15 years ago, my father gave me a book that I finally started reading last night. The book is Carry Me Home, an epic history (and partial autobiography) by Diane McWhorter, chronicling the turmoil that exploded within her hometown of Birmingham. To put it simply – it’s a book about civil rights in America. Dad was pushing hard for me to become an attorney, a profession he envisioned for me at an early age. Late last night, after a day dealing with my own personal turmoil that is inevitable when raising twin infants while trying to start a dairy, I found words he inscribed at the beginning of the book, so many years ago – “Love to Jenna who will be an advocate for a good cause.”
The words gripped my throat with temporary paralysis, the kind of tightening sensation that comes with unexpected tears you’re fighting. An overwhelming sense of regret flooded my body so strongly that I could taste it like bile. To my father, I never want to be a disappointment. I read the words three times… “for a good cause…” and thought of all the pursuits I attempted before now – legal assistant, grant manager, lobbyist: in each role I represented the under-served, the disenfranchised, the poor, the forgotten. What good cause did I ultimately choose? What do I advocate for now? It’s a thought that haunted me today, until I remembered it’s the reason I am here. Perhaps my pursuits now seem less heroic, but the cause I champion is still, as he put it, “good.”
When we first bought this place, I imagined fields waving with glorious sunflowers, acres of garden bountiful with produce, and verdant pastures dotted with cattle, bursting with milk, skipping between the buttercups. In that fantasy the sun always shines, the hay is free, the livestock don’t get sick. It’s the same picture that we see plastered across cartons of milk lining the shiny shelves in the Big Box Grocery Stores. Even now, I’m guilty of reading my babies books about farms, each page illustrated with smiling animals in immaculate barns, cavorting in grassy pens. It is a lie that we all perpetuate, agree to, and swallow – like sugar with the medicine – it makes the industrially produced food go down easier.
But that’s not the truth about food, and it’s not how the world turns when it comes to agriculture. Initially, I was strongly opposed to the idea of raising animals for food. Jeremy and I engaged in shouting matches in the kitchen of our little old house in the suburbs of Austin on those nights that we plotted the future for this scrappy farm we spontaneously purchased. Jeremy was resolute in his determination that we would produce some of our own food – not just tomatoes and eggs – but meat. Healthy, clean meat from animals whose lives we could nurture. Animals that – in life – were treated with tremendous respect and who, after death, could become food for ourselves, families, and friends. It was an old-fashioned notion of independence, sure, but more importantly- I eventually conceded, it was contrary to the despicably inhumane industrialization of agriculture. In this way I could “do something,” however small. But by giving even one food animal a comfortable, natural, and happy life – wasn’t that actually an enormous victory?
I’ll tell you a secret: I’m not a huge fan of cheese. Or even dairy. YES, REALLY. It wasn’t until my journey through the life cycle of a dairy animal that I fell heavy and hard into the dairy lifestyle – the byproducts are a bonus. Right now we are cycling towards the most difficult and glorious season of the year, which is when dairy animals have their babies, a requirement for them to produce milk. And milk is, as you know, the basis for hundreds of ingredients in whatever we eat each day. In fact, stop what you’re doing right now and read the package of the snack you’re nibbling. I give it an 80% chance there’s some bit of dairy byproduct in there. Right?
What we are trying to do here – what many small farms are struggling to achieve – is to provide a local, healthy, and humane space from which we can create food for our community as an alternative to whatever lurks on the shiny shelves of Big Box Grocery Stores, packaged to conceal farrowing pens, feces-ridden feed lots, egg cages, the cold concrete floors newborn male calves are left to die on immediately after birth. Yes, small farmers often separate baby animals from their mothers to be raised by hand by humans – with love, and comfort, and care. This is done so that we can immediately begin capturing milk from the mamas, and so that no potential diseases are transmitted from mother to baby (and vice versa). But small farms provide these mamas the attention and careful recovery they deserve and require. The babies are given the same treatment. It means we keep them off concrete, from living in piles of feces, and give them space to feel the sun shine.
From the outside looking in, I know how this appears. In fact, as a new mother who went through pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding – I understand the knee-jerk and gut reaction to the concept of separating new babies from their mothers. But through my journey (and only UNTIL I actually began living with food animals) I finally understand that it is important not to anthropomorphize. There is a profound distinction between treating food animals with humanity and treating them like humans. That distinction is essential. I did not grow up on a farm, but I have been madly in love with animals since birth. Growing up, I cried desperately over PETA images of feed lots, but still, somehow, managed to choke down burgers for the majority of my life. I wasn’t doing anything about “it.”
Now I am.
Now I create food whose story I can tell. Do you want to hear it? No, it doesn’t look like the storybooks we read our children – it’s written with our sweat, and exists within the gentle space we give our animals. I create food that I’ve fought for, crouched over, carried through rain, lugged to the vet, sewn up, cuddled, protected and then, in one way or another, turn into sustenance. For many of us, dairy is a fundamental cog in our dietary machine, and for my local community I am honored to give an offering. For my animals, I am blessed to be their steward. And – I realize now – their advocate. Thank you, Dad, for the inscription. It might not be the cause we originally envisioned, but I am sure as hell certain that it is “good.”