I don’t often blog about the difficult and messy parts of farming here. I allude to them, I tell you they exist, but I don’t really share them. There’s never been a conscious decision on my part to void those bits from the record, it’s just the ways things seem to shake out. Not the least of the reasons for which is that it simply never feels like a great day to write about death. I cannot, in fact, think of even one morning in all my time where I’ve sat down to my desk and thought, “You know what would make a great blog post? Dead animals!” And the death we had to deal with tonight probably would have gone down in history as another of that sort, but I tweeted about it in the moment and that tweet lead to a conversation with Jennifer of Heim Dairy that I wanted to continue here.
Farmers, especially livestock producers, often get pegged as an uncaring bunch. We have a bad reputation in general; one of being cold-hearted, unconcerned with pain, suffering and death. By the sheer number oƒ animals with whom we have contact alone we have to deal with it more than your average person, and by nature of the job we have to work through it quickly and quietly. More often than not we have but a few spare seconds to pause in respect and remembrance of a life lost, doing so silently and in the course of the very chores the death creates for us. From the outside it can look as though we don’t recognize the loss at all and our tendency to not talk about it afterwards probably doesn’t help.
“I think often we feel guilty and responsible even [though] we’ve done all we could,” Jennifer wrote after I lamented having to put down a pig we’d been trying to save all day. And she’s right. There’s always an element of guilt and feeling of responsibility when one of our animals dies prematurely. When the litter I blogged about last week was born I’d waited up all night for the sow who seemed to be this close to go into labor. When I found her up and meandering about her pen again at seven in the morning I decided to sneak in a two hour nap. Sows, I reasoned, almost always farrow in the middle of the night and her nonchalant deameanor and activity would normally be a sign there was time to spare, but when I came back out at 9:30 she’d already farrowed half the litter and when she finished and rose I found two pigs underneath her who had been laid over. My immediate thought was, “if only I’d not taken that nap.” Even though I knew there had been no indication that I should have continued to stay up and with her instead, I still questioned myself and replayed the night in my mind over and over looking for signs I missed. The guilt, indeed, is ever present, but for me I think there’s another thing at play as well.
I feel both a duty and a desire to shield you all from these things. The distance most first-world families have from the farm is a complex issue. On one hand we often hear about how much damage this does to our diets, our expectations, and our understanding of the world. But on the other hand, it also means we don’t all have to experience the heartbreak that’s sometimes inherent in keeping livestock for food. We don’t all have to deal with the emotional side of each and every lost pig. And I don’t say that to seem stoic, I say that because while I’d love for more people to have an intimate understanding of where their food comes from these are the parts I don’t mind shouldering so that everyone doesn’t have to.
I just wish it didn’t come across as uncaring, because the truth is we care so much we’ll turn around and do this all again tomorrow if we have to.