Monday, February 13, 2012


My mother recommended the book Eating Animals several times over the past few months. I had been aware of the book when it was published, but I felt little desire to read it at the time. I knew that the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, was a vegetarian, and I knew the book was more concerned with factory farming than with husbandry. I assumed that nothing in the book would be news to me, that I would agree with it about factory farming, and disagree with it in a couple of other areas.

Not to brag, but these predictions were pretty dead on. But I nevertheless truly enjoyed the book. It is well written, and it is more Socratic than polemic in its approach to the morality of eating animals. An early example - Foer discusses whether we should be more accepting of eating dogs and cats. Even when he describes the atrocities of factory farming, he does so in a straightforward manner, often letting the words of slaughterhouse workers stand on their own.

Where do I disagree with the book? It does not go into great depth concerning the supposed health benefits of a vegetarian diet, and this superficial treatment in no way altered my views on what constitutes sound nutrition. I also would have enjoyed a more nuanced examination of two aspects.

The first is the ability of well managed pasture to sequester carbon, and the role this might play in offsetting the supposed environmental impact of raising ruminants. The second critique, which I believe applies to virtually every discussion of diet in relation to land use, is the failure to consider the productivity of land in the long term. What I mean by this is that, while it is certainly true that raising a year's worth of vegetarian food requires a far smaller area than raising a year's worth of animal products, this does not take into account inputs. While even perfectly managed pasture, at least here in the eastern portion of the country, will require some mineralization to stay balanced, the required inputs are miniscule compared to those needed to keep a piece of cultivated land productive.

But the book is worth reading in that it relentlessly asks questions of us that we should be asking ourselves. The food choices we make, as much as we prefer not to think about it, have profound impacts in the world. The fact that we do not see these impacts does not make them any less real, and does not make us any less culpable. Even if you, like me, think you know all about this, I would still recommend the book. If nothing else it is a visceral, rather than simply intellectual, reminder of the unsavory truth.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012


In the middle of this, my second winter tending chickens, I've been reflecting on a few changes made since last year that have offered more happiness for myself and for our flock.

In late August I purchased fifty pounds of an organic, locally grown wheat from the Gianfortes (check them out because they are really wonderful). It had been a wetter and wilder growing season than anyone would have lked, and the wheat I bought hadn't dried properly. I stored 25 pounds in a bucket with a lid in our pantry, and froze the other 25. The 25 pounds in the bucket had too high a moisture content and slowly molded.

The upside is that the grains still have enough energy within them to sprout, so I've been transforming this loss into an ecstatic pleasure for the chickens. Those apples above are unfortunate victims of an overactive refrigerator that decided to blast everything one night while we slept. I had them frozen for months, thinking I would bake something and decided to get real the other day. The chickens decimated them gladly within minutes.

I've taken up the practice of scraping the roosts and the floor clear of poop when I enter the egg mobile. There is a long running argument in my head about whether or not this is a waste of my time. The clarity I've found is in the word agriculture. This little arrangement - this house, the birds, the feeding, the watering, the cleaning, the egg collecting - would not be happening were it not for me (we) and our human interest in this relationship. I don't poop on the floor, and I don't like walking in poop in the floor. So, I've become content to let this action be a reflection of my values and let the chickens keep theirs. It feels great to have a clean house, even if it is a chicken house. I collect most of the refuse into a 5 gallon bucket that I empty into a large feed bag when it's full. A few handfuls of saw dust keep the odors down, and we intend to compost it in the spring with the manure we collect in the barn from the cows.

These are the incredible tools for poop scraping.

The dance begins again.

Apparently I am not the only one who sees the value in chicken manure. A mouse (or rat?) has now found my stash and ripped into it. What a (un?)fortunate fellow.

Lastly, I hammered some long nails into the vertical posts of the egg mobile and cut their heads off with our bolt cutter. Now I can plunge the occasional mushy vegetable from our store onto this spear, and the chickens entertain themselves at length in the pecking.

They escort me to the gate most days. Even though the bucket was emptied before them, they can't help but hold out hope for more. They're never rewarded in this, but I enjoy their company.

- Alanna