The Ethical Omnivore

2017/01/27 deej 0

Some philosophy to start the day. 🙂 This may be controversial, you have been warned.

 

I disagree with veganism on ethical grounds. Not the veganism which is based on some (incredibly rare, but real) allergies or food intolerances to any sort of animal protein, but the sort which is based on an ethical regard for animal welfare. I have quite a lot of vegan and vegan-tending friends, and I know this’ll touch a nerve for most of them, but – I still think it’s true.

 

This is not about not wanting to eat dead animals. I get that. I understand the idea that killing an animal or having one killed for our benefit, when we don’t actually need it (vegetarian proteins are entirely adequate for human health) is a bad thing. I especially respect people who say that they couldn’t personally kill an animal, and as such they think it’s wrong for them to eat meat. I feel a lot more comfortable eating my own animals – animals which have had good lives, have been fed well and given as utopian an environment as I can manufacture for them, and which I know for a fact to have been killed painlessly and with as little stress as is humanly possible. I don’t feel good about eating an animal which has suffered for my benefit. I literally call traditional intensively raised chickens “torture chicken” to my friends & family, to make them think about the difference in the lives of higher welfare and free range birds. I’m increasingly inclined to only eat animals which I have raised, or which have been raised by people I trust to give them the kind of life I would want them to have.

 

I even understand not wanting to take advantage of animals which are raised to produce milk, or eggs, or leather, or honey. Dairy cows arguably have a worse life than beef cattle do, and dairy calves are usually killed very young (and not even as veal for human use – we’ve gotten so fussy that a lot of dairy calves aren’t a good enough grade for use as human food, so they’re mulched or made into pet food) to keep their mothers producing more milk for human use. Male chicks from chicken farms breeding laying birds are ground up alive to make high-protein meal, which is often then fed to the layer and breeder birds. Overbreeding of honeybees has led to such weak queens that the hives’ immune systems are weakened and the hives are susceptible to diseases and parasites which add to Colony Collapse Disorder (although not as much as neonicotioid pesticides do). So don’t think I don’t get it. I do. I would miss honey, but if I thought bees would be better off if I gave up honey, I would do it. (I gave up tuna because I feel bad about eating endangered species which can’t be farmed, even though it’s really delicious and I do miss it.)

 

But there are two problems.

 

First – refusing to engage with animal-based agricultural industries means that your preferences about the welfare of the animals no longer affect the decisions of the farmers keeping those animals. You are effectively arguing that everyone should be vegan, otherwise your choice makes very little difference to the animals whose health and happiness you are concerned about.

 

Second – humans and our various associate species (domesticated animals) made an agreement a long time ago, between their ancestors and ours. We agreed to provide them with a good life, an easy life of always-available food and water, safety for their babies, and what medical care we could give. In return, they agreed to provide us with the products of their bodies – meat, milk, eggs, honey, leather, wool – and with companionship, support, and labour. But while we have the option to get out of that agreement, they no longer do. They rely on us entirely, and so we are responsible for the wellbeing of their entire species as well as their individual wellbeing.

 

When we refuse to use animal products, we make it economically unviable for farmers to maintain the species who produce them. And we owe those species. We owe them care and food and an easy, good life for their descendants, forever. Because we have changed them through domestication to the point where most of them can no longer survive without us, we cannot in good faith simply abandon them. If we no longer need them, then we will no longer keep them, and they will become extinct. How many people would really keep pet cows, goats, or sheep if milk and meat and wool weren’t a factor, or chickens if we couldn’t eat their eggs? Enough to maintain genetic diversity in the species, and keep it alive? How many people even have enough space to consider keeping that sort of pet? How many people keep pet horses (not including horses kept for riding, or for pulling carts of various sorts for human recreation)? Horses, which are intelligent, loyal, genuinely affectionate companions equivalent in many ways to a dog. There are very few pet horses which don’t also serve a purpose through their labour.

