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pride yourselves

hi y’all. For the first time ever on this blog, here’s a little pride-related post. There are many, many people in the world who deserve more recognition for what they do. Here are just a few, on the wide spectrum of gender & sexuality, who not only work (or worked) for humans, but for other animals too.

Alice Walker

“I am not a lesbian. I am not bisexual. I am curious. If you are really alive, how can you be in one place that whole time?”

She’s brought us so many amazing works of fiction, poetry, & essays, including the famous book (and film) The Colour Purple. Check out her website.

“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons.  They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”

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no joke.

It’s been a while that I wanted to write about a gruesome topic that came up a few months ago. I still don’t know exactly how to word this post, but I want to do a bit of justice to the events by talking about them here.

You may have heard a while back that (brace yourself) the heads of six dead cats were found around Stouffville, an area north of Toronto. I remember hearing about it last fall and being grossed out and angered. This article covers the details from the time when the heads were discovered. The article includes two video interviews, and states that investigations are underway by police and SPCA officials. Whether or not you feel comfortable about police involvement, I think we can all agree that it’s important for something to be done.

I know this is an awful thing to think about, but bear with me. It’s possible that coyotes are the culprits, though the very public location of the heads seems suspicious and the investigators don’t think that is the case. Whether it was coyotes or humans, you probably feel some sense of justice knowing that a search is happening to try and find the person(s) who did this. You may feel glad that it’s getting media attention, enough to be on national news. You probably empathize with the cats and feel they deserve justice. I feel that way, too. When disgusting things like this happen at the hands of humans, investigations are important so that future acts can be prevented, and reported on so that more people can become aware of what’s happening and to let perpetrators know that they’re not getting off easy.

Now, I want to tell a related story. I’ll admit that this is not something I witnessed myself, but it was told to me by friends, neither of whom are affiliated with any animal protection organizations.

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vegan mythbusting: ethics

Welcome to a new, soon-to-be-regular blog feature: vegan mythbusting!

People ask me all kinds of stuff about vegan life. People probably also assume all kinds of things about it (like that I went vegan because my reaction to seeing a piglet was similar to the drawing below. I probably would fawn over a cute piglet – who wouldn’t?! – but this goes deeper than a squee!) Sometimes those things are evident, and probably a lot of them aren’t. Why not talk about it?

People find out I’m vegan and probably think it’s because I once saw a piglet and did this

Before we go on, let’s be clear: the point of vegan mythbusting isn’t to get all the backup I have and tell the world that what they think is wrong. That doesn’t help anyone. The goal here is to create a clearer understanding of what really lies behind our plates of veggie bacon. I can only speak for myself, so start a conversation if you know someone else who’s veg and are interested in what their motivations are.

Today’s Vegan Myth: Your ethics concern animals alone and/or prioritize non-humans over humans. You must be ignorant and/or insensitive.

This is a common one. It often gets presented to me in the form of “there are so many other problems in the world, why aren’t you trying to help people instead?”

(What a cop-out question. Who says you can’t do both? And who says that being vegan only helps animals? If I started eating animals again, would it help any marginalized group in their struggle? I’ll elaborate on this in a bit.)

When it comes to the question of what motivates vegans, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

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seasonal changes

Hello readers,

welcome to another sporadic post. I promise that in the months since the last entry I’ve accumulated some extra good stuff to write about!

The main growing season is slowing a bit now as the summer veggies have given in to the first frosts, and the winter veggies become our main focus. Those summer veggies held on for a long time this year – we had our last harvest of peppers and eggplants in October! We’re still harvesting winter veg as we move through December, as many people are surprised to learn. The cold storage and root cellar are gradually filling up with goodies like carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, cabbage, parsnips and celeriac. It’s amazing how resilient some plants are.

