Apifera Farm - where art, story, animals & woman merge. Home to artist Katherine Dunn

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©Katherine Dunn.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The quest for comfort

I was lucky to attend a very good school as a child, and from that school and those teachers I learned the value of seeking knowledge - get all the facts you can by reading, exploring, researching, asking questions - and then you will have new knowledge, and a new comfort level abut the subject, or task, at hand. Approaching challenges and new things this way through my adult life has helped me work through rough roads.

When we first began raising sheep, I was like many [I am told] novice shepherds. "Oh, we'll just raise breeding stock, and the other sheep will just stay on for pasture maintenance. We won't do meat." Early on, a very seasoned shepherd and farmer said, rather tongue in cheek, "They all say that in the beginning". "I'll show him..." I mused to myself...And so began my quest to seek that comfort level I had always found I could attain simply by asking enough questions, reading enough books, gathering facts. For the past year, I have been preparing for yesterday's slaughter of some of our lambs. Many of my wiser and more experienced shepherd compadrés - from Vermont, to Minnesota and Missouri, and throughout Oregon, have helped megrapplee with my discomfort in taking the lives of these animals. I sometimes yearned to just wake up and be like them - they seemed stronger and more practical about dealing with a basic fact in raising livestock - some of them have to die. I began to doubt my ability to sustain this lifestyle year in and year out. After all, I am the person who saves flies and puts as many outside as possible. In the beginning of my quest for knowledge and facts, I asked generic things of farmers, like, "What age is best to butcher them?" or "Do you have a butcher you prefer."

I mean, they don't have long chapters about your first slaughter in the sheep books, and they should.

The more I asked the basic questions, the discomfort starteddissipatingg, and I ventured on to asking even grittier details about the actual process. I labored over articles about the pros and cons of taking ones animals to a slaughter house, versus having the mobile slaughter unit come out. I tried to interview the local rendering house, much to their dismay - 'a city nut, a farmer wannabie', I imagined them all whispering. In the end, I decided having a mobile unit come to our farm and kill the animals here was the least stressful for the animals, and that was therefore the best for me too. I had witnessed the shootings of the cows next farm over, and saw how professional, and fast it was. After gathering all my facts, and picking the butcher that would do the task, I rested a bit, convinced I was hard as a rock. After all, we were growing food for others, and ourselves, a good thing. We raised the lambs in sun, on grass, with no hormones or over crowding. They came into a small to medium flock where they were given attention, the comfort of a barn and ample room to romp and grow. Yet, with all my facts in my bag, as I penned the meat lambs up in a stall to have their final night of sleep, I didn't feel bad, but I didn't feel good. I didn't feel comfortable at all. I thanked them for giving us food, and I assured them the next day was going to go quickly and smoothly.

We had planned that the day of theslaughterr, I would stay in the house, and Martyn would show the butcher the barn and answer necessary questions. The butcher arrived 2 hours early and Martyn was off the farm doing errands, so I ended up showing him where he could set up. I am so thankful it happened that way. Highly recommended and used by several of our farm friends, this man did not make me feel like a newbie, or a city farm-girl wannabie. He reassured me it would be fast and no one would suffer. It was helpful to meet him, and know he was in charge. The reality of the soon-to-happen event came home though, when he asked me if I wanted the livers and organ meat. Gee, I hadn't thought about that. I went back to the house, expecting to hear the shots in about 5 minutes, but none were heard. When they kill the cows next farm over, it is loud. I took to pacing around expecting to hear the shots, and finally thought, this is stupid, I have to get on with the day, so went to my studio which looks towards the barn. I hadn't realized he had moved the truck there, and from a distance I could see him sawing. I could see the other lamb bodies.There had been no shots, it was over. Martyn drove up at this point, went out to meet him, and when he returned to the house, he had a baggie with livers in it. It was sort of surreal, but it was a turning point for me - And that was when I realized how special this all was. As I held that liver, I realized I knew exactly where it came from, and what foods did and didn't go into it. I felt very respectful of what I was holding - it is just so different than anything I have ever experienced.

I felt relieved, and workedquietlyy the rest of the day in my own thoughts. All my months of fact gathering had come to a close, and another new experience from living on the farm was under my belt. Next year, I will know more of what to expect, and while the discomfort of the day will probably never completely go away, I think the respect for the farm and our animals and what they bring to our lives will only grow each year.

Look closely at your food tonight. Ask yourselves where it came from, who cared for it. Did it suffer through life in a stockyard, was it treated humanely the day it's life would end so people could eat? Seek out locally grown meats in your area by visiting Local Harvest and ask your grocery stores to support their local farmers.