Blog Archives

Notes from the Field: part 1

Happy summer, y’all.

You’ll notice that I started using the “read more” feature on here, so my full posts are visible after the cut below (click on “read the rest of this entry” in each post to go to the full page).

I recently pulled out a stack of binders I had packed away from my days at university. When I cleaned out my desk at the end of the program, I recycled most of the notes I had, but some course notes I kept without really knowing what I’d do with them. The reason has become a bit clearer to me now that I’ve had a few years to recover from being in that environment.

I spent some time recently looking through each page of each binder, recalling some of the lectures, professors, and field trips I took part in during the course of my schooling. These notes have been sitting in a box for ages, but now I’d like to share some of what I learned at school by posting them here. Here are some photos of key pages, in addition to descriptions of what happened at the time the notes were made, or what concepts & practices the notes are referring to.

This post covers general practices in various animal exploitation industries. There will be more posts in the near future that are specific to each industry, ie. the “production” of eggs, milk, pigs, birds, fish & cattle. This is a chance to gain some insight into not only the practices used, but the language and resources employed by animal industries. Think of it as an insider look.

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“Feed economically to make a bigger profit” : An example of the kinds of things we feed to animals, many of which are items that could be directly eaten by humans, or are waste “products” of animal industry itself which get fed back to more animals.

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hopes for the year

Hello out there!

As you can see, I’ve been on a long hiatus – we’ll just say I’ve been hibernating. But (of course), in my hibernation I’ve been ruminating on some things.

I’m happy to report that I’ve found a paying gig(!) at an organic vegetable farm, and am totally thrilled to have landed it. There will be posts about that soon, but in the meantime, I want to share with you a post I wrote at the beginning of the year, that’s been waiting in the drafts folder ever since. It involves challenges but also many successes. Thanks for reading!

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some serious stuff and some fun stuff!

Time is flying folks! February normally feels like the middle of winter to me, with at least another month of windy cold ahead. Now that I’m in farm mode I feel like spring is just around the corner. We’ve been preparing the greenhouse for this year’s first seeds, which will be planted in their trays in just a week or two. Some folks have asked me what exactly we’ve worked on while I was there over the winter, so I took a photo of our task list for your enjoyment. Aside from this assortment of jobs, I was also coordinating the winter CSA program, and the restaurant orders (which are still happening.) There’s always lots to do.

As I look ahead to the spring and try to streamline my wwoofing plans, it feels even more like time is rushing by – partly because I finally booked a flight! On May 23 I’ll be flying out to Vancouver, meeting up with friends for a few days, then heading out to some farms on and around Vancouver Island. After that, I plan to travel to the Kootenays, and potentially make one or two stops in western Alberta before coming back to Ontario. I’ve since started to confirm dates for stays with host farms, been thinking of what to do with all my stuff, budgeting for the trip, making sure I have everything I need…I’ve never carried my life on my back for a prolonged period of time before! I’m looking forward to visiting farms and learning from like-minded folks, gaining some rad new skills, and of course traveling around places I’ve never been before.

Something I hope to learn more about: edible forest gardening! Mimicking the forest ecosystem, a form of companion planting which includes many perennials

One of the most valuable aspects of my internship was the opportunity to visit other farms; people were so open to sharing their knowledge and discussing innovations with us. I always felt invigorated and encouraged at the end of the day, with fresh ideas and ones that didn’t seem as difficult to achieve as they once had. I’m excited to expand on that this summer.

Something else cool I recently discovered: guerilla grafting! These folks in San Francisco graft fruiting branches onto the existing ornamental pear trees that line the streets, so they start producing fruit. Neat!

One other thing I wanted to mention is the passing of the “Ag Gag” bill in the US recently. Although this has not (yet) happened in Canada, it is very concerning to me. The bill, which has passed in Utah and Iowa, and is on the table in other states, makes it a misdemeanor to photograph or record footage of farms. This means that when farm workers, press, or members of the public witness abuse that happens to animals on farms, they can be imprisoned and/or fined for taking pictures or video to document this abuse. This is horrifying – as are the conditions on the vast majority of animal farms in North America – especially since animal ag is a largely self-regulating industry; it often takes outsider action, or whistleblowers within the industry, to enact any positive change. The fact that this bill even exists is an indicator of just how backwards the industry is when it comes to transparency (or lack thereof) and the treatment of the individuals it exploits. I personally have witnessed farmed animals who were visibly sick and injured on both large and small farms, without any proper treatment for their ailments; I have also observed animals standing in manure 6 feet deep, chickens in cages too small for them to spread their wings, and newborn calves kept alone in pens that allowed them just 2 strides of movement. Although it is deeply disturbing to see such things and know that this happens to billions of individuals daily, the truth cannot and should not be stifled, and exposing this truth via photos or video is a very powerful tool for change. If this bill is concerning to you, you can read more about it here. The Discovery Channel, Huffington Post and many other sites have also posted articles about the bill.

Now to brighten the mood: Farm Sanctuary and many other organizations recently rescued thousands of hens from an egg factory, after the farmer(s) abandoned it and left the birds without food for weeks. You are about to see the hens’ first ever experience in a safe and loving home, where they finally receive proper care. This is the first time they’ve ever had sunshine on their backs or soil under their feet. They’re now truly happy hens!

