rolling around in her half-sleep, which means I’ve been up as well. “It’s almost time for chores,” I tell her. She runs away. I look at the clock: 7:30. The goats need to be milked, the sheep need to be moved, the chickens and ducks need to be let out, the turkeys need to be fed and moved to new pasture. Time to catch this kid, suit her up, and get to it.
Every day. Rain, shine, snow, frost, holiday, sick, tired, sore, weekends, at home, or not even here; it has to happen…twice a day. I have chosen this. I have assumed full responsibility for somewhere between 25 and 125 creatures (depending on time of year). Why do it? “Sounds like a lot of work,” people say when I tell them I have a small farm. It feels more like they’re saying, “You know you don’t have to do that right?” And it’s true; I really don’t have to do it. I could easily go to the store and not directly participate in the provisioning my own life’s energy source. But there are so many reasons why I’ve chosen to live this way and engage in this work. Three main themes come to mind: connection, ethics, and ecology.
Raising my own staple foods (meat, milk, and eggs) has both created and deepened my connections to nature, to food, and to my community. When you’re outside everyday at the same time in the same place you start to notice things. You notice where exactly the sun is rising, and how fast the angle is changing. You notice when the first wasps come out of hibernation. You notice which birds leave for a season and when, and you notice their return. You watch a plum blossom swell and open over the course of a week. Nature is slow. The unveiling of it’s delicate intricacies require a certain patience and attentiveness earned from much more than just a summer drive through a national park.
My relationship to my animals is an intimate one. I’m there for breeding, for birthing, for growing, for harvesting, for cooking, and for eating. There are no questions. I know how my food lived; what it ate, how it was treated, how it impacted its environment. I also know how it died, how old it was, how long the meat was aged. Full participation. Every step. Cooking has become an intense responsibility. When you know everything about your food you treat it with absolute care.
It was knowledge that brought me here and my own ignorance that keeps me engaged. A gain in understanding often requires a shift in one’s ethics. A surge of food documentaries, books, and first hand experiences pulled back the curtain on what had previously been a seemingly benign act: eating food. What do you do when you find out how most food animals are raised in our industrial system? Some ignore, some try to explain, some abstain, and some change. I changed, not instantly, but inevitably. Is there a way that’s better for the animals and the land? That’s the question I ask every day.
How do we grow food in a more ecologically conscious way? How do we restrain ourselves from taking more than nature is willing to give? I believe livestock play a fundamental role in sustainability. Ruminant animals (sheep, cows, goats, etc.), for example, are able to utilize marginal lands unsuited for intense cropping in a symbiotically harmonious way. When managed responsibly, their act of eating improves soil and plant communities. That’s how I want to feed my family. When I hand my daughter a glass of goat milk and a lamb chop, I want to know not only that her food is clean, healthy, and from animals that are/were well cared for, but that her act of eating is contributing to the betterment of her future.
There are many more reasons why I choose to live with livestock, but I’ll conclude with just one more. I truly love these animals. I love sheep, and goats, and chickens, and turkeys. I want them to be well and I want them to thrive. Not just my own, who are akin to family, but more generally, on a species level. I want to continue to learn from them, to try to understand them, and to improve how I raise and work with them. And finally, I want to continue to advocate for them as a critical piece in a sustainable food future.