Conversations with the Land

Make Some Room for Old McDonald

By Jim Van Der Pol

Animal husbandry is one of the pursuits that has been simply disallowed for modern humans by the technological powers that be. “We’ll git the Mexicans to do that” it is said. Modern farmworkers are as apt to be brown skinned as black, as can be plainly seen on any of our huge “farms.” Handily, there may be some history of illegal entry which the empire building “farmer” may use to enforce compliant behavior. Al Gore thought agriculture itself should be outsourced. Thus the livestock man joins the craftsman, the poet, the eccentric, and the matriarch in the pile labeled “no longer needed”.

Going vegan is the current 100% solution. Livestock breeding and production ought to be phased out according to this view. Few people who hold this belief have bothered to think seriously about the implications and necessities involved with doing agriculture in a sustained way without livestock, or about any other agricultural question for that matter. And until I see an honest comparison, for instance, between the soil erosion rates in our pastoral livestock production system in Minnesota and those of a spinach ponderosa in California, I do not intend to take any of these intellectual games seriously. What I do take to heart is the fact that the views of working people never get considered. We never get asked.

We are not cowboys. Most of those of us who are any good at all at what we do admit that we know a half dozen women who would be better at our occupation than we are, if they saw a reason to apply themselves to it. But women have been tractored out of agriculture. When the technology came in, they mostly found better things to do, at least those who did not find themselves stuck supporting a hopeless farm with a job in town. The smartest of us old fools that are still farming love the fact that the new truck gardening/community supported agriculture that is growing so fast includes a goodly portion of females, who are better at marketing and who do not have to battle testosterone to keep themselves focused upon the necessary job of production. And a woman, when she goes to care for livestock, starts with a better understanding of a farrowing sow or a cow heavy with calf.

Oh, they have tried to surround the livestock with technology to take the personality out of production and the husbandry out of the farmer. And it works, in its way. But it is a production system no one wants to think about and it produces meat and milk that many people do not want. Some of us have gone back to practices that others of us never left. These farm practices work by means of a connection between the animal mind and the human, by a kind of empathy or sympathy, and a mutual respect. The essence of it is conveyed in the old stockman’s saying: “Slower is faster” which we mutter to ourselves as we go to wean and vaccinate pigs or sort cattle for breeding or to handle bulls.

Farming this way is to deal with animal behavior and biology along with the entire complexity of nature. Things change right in your hands as you are trying to put them together. As you age in the work, you begin to wonder if that change which sometimes so balks and frustrates is not the expression of your own presence in the system, thereby changing it. It gets more difficult to see, much less honor the separation between the biological natural world and the human. Animal husbandry may be the human activity farthest away from the “parks and recreation” approach to nature so common among most Americans who live so completely inside the confines of a man made environment. It recognizes that struggle and compromise is part of any relationship with the natural world, every bit as much as reverence and awe. Patience is the only possible human approach to dealing with something as intractable as a sow with piglets or a bull too long separate from the cow herd. But rather than honor this slow and difficult development of patience (which formerly was thought to be a virtue) in a certain number of us, and ensuring that it continues down the generations by making sure that it is financially rewarded, we have as a people opted for the technological solution.

While many can swallow the development of bio tech corn and soybean crops, and their adaptation to huge systems of mechanical production, they draw the line at a similar approach to animal production. Blasting the DNA of a fungus into a corn seed which is after all, only going to be grown for livestock feed seems not so bad. Injecting cows with an artificial growth hormone and then milking them in continuous confinement while their skeletons outgrow the capacity of their bodies to furnish support is another matter. Now we want it done differently. But it is all of a piece. We will honor farming, or we will not. If we will not, we will not have it. We will have instead what we have been getting. There are a certain number of “old McDonalds” in the rural areas yet that would like to produce animals by careful lifelong attention to genetics of the herd, instead of by following the latest fad, that believe in husbandry and excellent animal care and management, who have depended for their living upon the “stockman’s eye.” I am one of those. However, “McDonald” wants to be paid. He (or she) is getting kind of tired of sucking hind teat. So please choose your food carefully. Then be willing to pay for it.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2010

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