Just for good measure, here’s a photo of a young piggy taking an enthusiastic leap into a swimmin’ hole! Our dog Lucy used to do this too!

And one fun interactive thing! Do you know what plant this seed is from? USC has a fun seed quiz on their website.  Try it!

for the birds

howdy folks! I want to give a mention to some of the other residents of the farm: the chickens.

I’ve been avoiding the subject of farmed animals so far in this blog, as it can be a pretty negative area for me, and I’ve been trying to keep this whole experience as positive as I can. That doesn’t mean knowledge and critique aren’t important though, and since I’ve been sharing a space with these birds and visited some farms with other animal residents, I think it deserves some attention.

We have about a dozen lovely chickens at the farmhouse, who were brought here by one of the other interns. They vary alot in breed and personality; they are here to provide eggs to those who wish to eat them here at the house. We do not generally sell the eggs. I haven’t spent much time with chickens before, and I’ve enjoyed their company alot. It’s interesting for me to watch the chickens interact with each other. I like seeing what animals’ social structures are like, how they communicate and the kinds of relationships they form. There are 2 hens here who are together alot. We’ve named them Florence & Bertha. They sometimes nap next to each other or dustbathe together. The chickens also preen each other. Eartha the red hen liked to clean the face of the rooster we used to have (who we named Chuck). Brown Betty, the other red hen, and Eartha are also very gregarious. They’re always interested in what we’re doing, and tolerate the occasional pet & cuddle. One even fell asleep at my feet one afternoon when I was sitting on the porch.

Florence & Bertha taking a rest

When the chickens first arrived here I thought about what my reasons were for not consuming eggs, and whether I felt comfortable eating these hens’ eggs. The birds who live here have a much better quality of life than 99.9% of the chickens in this country, most of whom never get to go outside or even open their wings fully. They are not slated for slaughter after a year of egg laying like they would be if they lived on an industrial farm, and they are not kept in battery cages.

Some of the issues are the same, however; all the hens here have had parts of their beaks cut off by the hatcheries they came from, although none of our birds are industrial breeds (who have higher incidence of pecking disorders, and are farmed using industrial systems). We now know that debeaking creates a nerve stump in the soft tissue after the remaining beak heals, causing chronic pain to the hens for the duration of their lives. The nerves in the beak are analogous to those humans have in our fingertips; it is the most sensitive part of a bird and it’s what they use to interact with their surroundings. Some of our hens have had very severe debeakings, resulting in things like crossbites or holes in the beak. As well, male “egg” type chicks are useless to the egg industry, and are usually killed at birth. Birds do not have a sex-determining chromosome like mammals do, so we aren’t able to breed selectively to hatch female chicks alone.

Gertie’s beak is in the worst shape. The top was cut very short and the bottom has a hole burned into it. Her tongue is always exposed.

Another issue for me is health care. One thing I’ve observed on small farms or sustenance farms is that while people generally care about the animals, they can’t or won’t provide proper care if the animals become ill. Farmed animals are cheap to buy and unfortunately are thought of in terms of economics (regardless of farm size), which means that if an individual gets sick, they may not be treated, or they will be sent to slaughter as their life is only considered in terms of production value. In industry, animals who die before they’re killed (due to illness, injury, whatever) are deemed “acceptable losses.” Concern arises when a higher mortality rate is reached in the group, which threatens economic stability; to me any death due to neglect or denial of care is unacceptable, even though it is legal to farm this way.

I also think it’s important not to idealize concepts like organic agriculture; observations and criticisms need to be made. For instance, the organic industry in canada bars the use of antibiotics, which are overused in industrial systems; this sounds like a good thing in terms of residues in animal products, agricultural runoff, etc. but when it comes to the welfare of the animals, this is not always a good thing. I have visited organic farms where animals were visibly suffering from parasites or illness and probably would have fared better had they been given appropriate treatment such as antibiotics. On top of all the physical health concerns there is emotional welfare to consider as well, something I could go on about forever, but I won’t do that here. Critiques of organic plant farming are important too, and will get a mention in future posts!

This is all still a gray area for me. I acknowledge that people are doing what they can to improve conditions for animals raised for food, and some situations are MUCH better than others. I also realize that there is always more that could be done and that this is not always feasible for everyone, and that cost is always a factor when one is relying on animals used for food, even when farmers have the best intentions for the animals. This is still something I struggle with. But the assumption that small/organic/family/etc. farms are always ethical needs to be debunked; there is so much variability between farms, and welfare issues will always exist when someone is using animals for food (and often when they aren’t). What you decide to support and consume will depend on what you’re comfortable with, and the best way to get comfortable is to know what to look for. It’s hard to know what conditions are like unless you visit a farm prepared to ask the right questions. Remember that you are a consumer being sold a product, and you will be shown the best side of any situation unless you do the work yourself to find out about the rest. So far for me, it’s been encouraging to see people refusing to farm using industrial models, but we still have a long way to go before we can call animal operations ethical. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat someone as lovely as Brown Betty hen.

Some of you may also know that I recently visited a sanctuary for farmed animals. I met alot of wonderful people & critters and heard many touching stories of rescue and recovery. Photos from the trip are here as well as the animals’ stories and the sanctuary website. Get in touch if you’d like to talk about anything in this post!