 

I think it would be a tragedy to allow these species, in all their diversity, to go extinct. We would lose something intensely human by losing those old relationships with our associate species. I think we are responsible for them, and as such we should work to breed healthier animals which live well and don’t produce obscene amounts for our benefit at their expense – but that are still useful to keep. Heritage breed chickens which lay every couple’ve days are healthier and happier than battery-bred birds which lay every single day and live half as long because they use up the calcium in their bones to make egg-shells. Heritage breed sheep and cows are often smaller and friendlier than the modern types which are bred for pure production potential, and we should be keeping those breeds if we can, and maintaining them. We should care if our pork comes from heritage breed free range pigs, or factory farmed animals which can’t be free ranged at all because they get such bad sunburn if they go outdoors. We should care if our chicken comes from heritage birds which mature healthily, or from cross-bred “broilers” which are killed at six weeks old because if they live any longer they are literally crippled (broken legs, crumbling bones) by their muscle growth outstripping their bones ability to hold them upright.

 

So I think we should, generally, eat less meat. Maybe even less dairy (or at least we should be willing to pay the actual costs of production for dairy products – and other foods). But I think opting out of consuming or using animal products at all is not actually the most ethical decision. I think it’s a much better option, ethically speaking, to be very aware of where your food and clothing comes from and to actively support farmers who are offering their animals (and plants!) a good life and high welfare.

 

I hope this sort of idea encourages people to think about their food choices more carefully. If you don’t want to consume animal products, that’s your choice, absolutely. And if eating animals or animal products squicks you, totally don’t do it. But if it’s an ethical choice, maybe you could think about how ethical it actually is, and how you could do the most good for animal welfare through your purchasing and consumption choices.

The local farm shop

2016/03/30 deej 0

Local may be overstating it slightly, but still. We recently visited our closest and most convenient farm shop. Like real grown-up farmers.

 

For those who may not know, a farm shop is a retailer which specialises in equipment and supplies for farms and farmers. It’s a little like the love-child of a Bunnings style hardware store and the rural bakery/deli that inevitably exists in every small town. They carry everything from reticulation pipes & connectors to worming medications for animals to pasture seed. Which is what we were there for.

 

This winter is not the time for goats, or geese. This spring still may not be – there’s an awful lot of infrastructure to get in first. But eventually, goats and geese will happen. I am still dreaming of a house cow too, although my spreadsheets tell me that it’s really not financially worthwhile (the cost of annual insemination is too high to make the beef from an annual steer worth it, and milk is so cheap that I can’t use it to offset the cost of keeping a cow unless I bottom out my feed price estimates completely). But either way, we still need pasture, so I did some research, and I have the first pass of pasture seed.

 

Proper commercial seed, too – it’s kinda exciting. We bought 5 kg each of Irwin Hunters’ Northern Perennial Pasture Mix and SARDI 10 series 2 lucerne. Both are hardy, suited to this locality and climate in a rainfed (non-irrigated) system, and both should be effective in holding down the soil and preventing erosion as well as providing some good fodder for animals. The pasture mix is recommended at 5 – 10 kg per hectare, and the lucerne at 7 – 9 kg per hectare (or 5 – 7 if combined with something else), and as our initial pasture area is about one hectare we thoguth we’d start with that much. I will be adding some other bits & pieces to it as well – marigolds, dandelions, clover, and a bunch of herbs which are supposed to be good for milk flavour and volume in dairy animals. A scattering of flax and sunflowers for variety, and because pastures should have flowers. And because the seeds are good for butterfat content in dairy animals. Maybe radishes or chicory.

 

The plan is to make a batch of seedballs with this lot, to give the pasture plants the best start we can without heavy tillage. It worked in Japan for Masanobu Fukuoka, so it should work here too. So we’ll be pulling out the seedball machine in a week or two.

 

This was only my second ever visit to a farm shop (the first being a few years ago to pick up samples of soil bacteria innoculants). It’s still a challenge to me, with my expectation of everything being online and having at least a PDF catalogue on their website – farm shops in general seem to not really have caught on that a website is more than a glossy advertising page a la the old White Pages. Having to go in person or phone just to see if they carry the things I want is weird for me, but I can do it. I have 10 kg of pasture seed to prove that. 🙂

Pasture

2015/12/03 deej 1

I’m sure anyone who reads these posts regularly knows that we’re pretty keen to increase our menagerie, but I don’t think I’ve explained clearly why that is. It isn’t just for the milk and meat that we want to get goats and a cow, although they are part of the reason. It’s for the soil.

