Archive for July 25th, 2007

Bringing Moos and Baas into the Dairy Equation

Interesting article in today’s NY Times Dining Out section about animal welfare and all the parties participating in that movement- animal rights groups, Slow Food, chefs, farmers, etc. One thing that surprises me about the meat debate is the absence of dairy throughout the discussion. Vegetarian dairy consumers enjoy the spoils of the animals and leave the burden of slaughter to the meat eaters when truthfully they are equal players in the production of meat.

Just to give you full disclosure, I am a reformed lacto-ovo vegetarian. Honestly, for ten full years my life felt complete without meat but I never would have made it without a constant supply of dairy products. I was the kind of vegetarian who saw my decision as a personal one- not something anyone else had to take on- based on my desire to not eat anything I didn’t think I could kill.

Unlike most fallen vegetarians, I wasn’t lured back into an omnivorous lifestyle by bacon. Instead it was the halting realization I had during the first week of our Cheese by Hand tour last summer: there is a direct cost in animal life in the production of all dairy products. There is no way around the fact that in order for mammals to lactate they must give birth. No dairy farmer, no matter how big their operation, can support this kind of expansion annually. The males are the first to go- having little use on a dairy farm, and in many cases not all of the females will stay to become part of the milking herd either. This is the undeniable reality of the dairy industry.

Given that I had been working in the dairy industry for three years, this should not have come as a surprise to me and yet somehow it did. I was more than slightly embarrassed to admit to the dairy farmers we visited that I’d been a cheese-gorging vegetarian for so long and yet I did, largely because I respected them too much to hide it. Not only did they not write me off, but often they empathized. They explained that sending animals to slaughter never gets easier for them. Never. In fact, many of them said that it gets more difficult.

Take Karen Weinberg of 3 Corner Field Farm as an example- either she or her husband drives the van with lambs and ewes to the slaughterhouse when it is time for them to go. Watching both of them tend to these animals in the fields and the milking parlor I was compelled to ask Karen flat out what those trips feel like for her. Without hesitation she said that they have gotten harder as she has gotten more organized- because she is less distracted from what she is doing. The beautiful thing about what she does on her farm is how absolutely honest it is. Karen and her family commit to giving those animals the best possible existence while they are with them and they remain present to what those animals go through right up to the end.

Many farmstead producers we spoke with echoed these sentiments- David Finney at Willow Hill Farm, Helen and Rick Feete of Meadowcreek Dairy, Alyce Birchenough of Sweet Home Farm- all of them said that sending an animal to slaughter is both an incredibly difficult decision for them and completely necessary if they are to stay in business. Their response to that difficulty is the same for them- rather than distance themselves from their feelings they focus on providing the best possible environment for those animals.

Labeling cheese as vegetarian feels like a half-truth. It indirectly perpetuates a myth that all animals on a dairy farm are allowed to live out their years until they die of natural causes. On numerous occasions at the farmers’ market I’ve watched people walk up to Karen’s booth, recoil at the site of meat (or worse, ask for it to be covered up) as they order their cheese, yogurt or milk. They don’t understand, or believe Karen when she tells them, that the meat is from the lambs that were born so that she would have milk to sell and to make cheese and yogurt.

I can’t think of a more disrespectful way to treat the people who provide food (not to mention the animals themselves), that we the consumers demand, than to ignore their sacrifices or criticize them of cruelty to the very animals upon which their livelihood depends. Not every dairy farmer out there shares this kind of regard for their herd- we know that from the news stories we see about feed lots and abuse. Lacto-ovo vegetarians should feel the same sense of obligation that they would like meat-eaters to have in seeking producers who share their values on the ethical treatment of animals. Not just the milking animals but all of the animals produced on their farms or on the farms that supply them with milk.

As a result of the time we spent on dairy farms I did decide to eat meat again but, more importantly, I felt compelled to be completely honest with myself about what it means to consume cheese and other dairy products.  Whether I’m consuming meat, cheese, vegetables or grains- I’m interested in acknowledging what was involved in producing my food. You don’t have to eat meat to prove your dedication to dairy- you just can’t claim that you have no part in its production.

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