First snow!
first snow

We’re also down a market now, and another ends within the next weeks. Having one less market per week to worry about is a bit of a relief, even though I really enjoy working the markets (despite the early mornings and the long drives sometimes made in the dark). This season I was grateful to learn how appreciative people are of the food. One market was in an area with a racially diverse population, and residents of differing backgrounds often recognized the vegetables as ones they would use traditionally but which can’t be found at the big supermarkets. Many market-goers were excited to tell me what they liked to make with specific vegetables. I learned that Independence day in Mexico is often celebrated by making stuffed poblano peppers; that basil is not only common in Italian cooking, but also Iranian; was recommended an at-home cough remedy made with radishes that was used in eastern Europe during periods of communism, when no antibiotics were available; and had regular customers coming back each week for months at a time because they found veggies like tomatillos at our stand – items which are part of their cultural menus, but were not on any grocery store shelves. It’s so rewarding to know people feel connected to what we grow. I hope this sparks ideas for folks who want these kinds of foods, which can be grown in their own backyards or on their own porches.

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having a field day

Hello blog-readers,

suddenly it’s July and I find myself so busy with farm work that I haven’t written anything about it until now!

I started a job at a new farm this spring in a supervisory role, which is exciting. Things have been going well and I’m learning a lot, as I expected to. We grow many of the vegetable crops I’m already familiar with, and some that are new to me, but the farm is run quite differently than any I’ve been at before. I always find it interesting to see how each farm does things, and this has definitely been a good learning experience so far. Brushing up on efficiency and becoming familiar with the small details are important parts of my position there, and I expect it to take the whole season before I really know it well, but things are going smoothly and I’m enjoying it of course.

Organic salad greens are relatively lucrative (and delicious). We grow many.GH

Most of my days are spent with the non-salad veggies, like this bok choi, in the field.choi

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self-care, appreciation, fear, clarity

Greetings readers, from the lovely Slocan Valley (yet again)! I’ve been putting off posting for the last few weeks because so many things have happened that it’s overwhelming trying to make something coherent out of it all. So, this is my attempt.

To give you a brief idea, some of the things I’ve been up to recently include living off-grid, going to my first garlic festival, observing the power of intuition and intention, harvesting lots of root vegetables, skinny dipping in Kootenay Lake, and hunting for delicious wild mushrooms!

Pebble beach, on Kootenay Lake

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a fish story

Here’s a story I wanted to share earlier that slipped my mind.

When I was in Ucluelet, I was chatting with one of the roommates of the person we stayed with, and found out that he works at a salmon farm. I told him (truthfully) that I had never visited a fish farm, and did he enjoy working there? The response I got was interesting and insightful. The company in question is one that’s striving to create a better living environment for the fish it farms; it uses an offshore, in-ocean pen (cage) system and doesn’t crowd so many fishes into each pen as some other farm do. The worker was pleased to know this, and also proud that the company avoided using antibiotics sub-therapeutically* (something that’s done to many different “food” animals who are raised in conventional systems.) (*This means feeding antibiotics frequently/routinely to animals who are not yet sick.)

Some things this person is unhappy with included observing the parasite load of the fishes in the pens and thinking about what impact that might have on the surrounding ocean ecosystem. He also felt conflicted over the way the fish were fed; their main source of food at the farm was herring (salmon are a carnivorous fish). He explained to me that he felt proud to work for a company that was trying to improve fish farm standards, but that this fact means the price of the salmon is high and thus only available to high-paying customers. Basically, the rich get to eat the salmon, the salmon eat herring (which could be feeding more people), and the area around the fish farm was potentially being affected by its presence in a negative way.

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valley days

Hi readers! I’m in the West Kootenays! Said goodbye to the coast just over a week ago, and trucked (bused, actually) out here for the rest of the season. It was tough to leave the ocean behind, let me tell you, although the Slocan river is a good consolation prize – cool and close by.

My last days at the blueberry farm were relaxed and lovely. I picked Logan berries with the grandchildren, took the dogs on walks in the woods, picked mummy berries off the blueberry plants, and generally enjoyed where I was. On my last evening there I was treated to a trip to Cathedral Grove, which is home to some very old trees. The oldest one was about 800 years old! Incredible.

Inside a very old cedar tree. Amazing. I hope southern Ontario sees trees this size one day

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a bit more on the use of animals, plus some recommended reading/viewing

I’ve been thinking about a few things lately that I wanted to add after writing this post about animal advocacy and “ethical” farms.

