I was pleased to see quite a few people selling meat this past Saturday at the local farmers market in Sylva. That’s a noticeable change from just a year or so ago, when naturally grown meats were hard to come by unless you were willing to raise the animals and slaughter them yourself. These days, however, you can stroll through the farmers market and select from free-range chicken, pasture pork, goat, rabbit, quail and more.
I’ve always struggled with whether to eat meat or not. To date I have accepted I’m a carnivore, except for a brief, six-month period in college when I tried on vegetarianism like another person might try on a shirt. I welcomed the opportunity to be a bit radical and cool, or so I imagined myself, and in a casual, offhand manner made frequent mention to friends about my newfound conversion to tofu and vegetable protein. Not knowing how to cook these items in an appetizing manner, my ardor for protein substitutes lumped on a plate in an unappetizing pile of mush soon subsided, though I soldiered on for a few more weeks out of sheer stubbornness and pride. I without comment one day returned to eating meat, and my friends were kind enough not to notice, or at least not to say anything in front of me about it, anyway.
These days I eat meat on a regular basis. Three or four times a week, sometimes more. I do try to remember Thomas Jefferson’s admonishment to consider meat a condiment, not a main course.
Accepting that I’m a meat eater, my second, more serious struggle has involved killing animals I’ve raised myself — I’ve done that, too, but frankly it leaves me uneasy. I wholeheartedly believe there is a fundamental honesty to eating meat you’ve raised from egg to chicken, kid to goat and lamb to pork chops; but I just hate dropping the hatchet on some poor chicken’s neck or hauling animals down the road to the slaughterhouse.
Cowardly, perhaps; but it’s a hard thing to cut the head off a young rooster that you’ve fed as a chick twice each day, routinely cleaning his little bottom when poopy-butt strikes. It’s also hard to handover for slaughter a goat or lamb you helped birth on a cold March night, remembering all the time how you picked him up and wiped his squirming body down, made sure all his little legs worked, and stayed in the stall long enough to ensure mom gave the tiny, wee thing a good suckle.
These experiences make me very grateful to the farmers market vendors who are willing to raise and kill animals for the rest of us. I know the farmers personally, and I can buy from them confident that the animals they’ve raised have been reared in clean, healthy conditions, with good husbandry and kindness — even love.
Because the truth is, unless your farm gets so large that the numbers overwhelm compassion, or become so hardened that the act of killing leaves one cold, there is indeed love between farmers and their animals.
So how does one kill something they love? That, as I’ve been reflecting on, is very hard indeed. And I know that it’s just as difficult for the farmers involved as it was for me when I was farming for a living. I’m no more sensitive or less squeamish than they, perhaps even less so than some. I’ve just returned to the regular work world and can afford for now to make different decisions. I can skip the struggle of slaughtering and cleaning and simply buy my meat.
I don’t know if I’ll return one day to raising animals for slaughter, either for home use or for the market. If I do not, I’m still thankful that I have experienced exactly what that means, and understand the difficulties of what these farmers are doing for the rest of us. It makes me very grateful for what I receive, and very appreciative of what they do.
And one day soon, I’ll perhaps use this space to explain why it costs so much more to buy a pound of meat that is naturally raised rather than conventionally raised. Just take it on faith for a while, if you will, that these folks aren’t making much profit at what they’re doing. Not once you back out purchase of stock, shelter and feed costs, time and labor, medical care and emotional and mental anguish. In fact, once you’ve experienced these things firsthand, it makes you feel embarrassed that such meat can be bought locally at almost any price at all. Pearls before swine, in a manner of speaking — such bounty should, I think sometimes, actually be priceless.