Soil is the heart and the root of any ecosystem, including farm ecosystems. Healthy soil is absolutely essential if you want to grow healthy plants, and produce any sort of yield from the ground. The modern methods of land management call for huge inputs of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and those methods have really big problems. Most of the industrial chemicals we use on farmland are derived from petroleum products – they’re made from oil. And oil is a finite resource which we are going to run short of, probably in the near future. On top of that, the strength of the chemical fertilisers is damaging to the soil bacteria and other soil life (earthworms, fungi, etc.) which keep the soil alive – this isn’t an anti-chemicals rant (because literally everything bigger than a subatomic particle is made of chemicals), but the types of chemicals we use and the concentrations we use are bad for our soils.

You know what’s good for soil? Poo. Good, old fashioned manure. Just like farmers have been using around the world since the dawn of agriculture. That’s why animals have been so important to crop farmers for so long.

At the moment, we have a composting toilet which receives our own poo and the used kitty litter form our cats. That will compost slowly for a year, then go into a hot compost system to kill off any remaining pathogens, then we can use it on our garden (mainly for the fruit trees, just in case). We have the chickens, and the guinea fowl keets, and their poo is going to be very useful in adding nitrogen to the soil; we’re going to put a mobile chicken coop together in the new year so we can rotate the chooks around the property. The real win, however, is going to be ruminants.

We’ve walked out approximate distances, and we definitely have space for 12 – 20 paddocks. The plan is to put in posts marking the corners of the paddocks (which will be quite small), and get fencing to surround 2 paddocks at any given time. We’ll rotate the ruminants around every 2 weeks or so, which should give the pasture time to recover from intensive grazing. This replicates the natural actions of wild ruminants, which bunch together for protection form predators and move frequently to new grazing areas – and it’ll mean that all the plants are grazed equally. The chooks will be 1 paddock behind the ruminants, so they can eat leftover grain (from the supplemental feed we’ll provide to the ruminants), and spread the poo out by scratching around in it, eating maggots as they go.

Step 1 of this plan is marking out the paddocks, and planting some pasture. Step 1A is deciding on the pasture species. this is not as easy as it might seem – who knew there were so many variations on grass? I’m definitely putting in tagasaste and lucerne, and as many varieties of clover and sub-clover as I can get hold of/afford. If I can get some seeds I’ll put in some Lebeckia ambigua as well – a summer-growing pasture legume which doesn’t need extra water sounds like a brilliant option. But then the grasses. I have, at the moment, no idea what I’ll plant. By march I need to have a plan so I can put in the seed order, and then the seed will go in around May to germinate with the first rains and get established. And then I still have to wait at least 3 – 6 months before putting grazers on it in case they just kill the baby pasture before it gets established.

Plausible marketing options – initial thoughts

2015/06/30 deej 0

I’ve been thinking about agriculture – well, for some time now, actually. Thus the currently-in-progress Masters of Sustainable Agriculture. But I’ve been thinking of it in our specific context for the last few weeks.

I would like our farm to be more or less self sufficient. I don’t mean in the homesteading survivalist sense, although producing as much of our own food as we can would be cool and is one of the goals. I mean in the overall part of the local economy sense, that the things we produce can either be sold directly or used by us to offset our living costs enough that they are effectively cost neutral. The benefits we get either in money or bartered goods, or in using the things we produce ourselves and so not having to buy their equivalents is at least equal to the cost of producing them.

It’s a fairly ambitious goal. I know that. I’ve probably done more market research on price points for various products and what the costs of production are for those products than is normal.

I have no definitive conclusions yet, but I have some ideas. There’s Farmhouse Direct, a virtual farmers market set up by Australia Post to allow producers to sell direct to the public while sharing the marketing benefits of being on a single, well-maintained website. Physical farmers markets are an option too, but since I’m counting the notional cost of labour in the costs that these products have to offset, the time required to sit at a market stall all day on a Saturday makes the offset difficult – even calculating it based on minimum wage, and I would like to pay myself more than that for my own labour.

My latest idea, based on the number of people who have enquired about buying some of our eggs from us due to concerns about commercially available eggs and poultry management practices, is a sort of co-op / CSA notion. I genuinely love my chickens, and I intend to get more, as well as some other farmyard poultry – but there’s no real way I can use the number of eggs that they’ll produce. And I really want a miniature cow, and a couple’ve milk goats, but again – there’s only so much cheese I can make or milk I can use in the time I have available. So I thought, perhaps I could ask some friends and family and co-workers if they’d be interested in paying a monthly subscription fee to pay for the upkeep of the relevant animals and receiving a share of the produce in return. If we set it up well then as the olive grove and the orchard start to produce, the shares would include fresh fruit (and maybe jam, seasonally) and olives (pre-pickled, not raw inedible ones).