First off, here is a critique of small-scale, outdoor farming of birds (in this case, chickens) as it relates to sustainability and “humane”. As you can see from the blog entry and the comments, the definition of “sustainable” is foggy territory. This is a very interesting perspective, and this is the only time I’ve ever encountered it, but it’s important to note. Also, the author of the blog uses chickens as food and there is a lot of focus on efficiency yet again, even though this is a small operation.

Second (related): the blog entry above mentions Joel Salatin (here’s his farm website). Many people around me have glorified this person’s methods. He appears in the movie Food Inc to discuss his operation; his focus is on the area of sustainability and keeping animals outdoors. I want to point out some critiques of this system, specifically his overwintering of cattle, and the use of chicken tractors.

In Food Inc, we saw that Salatin keeps all the cattle on his farm inside a barn for the winter months, allowing their manure to accumulate to heat the barn (commonly done on farms) and so that in the spring, it’s all in one place for the pigs to come in and root through to make compost. If you’re familiar with hooved animals, you’ll know that standing in very wet conditions, or unsanitary ones such as months’ buildup of manure, causes hoof problems such as thrush or foot rot. You also probably know that foot/hoof problems are extremely dangerous in that the more minor ones can progress into serious ailments such as abscesses and bone infection. These are obviously painful and some are irreversible. I would call into question the welfare of animals kept in the same dirty barn for months on end for this and other reasons (air quality, obvious problems with confining animals for long periods of time), even though it seems like a convenient way to store manure and heat a barn cheaply (does this sound like cutting costs is the focus? I’d say so, and it sounds like those costs are externalized onto the animals, as usual.) The article I linked to about foot rot mentions surgery as an option, but I’ll bet the percentage of people who are farming cattle that would actually pay for such a treatment is zero – it doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint when a sick animal can simply be sent to slaughter and replaced. This is what happens when folks use animals to make money, and when folks use animals to feed themselves and can’t/won’t pay for proper care for them. It’s what happens when individuals are viewed as commodities.

As well, the chicken tractor. This is something Joel Salatin uses and many small farms in Ontario also use. Here’s a photo of one.

For those who don’t know, this is an enclosed pen with wheels that can be moved from place to place on a piece of land (the idea is to not to keep the birds in one place for too long, in order to preserve the grass/soil, and to allow the birds to forage). Many people I’ve met who use this method for keeping birds treat it as a “free range” option. The picture above is about the same or less, crowding-wise, as what I’ve seen at some farms in Ontario. Now, I’d like you to look at this picture of a barn full of “meat” birds (industrial-scale farming). Observe how much space they have, and then look back at the chicken tractor picture above and observe how much space those birds have.

Looks pretty similar, doesn’t it? The chicken tractor is a far smaller space and obviously it houses less birds, but the level of crowding is still quite high. As well, I haven’t seen roosts or dustbathing materials in any chicken tractors I’ve encountered (perching/roosting and dustbathing are behaviours that chickens do on a daily basis.) Although I’m sure the outdoor chicken tractor is cleaner because it can be moved around so that waste doesn’t accumulate, it seems like a nice-looking confinement system to me. It can also be more vulnerable to predators, depending on the design. And as stated, the crowding is an issue – putting this many birds in an environment with nowhere to retreat from one another and such little space does not allow for proper social structure to develop, and thus probably causes fights and injuries, and stress in general. These are many of the same problems that exist on large-scale confinement operations such as the barn pictured.

Anyway, this is a reminder to me to keep a critical eye on systems that get idealized as being more sustainable/humane/whatever. It is positive to see people making the effort to develop better alternatives to factory farms, but we need to keep evaluating them to ensure they’re actually improving things. We also need to remember that using animals means not truly putting their needs first, as the #1 goal is to achieve a certain level of “production” (growth of muscle, number of eggs laid, etc). ETA: Jo-Anne McArthur of We Animals has compiled an album of her own photographs from visits to small/organic/humane farms and slaughterhouses. You can view it on the We Animals facebook page.

