Be Careful Being Careful

Be Careful Being Careful

Second Thoughts On Mobile Slaughter

by Carl Russell of Randolph, VT

Greetings Lynn,

I would like to make a few comments relating to your story about mobile slaughtering and tie them into some of the points you make in your editorial in the latest SFJ.

While I can appreciate the fact that as communities we are lacking the slaughtering and processing facilities that we need to have functional local food systems, I also have reservations about systems such as mobile slaughterhouses. For some, these units will allow new opportunities, but for others, those of us hard-scrabble, back-woods practitioners, it also represents the USDA finding another way to edit our food production stories.

Right now in Vermont we are involved in a controversial effort to get our meat inspection program to accept contractual agreements with food buyers to raise and slaughter animals on-farm for direct sale. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture is convinced that on-farm slaughter is okay when conducted in a “clean environment”. Unfortunately for people who want to buy meat from me, that means four clean walls, stainless steel, hot running water, and an inspection certificate.

I say “unfortunately” because without those things, I am not allowed by law to sell anything but live animals to meat customers, and those must leave the farm alive. I see these mobile slaughterhouses as an attempt to solve this problem, by creating a mechanism to bring the “clean environment” to the farm.

Now, I too have always been a storyteller. I believe that the written page is my medium to use language in the way that best suits my creative expression. I have always appreciated your editorial grace of accepting contributions to SFJ as written. However, many other people have been trained to think, and read, in a more culturally standardized way.

My farming is also a storytelling of sorts, the Earth around me, another medium to express myself creatively. My farming story is how I add value to my products. To me it is not the products, but the process that makes farming successful, and in my small way, it is my story, my creative expression, that people come to our farm to witness, and contribute to.

One of the stories I tell is about when I picked a new-born Jersey bull out of a rain-filled ditch in the predawn, and carried him to the barn, getting covered in after-birth, so that he could get warm and dry, because his mother had struggled in labor, sliding under a fence-line, and down an embankment, to lay on her back in the ditch, unable to right herself, where she dropped the calf in the cold flow of spring run-off. And how I assisted the mother with getting her feet under her, and convincing her that she still had enough energy to get up and walk back to the barn, where she collapsed in exhaustion, to be revived eventually. But in the meantime I had to dry and clean the calf, and finally, because of the complications, I had to squeeze colostrum from the cow, and bottle-feed the calf, so that he could grow two seasons to become our next beef animal.

Another is about the sow that our eleven year old daughter bought and paid for herself to raise as her own, to breed, and to sell piggies from, who died as a result of complications during labor, and how after a year, the twelve year old decided we could try again, this time with two sows. These two each had 100% perfect farrowings, with no losses, with the near exception of one piglet that I found limp, smothered under its mother, with just the slightest sense of a heart beat, to whom I performed mouth-to-mouth breathing and CPR, reviving him, to watch him cough, and sputter, and shiver, and within ten minutes not be able to determine which of the fighting, squealing, sucklers he was.

Now the USDA and VT Agency of Ag say that those stories are fine. And they are fine if I add that the animals are all fed organic feed when fed grain, or that we use only Homeopathy, and pasture them all on good grass. But, you know, they want to edit out one big part of our story here at Earthwise Farm and Forest. They say as long as we are raising animals for our own consumption, I can tell this, but if we want someone else to buy some of our meat, then I have to hire a ghost-writer.

That part of the story that they want to edit out, is when I walk into the field, right up to the 18 month-old steer, put a rope halter on him, and walk him off to a quite place on the farm under a large tree. Or the part where I walk into the pig-pen, with gun and knife on hand, and all the pigs come to greet me. They don’t want me to be able to tell about patiently finding the opportunity to place a bullet, just of center, into the skulls of these trusting beasts, or how I place my razor-sharp double-edged sticking blade into the throat, and feel for the vessels as they burst under steady pressured movement.

Nor about how I wrestle with the emotions of addressing these animals that I have literally breathed life into, have cared for, and allowed to be a part of my life as living beings. Nor about how I have come to find out that these feelings bring a truth to feeding myself, an intimacy with the circle of Life on my farm.

You know, this is the part of the story that people are fascinated by. Some are definitely uncomfortable with it, but for the few customers we can supply, this is the part of the story that grabs them. They can feel this food. This is real food. They can feel the truth in the personal relationship to the lives of these animals, and they want to take part, if only as a paying customer. Every year we have several who actually want to come and watch, and/or help out, to learn, to be a character in the story of where their food comes from.

The USDA and VAA don’t want that to be part of the story that I include with the meat I sell to people. In some way, I believe that it is because there is no way that the industry can put that story into their packaging. I could have an unfair advantage. So they concentrate on whether I have four walls, or stainless steel, or a bathroom for the inspector.

I realize that we are not going to feed the world at our small scale, but I also know that we are not alone in producing food with this kind of story. I also realize that in some ways the mobile slaughterhouses are going to fill voids in communities that lack the processing infrastructure that is required for vital local food systems. However, I also see these units as an excuse by the meat inspection agencies, and their corporate cronies, to be able to do away with, once and for all, the fool-hardy few who want to sell/buy farm-slaughtered meat.

As we move forward with these important discussions, let’s keep in mind that we can have tiered regulation, so that small, human-scale operations can still produce the kind of real food that people have been providing for each other for hundreds of thousands of years. The food with a story that links the consumers and the animals to the land they all live on, in real ways. The relationships that we have with our customers are profound, and direct, and they are quite different than the relationships between producers and the consumers who buy packages from stores.

We must remember to leave room for these relationships to develop. It isn’t just “Local Food” that people are looking for, it is a story that they can be a part of. There is a truth to the human food story that we are not telling these days. In my Cree Indian Cookbook the recipe for Roasted Rabbit starts, “Kill a Rabbit.” We have allowed ourselves to be socialized away from this on a large scale, but we run the risk of regulating it out of our reach to ever regain it, if we don’t watch out.

Thanks for all you do, Carl Russell