Quality of Life – A Farmer’s Account

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Twenty years ago, I got tired of eating nasty, barely “fit for human consumption” college meat, decided that I felt squicky eating animals anyway, and became a vegetarian. It never bothered me that others ate meat, it was enough that I wasn’t and, thus, didn’t have to deal with any gross feelings of eating what was once a living being with a face.

Opting out was so much easier and it worked for quite a number of years (except for some ill health effects, but that’s a story for another time). Oh, but the universe has a sick sense of humor. I start my job at RSV only to find myself in charge of a small, working sheep herd being used for grazing, wool and meat. I felt so barbaric, keeping animals captive just to die.

Figuring out what is the most humane treatment for meat animals, so that my flock is happy and healthy, is the majority of what I do for herd management. Making sure my sheep live well and die well became my duty as a shepherd. What is best for the lambs and what is best for the humans are sometimes two very different things.

For instance:  the unpleasant matter of castration. The less bloody, and lip puckering, “banding” might make the humans feel better, but it really hurts the lambs. When you first put the band on, they lay there for half an hour, panting and in pain, sometimes baaa-ing and baaa-ing. With the “slice and suck” method, it’s literally five minutes: you pop ’em down, do the deed, they shake it off and run back to their mothers for a quick snack. Then all is right with the world.

I maintained my vegetarianism for quite a few years – attending births and deaths, caring for my flock. I got a lot of mileage at our wine dinners talking about being a vegetarian, but how it was my sacred duty as a shepherd to be present at the slaughter.

How we need to face the food we eat in order to make it a more humane world. But, unfortunately, my impassioned speech often did the opposite of what I intended – as the plates of lamb descended, diners shook their heads and asked for the vegetarian option (never mind the chaos it caused in our tiny winery kitchen). Apparently, knowing their food was just too much. But as their views were moving in one direction, mine was going in another.

It’s so easy to focus on the beginning and the end of life, but what of the living, breathing, and frolicking that occurs in between? What lives in-the-between are sunny days in green and golden fields, discovering four legs and learning which plants to eat, racing back and forth, back and forth simply because it’s fun. Learning that life is good.

A happy year in the pasture is all our lambs know and this is as it should be. I was not respecting livestock by refusing to eat it, nor was I disrespecting those lambs by eating them. I was lucky enough to attend a book reading by Barbara Kingsolver for her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life . There are three types of animals, she explained, wildlife, pets, and livestock. We are accustomed to the first two. Few of us hunt and eat wildlife and fewer of us yet would ever consider eating our pets. But livestock exist for us and because of us. In fact, they could not exist without us. How can we respect them if we do not use them for their intended purpose?

My respect for animals was not diminishing when I considered eating meat again, and my understanding of livestock had grown. It is a symbiosis – we both give, we both get, each sustaining the other. It has taken me the better part of three decades to come to peace with the idea that the quality of life is the most important part, not the quantity.

Until, finally, one wine dinner not too long ago, I accepted the plate of my lamb and took my first bite. It’s about the quality of life, not the quantity, and I knew just how good those lambs’ lives had been in the pastures. As I enjoyed the savory flavor, I felt something complete. A circle closed, a promise kept.

Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.