For folks into in anti-oppressive work, you may be interested in Breeze Harper’s blog, the Sistah Vegan Project, in which she posts (often in video form) about how race, gender and animal issues intersect. This is the focus of her academic writing, and I find hers a very interesting perspective. I’ve learned some valuable things about critical race theory from reading her blog, which I’m grateful for because I’ve recently been struggling to find a way to do that. She often discusses topics like colonialism, vegan pregnancy, and body shaming. It can be a little consumerism-heavy for me (although she is critical of capitalism), but still relevant and important.

The next thing I want to share is a talk by Dr. Melanie Joy. I heard about her a year or two ago but was avoiding watching this talk because I was all food-politicked out at the time. While packing for my WWOOF trip, I decided it was a good time to put this on and watch. I enjoyed it much more than I’d anticipated! The topic she discusses specifically has to do with the psychology that allows us to justify using others (in this case, other animals) even though it may be contrary to our values or feelings towards them. She also touches on ways in which this issue is related to other struggles. Very interesting and thought-provoking, and I recommend watching it. Be aware that there is a short but graphic video of some of the abuses faced by farmed animals, but she gives the audience fair warning so you can choose whether to watch it or not (I skipped it, because I’m already very familiar with this stuff). The talk is about an hour long and besides that few minutes, is not heavy on violent or shocking images/videos at all.

For those of you who are eagerly awaiting more stories from my WWOOF adventure, never fear! I’m working on an update about what I’ve been doing, & will try to have it up within the next few days. For the time being, here’s a picture of one of Beth’s foxglove (digitalis) flowers!

ETA: I just got back from a stroll down the road, and came across a mama doe and her wee fawn! Mama took extra care deciding when to cross the road (waiting til the cars were gone) before leading her baby across. Beautiful!

on ethical farms and animal advocacy

I recently saw this graphic through the page of Jo-Anne McArthur, a Canadian photographer and activist, and it inspired me to continue reflecting on the unique space I occupy as a person who’s involved with smaller, more sustainable farming, and also as someone who advocates for the lives and well-being of other animals.

It’s tough to reconcile this combination. The image above is a good representation of the conflict I feel. Although “grass fed” or “free range” animals arguably live more naturally and freely than individuals raised in factory systems, the end result is the same and this deserves consideration. But, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to minimize the efforts people are making to develop alternatives to factory farms – I’m sure a hen who can run and stretch and dust bathe is much happier than one who cannot do these things because she lives in a battery cage, even though both are eventually killed. That doesn’t mean I think it’s okay to use other individuals for our own means by ignoring or sacrificing their interests and well-being, especially for products we don’t need.

Over the years I’ve been toying with creating a sort of guide for people to use to determine how ethical or humane a farm is. (Each person’s idea of “ethical” is different, but knowing about the issues at hand helps us decide who and what we want to support). People often read words like “free range” or see cattle on pasture and assume that the animals are receiving the absolute best care, and that all their needs are being met. Few people ask questions about the real details of the animals’ lives, because the picture presented to us looks nice, and because the needs of farmed animals are not something most people are familiar with. But it’s important to remember that when someone is trying to sell something, they will show you the most appealing part of the picture (this is true for anyone trying to sell a product, regardless of what it is). I think most people who eat animals hope or even expect them to be treated kindly, but it’s important for us to have some knowledge of what that means if we are to truly know whether an operation is doing so.

Birds in a free range Canadian chicken farm. Credit to Jo-Anne McArthur, from her We Animals collection.

The following are examples of questions I’d ask a farmer before deciding whether I was comfortable supporting them. These can be applied to a wide variety of animal farms, whether the animals are used for food or fiber or anything else, and whether the farm is organic or not.

  • What do you feed the animals?
  • Do you castrate, debeak or dehorn the animals? Why/why not? If yes, how? What kind of pain management (ie. anaesthetic, post-op pain killers) do you provide?
  • What kinds of euthanasia methods are used?
  • If you are an organic farmer, what do you do when sick or injured individuals are not responding to permitted forms of treatment?  (ie. do you use other forms of treatment even if it means sacrificing organic certification?)
  • What kind of mortality rate do you typically have among your herd/flock/etc? In general, what’s the biggest health issue that threatens the animals?

