I might get a little real about furry little baby animals and their fates in this posts. Not graphic, just real.
Looking back to why it was I decided to take time away from my routine in Portland, Oregon, to live and work on a farm, in very rural Maine, I remember the initial goals. I wanted to be immersed in learning. I wanted to be planting vegetables. I wanted to be making cheese. I wanted to bottle feed newborn baby goats. Mostly I suppose I wanted to have hands on experience in the entire cycle of producing food and to have the time to confront my own place within it all.
My younger, very vegetarian self would be hiding in the corner on the farm. The reach-in freezer is full of a road kill deer and “us meat” from pigs shot here on the farm and then butchered at the family friend’s small operation. Oscar was still here when arrived. We brought him and the sows grain and whey every day, trudging through the snow to say good morning. And then one day, Oscar was gone and the sows are still pregnant with his piglets. That’s real.
Normally the pigs that are sold to the public have to be driven many miles away and so in a very big way, Oscar and the “us” pigs are so much better off. I hear the lady pigs will “retire” soon. I’m still not sure exactly where that leaves them. On another note, did you know the piglet mortality rate can be crazy high? We’re keeping watch on Bonnie and Fern because if they “pig out” in the middle of the night, they could roll over and crush their babies. The sister farm down the road from us lost half of their piglets a few months back when just this happened one cold night.
The goats are the animals I spend most of my time with. In their new spring pasture, the yearlings are in sight from my cabin and as I write I can look out and see them chewing bark and romping around. They are all girls of course. One male goat from this last group, “El Burro” was saved to be a companion to the other male goats. He can be incredibly charming. I often think of his brothers that were sold early last year.
Every milker goat was still pregnant when we arrived and we were able to witness most of the 31 births. Some were easier than others depending on how seasoned the milker was. Some resulted in a goat walking around the barn with a kid’s head partially out, us trying to discern which hooves were visible and if the little creature was going to need assistance or if we could just wait, towel in hand, ready to blow dry the negative degrees off their wet coats. Whether or not the baby born was a male or female, we went through the same process. We watched the goat push out her kid, made sure no complications came up, sometimes having to cut an umbilical cord that didn’t snap or stick a finger in the little mouth to give way to air. We witnessed the mother goat lick or not lick her baby off, sometimes other goats lending a hand and then, we plucked the kids away to get under a heat lamp with the other newborns. Some of this sound harsh and messy and it was. In the end, the milkers seem to have forgotten what they went through, though a few called out for their babies for days after giving birth.
We raised the goat kids together. Fed them three times a day, first from bottles, them from a communal nipple bucket. We let them out to play. And then once we realized that we were overloaded and spending more on milk for kids than we could afford, the decision on what to do with all of the boy goats had to be made. This is something every dairy has to confront. We settled on the auction where each organic, bottle fed, not yet weaned goat went for less that anyone could imagine. I just hope Andrew, Jasper and Nacho went to the good, humane places we were told they went to. And maybe a few got lucky and became bucks for someone’s herd. I like to think that this was each and everyone’s fate. But the reality is that we make cheese and to make that cheese, male goats are only a small piece in that puzzle.
The most challenging realizations on the farm have stemmed from getting close to all of the boy goats born since we’ve been here and then having to let them go. Each boy had been named. They each had personalities and were bottle fed right alongside their sisters. And yet each time a goat was born, there was joyful acclaim for a girl. I called it the reverse China syndrome. And I suppose this is where eating cheese and dairy becomes a clear choice in being part of the cycle I wanted to better understand. I still eat cheese, I still eat meat. But I definitely think through my consumption on a different level. That young vegetarian self I remember had no idea the reality of the dairy industry, even the most organic and humane one.