I am a former vegan, but now feel that vegetarianism is a millstone around the neck of organic farming. As one local neighbour put it, when a vegetarian requested manure for a garden: “meat, milk and manure are a package deal”. There was a time in the early days at the farm when we lived off boiled wheat from the feed store for two weeks (we had finally paid for the farm, legal costs and all, and were broke). Our diet was mostly determined by the soil, the climate and the season, not our dietary whims. Sometimes we feasted on fried liver, other times nettle soup, with perhaps a bone in the stock. We ate vast amounts of damsons and pumpkins, simply because they grew well there. It’s important not to be a fussy eater. I’ve noticed that a lot of people plan an entire farm plan based on their fad diet, rather than what the land can best produce. ‘Consumable’ food is based on your society, history, culture and ethics. The choice to be picky comes with socioeconomic privilege.
At my organic farm goats produced as much meat as milk. It was extremely rich and tasty meat, produced from very low inputs. Horses seemed to be extremely destructive to grassland, especially in the absence of other grazing animals. Horse manure is greatly over rated as plant food, it seemed to have little effect on vegetable yields for me. Horses can be very useful, but there is a peculiar belief that they make good pets for vegetarians, as if they are immortal and inedible. A horse eats as much as a cow, taking them on should not be done lightly if you don’t have a real need for them. Native English speaking people don’t eat horses because of a peculiar ancient British tribal taboo, irrelevant nowadays. Elsewhere in Europe, horses are eaten. What I have seen of mules has impressed me a lot, they are strong, hardy and cheap to feed. Our small elderly donkey did more work than all the horses combined and cost almost nothing to feed.
When two of Todor’s horses died from neglect one winter, he dumped one of the bodies, but another, more practical neighbour thought that such a big quantity of meat was not to be wasted, and made the horse (which had been on his land when it died) into salami.
Sustainability is a multifaceted concept. Generally people in wealthy countries eat too much meat, milk and eggs. In many cases, agricultural subsidies make animal products artificially cheap and encourage unsustainable farming, but it is a total misconception that farming without any animals whatsoever would be good for the environment. It’s true that a lot of the world’s grain is used as animal feed, but don’t believe those recycled statistics from the 1970’s found in animal rights pamphlets: the amount of grain fed to animals fluctuates annually with grain price, the weather, government policy etc. Sweeping generalisations about “how meat is produced” are unhelpful. They imply that meat can ONLY be produced a certain way, and that ALL meat globally is produced the same way. For instance: the difference between feedlot mutton (apparently some sheep are reared indoors in front of troughs of corn and soya, but I’ve never seen any) and New Zealand lamb (reared primarily free range on grass and clover) is routinely glossed over.
One visitor to my farm confidently told me that I shouldn’t eat goat because according to him, it took 10 kilos of grain to produce every kilo of meat, and an impossibly vast quantity of water which I couldn’t obtain even if I wanted it. My goats shared a bucket of water a day and a handful of grain tempted them back into their pen in the evenings. I wasn’t feeding them from a conveyer belt and hosing down their pen into a slurry tank. Farmers who rear animals this way are economising on just one resource: human labour, because this resource is artificially scarce in rural areas (the workforce are living in the cities, consuming the food and flushing the soil fertility down their toilets). Grain grown at the expense of depleting soil, oil and phosphate is artificially cheap and abundant.
Totally arable farming (even if organic) turns soil organic matter into groundwater pollution. Chemical fertilisers are blamed for pollution, which they do cause directly in many cases, but more importantly they encourage a polluting form of agriculture: arable monocultures. Arable land is bare or semi bare much of the time, and rainwater washes nutrients out of it easily, unlike perennial vegetation such as grassland or forest. When a field of grain is part of a patchwork landscape, mixed in with pasture, meadow and trees, much of the nutrients which leak from it are soaked up by perennial vegetation (riverside meadows are especially good for this) and ultimately turned into animal feed. When land is depleted by arable farming, the best way to repair it (better for the soil, and more useful than green manure), is to put it down to grass and clover and graze animals on it.
The organic farming movement began as a reaction against arable monocultures fed by fertiliser, advocating a return to the mixed farming of the past. Vegans regularly advocate replacing all mixed farming with totally arable farming. The two ideas pull in opposite directions. Permaculture founder Bill Mollison regarded vegetarianism as a mistake. John Seymour, Sepp Holtzer, Joel Salatin, Alan Savory and many other inspirational thinkers emphasise the important role of meat in sustainable farming, while criticising industrial factory farming.
Chickens and pigs can feed on waste and surplus food (which makes growing perishable vegetables for market much less risky), chickens can control insect pests, goats and rabbits can feed on tree prunings, fish can feed on the algae fed by nutrient run off from crops etc. Strict veganism slams the door on many of the things which make small scale homestead farming sustainable and viable.
It’s sometimes suggested that we should cultivate the best flat land solely for arable crops for human consumption and plant trees everywhere else. This seems tempting, but this would cause the arable land to deteriorate until it was less fertile than the forest land, and hunger and economics would cause the forest land to be cleared for crops. Converting forest into cropland is a far more difficult and destructive process than ploughing grassland as part of a ley-arable rotation.
Living on a farm and at times enduring the hardships of a tough environment caused me to re-think what food was for me. Why do we construct our relationships with animals in a hierarchy contingent upon on their history, their use to humans and conceived intelligence?
Living self sustainably, outside of the mainstream capitalist system limits your economic opportunities but frees your mind. In the absence of overt cruelty, over consumption and mass production we form new relationships to food, animals and our bodies.
I have spent much of the last 25 years involved in environmentalism as a political activist and volunteer. For the last 10 years I have been running an organic farming project and helping others to do the same.