This is a (very) short version of a mental list I created using the knowledge I gained through my Animal Biology (read: how to factory farm) degree, and from visits to various types of large and small farms over the years. Here’s my reasoning behind some of these questions.

  • Feed type is a welfare concern especially for pigs and cattle. Pigs are prone to stomach ulcers and their incidence is correlated with feed type (note the focus on “performance” in this article). Most of the cattle who are farmed in Canada are fed corn and other grains, which they can’t digest well, and consequently experience metabolic diseases and other ailments. For instance, the dairy industry is structured such that cows are impregnated young and at every opportunity, so at any given time, a cow may be growing her own body, growing a calf inside of her, and also lactating, which is obviously a huge strain on her; cows literally can’t eat enough roughage (their natural food source) to meet their nutritional needs under these conditions. Humans have created this problem and have tried to solve it through feeding cows richer foods, but because cattle can’t digest these foods well, they become prone to ulcers, rumen acidosis and E. coli or Clostridium infection.  A second problem has instead been created. More here.
  • “Processing” of animals by cutting off parts of their bodies is routine in industrial farming, but is also present in the small farming world. While discouraged under Canada’s Organic Standards, it is permitted, and unfortunately procedures such as castration, tail docking and de-beaking is allowed without any pain management, just like in the non-organic farming world. The option to provide anaesthesia during the procedure and pain killers afterward is left up to the farmer, who may not prioritize pain relief, or it may not be practical economically or time-wise. These procedures are often done by farm workers, not veterinarians. A typical reason for them is to prevent animals from injuring each other in crowded or barren living spaces (another human-created problem). In the case of hens used for eggs, hatcheries will often de-beak chicks before they are shipped to farms, so farmers may have no choice in the matter (and of course, neither do the birds). More on piglet “processing” (note the distancing language used and the focus on animals’ growth or “production efficiency”.)

I found a book in the farm library about how to raise goats for milk and meat. Here are some related excerpts.

One-page-long castration how-to. Note the total lack of mention of anaesthetic or pain killers (never mind how ridiculous it is to use a book to learn how to do surgery!) Also note the focus on growth efficiency.

Another page-long how-to about de-horning or disbudding (destroying the young horn tissue). Again, no mention of pain management even though a third or fourth degree burn is being inflicted. At the end, the book suggests offering a bottle of warm milk, as though that’s going to provide any relief. Horns are important to animals for temperature regulation; they have soft tissue under the bone and are used to shed excess body heat, among other things. Animals housed properly should not fight severely enough to seriously injure each other. They can also be selectively bred to have no horns at all (ie. polled).

At the end of this chapter, a task list is given, as though all of these procedures are as simple as learning a few new words to add to your vocabulary.

  • You can see from some of the articles I’ve linked to that farming is very much a business, and therefore efficiency is a top priority. If an individual becomes sick or injured or their “production efficiency” is no longer at its peak, they are a burden to the business, and are thus culled. They may be sent to the slaughterhouse, or killed on the farm by being gassed or shot.  A typical “euthanasia” method for factory farmed piglets who are not growing fast enough is to be picked up by the hind legs and have their heads pounded against the floor or wall of the barn. I’ve also heard of people hanging animals, or hitting them in the head with hammers, in order to “euthanize” them. It is difficult for third parties to monitor practices such as these to ensure animals are being killed in a way that minimizes suffering. Here are the AVMA’s guidelines (that’s right, guidelines, not rules) on various methods of euthanasia (PDF) Also note the technical jargon that distances readers from the individuals in question, such as “cervical dislocation” (breaking of the neck). I have to wonder what negative effects seeing or performing this kind of euthanasia has on a person.
  • Regarding organic farms and certification: there are ways to treat sick animals that are permitted under the Canadian Organic Standards. However, certain substances are prohibited or controlled. This means a farmer may have to choose whether sick individuals receive proper health care but risk losing certification status for those individuals, or potentially let the animals suffer in order for their milk, eggs or bodies to stay certified. To be fair, the Standards demand that farmers “break” certification if necessary in order to properly treat animals for their ailments, however, this can be hard to monitor, and organic products raise a premium, so it’s not hard to see how a problem might go untreated. Some people who work for certifying bodies may also be more lenient than others, throwing further complications into the mix. I’ve observed animals being raised organically who were wasting away from parasites (and some, dying) due to inadequate treatment. In some situations, as is often the case when individuals are viewed as commodities, injury and illness go unnoticed or ignored and result in death; farmers don’t always provide health care when animals become sick and injured. Unfortunately, a widespread idea exists among the general population that if farmed animals are going to be killed, it isn’t necessary or worthwhile to provide them with proper health care. This attitude is precisely why so much suffering occurs in the industry.

