An Animal Farm a Vegetarian Could Love

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Photo by Joe Satran


When I was ten years old, I became a vegetarian. I knew what I was about. Growing up in Mississippi, I had seen the trucks that barreled down the highway shedding feathers, carrying chickens in cages that were obviously too small for any kind of movement. I had seen the huge cattle operations that lined the roads on the way to my grandmother's house. I was not down to eat anything that came out of any of that.

As I got older, my argument against meat became more sophisticated: It had to do with the economics of hunger and with the environmental impact of the meat industry in the U.S. I still don't want to support a system that uses such a huge percentage of farmland to produce meat products (a much less space-efficient way to produce food than growing vegetables, say) or that adds such a deep tread mark to our national greenhouse gas footprint.

"Finally," I thought. "Someone who's not raising vegetables talking about soil fertility!"

But, last Tuesday, I was proud to be a meat eater again.

Once I moved to an area where sustainable meats and cheeses were available, I gradually began to incorporate those items back into my diet. I haven't been a complete vegetarian in two years. And last week, I got the chance to see an example of where and how the meat I now eat is raised when our Yale Farm summer interns and I drove up to Dom Palumbo's heritage livestock and poultry farm, Moon in the Pond in southern Massachusetts.

This farm was nothing like the sprawling, stinky operations I'd driven by as a child. Well, it was a little bit stinky. But other than that, the farm was a completely different beast.

As soon as we arrived, Dom walked us over to a giant compost heap. He talked about thinking in cycles, and about reinvesting nutrients into land you're taking them from. "Finally," I thought. "Someone who's not raising vegetables talking about soil fertility!"

From there, we looked at chicken tractors (hut-sized contraptions that encourage chicken to eat grass, poop, and scratch in a specific area), a new litter of piglets, oxen, ducklings, and sheep. All of them are heritage breeds, which means they are breeds that were raised before the rise of industrial agriculture. Many of the animals raised by the meat industry in the U.S. have been bred to enhance a certain feature, often at the expense of qualities that are crucial for the animal to survive outside of the context of a confinement operation.

One of the saddest examples of this is the large-breasted white turkey, whose breasts have been bred to be so large and whose legs have been bred to be so short that it cannot stand. It also can't procreate: because of their large breasts and short legs, the males can't mount the females. Every large-breasted white turkey you've ever eaten was the product of artificial insemination. In the last 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct. But Dom raises turkeys that have long legs to keep them high off the ground as they run around.

Dom cares a heapload about preserving the genetic diversity of hens, ducks, pigs, and cows, but he's the most passionate about preserving something else: farmers. When he's not working at Moon in the Pond, he's looking to find ways to help other people get started doing the same thing. He always has at least one apprentice on hand, and he welcomes visitors.

Our interns and I learned about heritage breeds and about agricultural land trusts. We're not just losing the breeds that make sustainable meat production possible, we're also losing the knowledge of how to raise them. Dom would say we need to invest in rural communities, both by supporting them and by joining them. I say, in order to fix the food system, we don't just need to eat sustainable products. We need to grow them.

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Hannah Eisler Burnett

Hannah Eisler Burnett designs and organizes programs for the Yale Sustainable Food Project. She was an intern at the Yale Farm in 2005, has farmed in North Carolina and Mississippi, and, as an undergraduate, led the student group of the Sustainable Food Project.
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