I don’t know if it would work, but I know a lot of people who care about the provenance of their food enough to keep animals but don’t have the space, time, or mental bandwidth to do so. Even chickens do take a certain amount of time and energy, and they don’t work in apartments or with very tiny back yards.

There’s more research and thought to be done, I’m sure. But – those of you who have my contact details, drop me a message if you’d be interested and after the house is up we’ll talk.

On that note – the earthworks have started! The builders have told us the house will be on site my the middle of July, and we should be in by late August. Which is super exciting 🙂

flopsy, mopsy & cottontail

2013/04/29 deej 0

I’ve spent the last few weeks researching rabbits. I have my reasons.

First reason is that K indicated an interest in spinning, and I thought I’d look into how viable it would be to have a little cottage industry setup selling yarn, and possibly raw fleece. (Answer: limited to zero for making any actual money/profit)

Your basic wool animal is a sheep, but I dislike sheep. I’ve never met a bright one, or one that didn’t stink, although I’ve been assured by people who like sheep that they don’t inherently stink. After sheep, there are goats (cashmere goats, which produce cashmere, and angora goats, which produce mohair), alpacas, and angora rabbits (which produce angora).

At the same time, I’ve been reading and thinking about the Russian domestication experiment with silver foxes. Short version: the researchers took mostly-wild foxes from a fur farm and bred them for domestication, using a lowered fear response to humans as demonstrated by least avoidance behaviours and lowered agression as the main selection criterion. Within 8 generations they had adult foxes which wagged their tails like dogs, whined and fawned for attention from their keepers, and showed a diverse range of colouring and coat patterns. After 50-some years of the breeding program, the domesticated foxes are adorable, completely domesticated housepets.

I’m absolutely fascinated with genetics, and I really want to replicate the experiment. But not with foxes. Keeping foxes is illegal in Australia (even assuming we could live-trap enough for a starting gene pool), and there are hefty fines for doing it. I considered ferrets, but they’re tricky to breed (female ferrets which go into season and aren’t bred will often die!) and there probably isn’t much call for super-domesticated ferrets. Ferret fanciers don’t mind the slightly bitey nature of ferrets, and non-ferret-fanciers won’t have a ferret anyway. Rats are an option, but again – what do you do with your super-domesticated rats? Rat fanciers will keep rats anyway, and other people will still dislike them. Rabbits, though – rabbits are a possibility.

Rabbits are only semi-domesticated, in that they still display fear responses and avoidance behaviours towards humans (unlike labrador dogs, for example, or even domestic cats), so there’s the potential for the experiment to show obvious results. They reproduce fast, which is desirable to get results in a resaonable timeframe. They’re easy to get, legal to keep, and thay’re also useful. Angora rabbits are a possible wool animal, and I was considering keeping rabbits as meat animals anyway.

However, before getting too heavily invested in the idea of keeping rabbits for meat, I thought it might be wise to try it. I’d never (knowingly) eaten rabbit. So I made rabbit stew the other day. I got a farmed rabbit form the butcher, and followed instruction on youtube to debone it (I was fine with the tiny little carcass, but K had to leave the room, and my mother made slightly horrified noises about eating Flopsy, Mopsy, or Cottontail when I told her about it). One slow cooker later, rabbit stew.

Nom nom nom. Turns out that I like rabbit. Especially with a bit of red wine, tomatoes & garlic.

 

As an aside, I have no idea how fibre farmers make enough money to keep going. Not only is it a negative sum, financially, to keep Angora rabbits, this is also the case for angora goats, cashmere goats, and alpacas.

The goats become (just) financially viable if you include the savings from milking them (and using that milk instead of buying milk) and eating the unwanted baby goats produced to keep the does in milk (instead of buying meat). Alpacas, similarly, become (just) viable if you breed them once a year and include the savings from eating the young alpacas instead of buying meat. Rabbits are only viable to keep for wool if you can reduce the time spent checking their health, handling them, and making sure they have food & water down to 1 minute per rabbit per day or less. How do farmers survive???