Here is a photo I took of a young turkey on a local organic farm. She appeared to have a sinus or respiratory infection and was about half the size of her flock mates.

  • Mortality rate and its common causes are of interest because they can indicate whether a farmer is providing proper care to their animals. For example, if a common reason for losing animals is cold or heat stress, you might deduce that they are not being provided with adequate living conditions. Although shelter from extreme weather is a very basic need, this sort of thing does happen. (Again, an article focusing on profits lost). If you google a photo of a feedlot or observe animals in an open field without any form of shelter, you’ll understand why. The article linked states that a 1-2% mortality rate is the norm on South Dakota feedlots. It’s not always feasible to prevent every death, but the way people keep farmed animals is often the cause.

It’s important to ask yourself how you feel about practices such as the above, why you feel that way, and whether you’re comfortable supporting farms that use them. Would you feel comfortable supporting a horse or dog farm if these conditions were present? Why/why not? Another very important thing is to keep in mind that every individual has relationships with herd/flock mates, forms bonds with others, and has a will to live (survival instinct), regardless of the kind of life or death they experience.

The root of the problem in my mind is the prioritization of profit over the lives of the individuals being used to gain it; a great example is that of the ‘dairy’ cows being fed improperly due to the stress of the ‘production’ cycle.  The idea that some individuals are more worthy of compassion and respect than others is one that exists in so many realms, both between groups of humans, and between humans and other animals. Our focus on making money, and the way our society enforces that at almost any cost, is unfortunately the cause of so much of this privileging and domination (and therefore suffering). I reject the notion that money is the most important thing in the world, even though I acknowledge that our society is set up in a way that makes it pretty near impossible to live without. I also reject the idea that certain individuals are entitled to the lives or bodies of others, and should use them against their will. My aim is for my food choices to reflect this, and to help embody the qualities I need or value in myself and others.

I do want to make it clear that I don’t see folks who farm animals as a mass of faceless evil. Although I don’t feel comfortable consuming animals or animal products, I’ve seen first hand the efforts people are making to provide safer and (more) respectful care for the individuals they’re using, and the benefits to those individuals because of it. This doesn’t justify using or killing others for products we don’t need, but I’m hopeful that as more people come to understand the current food system and its pitfalls, they’ll continue working to change it into something more positive (whether for humans, other animals, or the planet.)  In the meantime I’ve decided not to support animal agriculture at all (among other choices like consuming organic and whole foods) because that’s the most respectful and sensible option for me. Like I said earlier in this post, each person’s idea of what is acceptable and ethical is different.

Please also realize that what I’ve talked about here is one part of a very complex series of problems that exist in agriculture today. I haven’t addressed things like environmental destruction, pollution, migrant farm workers’ issues, the local food movement, food security, nutrition, preservation of farmland, food labeling or GMOs. All of these things come into play whenever we eat. I’m very fortunate to be able to access animal-free foods, to grow my own food, and to have access to organic and local foods. In this post I’ve stuck to the topic I know the most about, but I encourage everyone to look into these other issues as well (as am I). I’m more than happy to have conversations about this subject and share more of my experiences in person.

Whatever the case may be, know that your decisions affect billions of other individuals. Taste is personal, and food should be enjoyed – if any of you have ever eaten a meal with me, you’ll know how strongly I feel about this! I also understand that others are affected by our food choices who have no choice. We have the power to inflict great harm, or to demonstrate great compassion. And we have the choice.