Monday, June 16, 2008

Me and Meat

I am a city girl born and bred, with city needs and city habits. I have a strong memory of being six or so years old and wearing a puffy winter coat with a hood on a hot summer day in the backyard of our weekend house, so the bugs wouldn’t fly in my ears. There is a picture of me at camp riding a horse in jazz shoes. You get the picture.

My junior year of college, in the suburbs of Philadelphia (practically the country!) as part of my Religion studies, I took a course called “Religion and Ecology,” in which we read everything from the Jewish laws of kashruth to Heidegger’s “Technology;” from Buddhist texts about the distinction between sentient and non-sentient beings, to the eco-terrorist tract “The Monkey-Wrench Gang.” At the end of the course I vowed to spend time on a farm, to look a chicken in the eye as it died, to bear witness to the slaughter of a cow, something that would earn me the right to eat one of these creatures, one of these sentient beings-- a creature of this earth, like me.

When I graduated from college I moved back to NYC and hit the pavement running, my farm dreams something quaint and faraway (like my desire to have cats of my own someday). I became a vegetarian, thinking that if I could not come to terms with animal slaughter, if I could not find the time to go to the farm, between auditions and acting classes and the like, then I would refrain, altogether, from eating meat.

But what a terrible vegetarian I was, making exceptions for street food in Mexico, and sausage bites in Barcelona. Not to mention the annual NYC burger. This lasted for five years, on and off, until I gave up, gasping for meat like a drowning woman for water. And hadn’t my vegetarianism been the coward’s choice?, I asked myself. I had found a way out of my vow since it was, in a sense, a helluva lot easier than finding my way to a farm. I did not know any farmers. I barely ever saw a tree, let alone something edible growing out of the ground.

So imagine my sense of wonder, when four years after giving up on vegetarianism, and twelve years after graduating from college, I found myself on the farm, present for the slaughter of two sheep. I had traveled to Lopez Island, off the coast of Washington State, in order to visit the community of farmers who make up the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative. This collaborative is in possession of the first ever USDA certified mobile slaughter facility. The reasons for building a mobile unit on Lopez were very particular to their island status: farmers had to go off island to slaughter and then bring the meat back to the island. This wasn’t cost-effective, so most people just brought their meat to the mainland and then sold it there. The ironic result was that the island was having a food access issue; the meat was being raised there but not eaten there.

There is a need for mobile slaughter facilities all over this country because everything is being geared more and more towards the large-scale producers—this is both with grains and livestock of course—so that there are very few processing facilities for small farmers, making the market increasingly favorable to large industrial operations and less and less favorable to the little guy. All the little ones are gone, and in their wake? Large facilities that are geared for huge numbers of animals. Also, similarly to all the neighborhood Mom and Pop shops giving way to big box stores, this means you have to travel farther to get to them, sometimes prohibitively so.

In the wake of health scares and disturbing meat recalls, we are seeing an increasing demand for sustainably raised, grass fed meat, but if there isn’t an infrastructure to support these small farmers—i.e. if there aren’t processing facilities for them to use—then how will the demand ever be met? How will people, on a large scale, ever have a viable alternative to industrially-produced meat? In order to get product to the people, you have to have infrastructure to scale, and the mobile unit does just that.

Before I headed out to Lopez, I spoke to Holly Freishtat, who was hired early on to do a needs assessment of the island. I asked her what she learned as a result of this assessment and she said that “the issues this island community is facing, of farmers not having access to local infrastructure, and consumers not having access to the local foods they demand, is no different from what rural and urban communities are facing around the country. I thought they were unique because they were surrounded by water and now I have realized that it is a result of a centralized global food system. We have to build the capacity and infrastructure for our farmers and consumers to have local foods.”

Back to the farm: most people I know don’t want to hear exactly what I saw that morning, so I’ll keep it simple. I approached the farm (not the first farm I’ve been on in the past two years at my job, by the way, not by a long shot) with the jitters, and in the first moments I had to suppress tears. But those tears, those were the tears of a city girl who is so soft-hearted she cannot even train her cats to stay off the kitchen counter. Those were not the tears of a woman who tore into a burger the night before; I would not let them be.

Watching the farmer next to me, I was humbled by the fluid grace with which she understands the cycle of life. She raised these sheep, with tenderness, and she watched them die with tenderness. The parts of the animal that are cut away (the head, the hooves, the skin, the innards) are composted on the farm, eventually enriching the very soil that grows next year’s crop of vegetables. To see this is to learn more in 30 minutes than I could have hoped to learn in my semester-long “Religion and Ecology” class.

To see the IGFC mobile slaughter facility in action is to understand, in the deepest sense, what a successful venture this has been–for business, yes, in the ways that I described above–but even more, for the health and well being of the animals. The animals live quietly and well in the fields, then enter the barn they’ve known all their lives. They are processed humanely and the work is slow, careful, and meticulously clean. I watched it from inches away, and though it was challenging, especially at first, I watched it eyes open.

I left the island utterly convinced of mobile facilities as the next wave–to step in where small/mid-size infrastructure has crumbled away. It works for the farmers, and it works for the residents of the islands, who are able to eat meat that their neighbors have raised. It’s an amazing sensation to drive around the island and see the animals, and then to know–not just because someone told you, but because you’ve seen it with your own eyes–exactly where your food has come from.

i'm back (or: father's day 2008)

Father's Day and summer solstice often line up, if not always exactly. Summer solstice means longer days, a summer break from my second job, more fresh food available, and therefore...drumroll, back at my blog, up to my old tricks.