On Being “More Humane”

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Recently I sat in a meeting where I had to talk a lot about our farm. I hope to be able to give you more details about it soon, but for now there’s not much to say. Except that part way through as we were talking about our operation, a person on the other side of the table spoke up and said, “and this is more humane, right?”

To which I kind of stammered until The Man, having tagged along for moral support, jumped in and saved me. The truth is, there’s a very fine line here; one that depends wholly on a rather subjective definition of the word, “humane.” And, since I’m being honest, for all the thousands of words that pour out of my mouth and fingers on a regular basis, I can’t say as though I’m confident I have the right words for that definition myself.

Do I believe that we’re doing the right thing here? Yes. Of course. Absolutely. Without a shadow of a doubt. But it’s also tremendously important to me that when I say, “I think we’re doing the right thing,” you also understand it doesn’t mean I think people like Pete are doing the wrong thing.

And that’s really what’s missing from this whole dialogue isn’t it? That modes and methods of farming are on a continuum, not a teeter totter. That more than one of us can be, “right.” That by me being right in my methods does not make another farmer inherently wrong in his.

This certainly isn’t to say there isn’t right and wrong. This certainly isn’t to say there’s nothing wrong with any of the ways farmers go about food production. I’d dare say you could find something “wrong” in every operation if you should go looking hard enough. Even mine. No, especially mine.

But mine can be humane and so can my neighbor’s. Because there’s more than one way to be humane, whatever its definition.

This past fall when I walked into Pete’s weaning room, where it was every bit of seventy degrees even as a cold, November wind nipped at the barn door outside, I commented on how his pigs had it made while mine were stuck with that blustery prelude to Old Man winter. He immediately shot back that, maybe, but his didn’t get to enjoy comfy straw beds like mine do either.

Awhile back I read an amusing article about learning how to speak, “farmer” and a couple passages from it come to mind:

Maybe it’s because they spend too many hours alone in the tractor cab. Or maybe they’re naturally pessimistic after being repeatedly clobbered by floods, drought, hailstorms, insects and crop diseases. But you’ll have to look some to find a farmer who uses adjectives like “good,” “terrific” or “excellent” to describe any aspect of his or her world.

“Not too bad” is how a farmer brags without appearing to be bragging. When his son or daughter shows the grand champion 4-H steer at the county fair, when he receives top price for his yearlings, or when he closes a lucrative deal to supply alfalfa hay to a nearby dairy, “not too bad” means life could hardly get any better.

Maybe we are predisposed to see all that’s wrong in our own operations with glaring clarity, but I’m not so sure. Instead, I’m inclined to believe it’s not that we’re worn down from negative experiences or naturally pessimistic people, but that we live and therefore understand the continuum. Which means that there is no strong way for us to answer one way or the other. It might have been a pretty great year, but there’s probably a million ways in which we know we could have handled it even better.

Maybe our way is “more humane” in some ways, but I can think of plenty of ways in which Pete’s is “more humane,” too. Because for every one of Pete’s pigs that might choose a straw bed over a seventy degree barn, there’s one of mine that would choose the barn over the straw. I don’t think that means either one of us is doing it wrong; we’re just doing it right in different ways.

We talk a lot about what agriculture needs as an industry; we need more women, more small farms, more big farms, more local food sales, more organic operations, more young people, more regulation… or is it less regulation? I’m not necessarily opposed to some of those things, but I think what we really need is for more people to understand the continuum.

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