It is pouring down rain – Tropical Storm Nicole is dumping 5 inches on us – and the dogs are barking out of control. I can’t see a thing in the storm, but I suddenly realize what they must be barking at – I forgot to put Blackberry in the barn.
Blackberry, you see, is our pet rooster. He’s so gentle than my children carry him around. Isaiah, who has a special rapport with animals snuggles him under his arm. In the winter, the children tried to teach him to ski down the plow piles. In the summer, they come running when Blackberry roams into the road, which for some reason, he does daily. The only way to keep him from his suicidal road roamings (besides the cars he heads straight towards the coyote den) is to put him in the fenced side yard. Technically this is supposed to be a chicken-free zone, but Blackberry doesn’t count. I try to pretend I don’t notice when the kids feed him things from their plate – he’s now learned to hang out under the picnic table.
Blackberry, who is the low rooster on the totem pole in our farm, doesn’t really like to go into the barn at night until all the other birds are shut in. Normally, one of us carries him into the barn last thing. Apparently I forgot him – but the dogs didn’t. They have him cornered under a downspout. They aren’t trying to hurt him, just herd him out, but he’s panicking a bit. I’m soaked by the time I gather him up, but he knows he’s safe with a human’s arms around him, so he just relaxes, wet feathers and all as I carry him into the goat pen and drop him in a quiet corner. He’ll nest under the hay manger for the night, next to one of the hens.
I have about 50 chickens, who provide eggs that we sell. It is getting towards winter, and I don’t need as many chickens as I actually have right now, so in a week or two, I’ll be doing a clear-out of odd roosters, older hens that don’t lay well and a few ducks. My goal is to simply reduce the amount of chicken manure I’ll have to deal with all winter long, and also to up the number of meals of coq-au-vin and chicken soup.
Blackberry is elderly, and there’s a good chance he’ll spend this winter the way he did part of last winter. Victim of the other roosters, and run down by the cold, eventually I moved him into a box in the woodshed with a bantam hen to keep him company. I don’t really want a rooster in the woodshed for the winter, any more than I really wanted to go out in the pouring rain to gather up soggy poultry. But the chances of Blackberry going under the knife are nil. If the woodshed it must be, so it will be.
The real farmers who read this may well be rolling their eyes at me. This is proof I’m not a real farmer, right? After all, real farmers have to make their bottom line, they don’t have room for all this messy sentiment.
“No place for sentiment in farming.” This was a sentence uttered by one of my dairy farmer neighbors. I’d stopped by to negotiate the price for some hay, and he was in the process of loading up three of his best – and, he admitted, favorite – cows to go to slaughter. The cows had escaped a fence and been loose for three days early that month and the mastitis they developed from not being milked had permanently damaged teats. There was no place for them in the herd anymore. It was an economic tragedy for him, but he also spent some time telling me about the cows that he was losing – enough that you knew it was not just an economic crisis.
As he told me all this, I watched two horses stroll past me in a pasture. I mentioned the horses and he rolled his eyes, noting that they had been his daughters’ horses. I knew that his daughters had grown up and moved away many years ago – before we moved to the neighborhood and we’ve lived here a decade. I mentioned that the horses must be getting on in years. “Yes, they are both near 30…but they were good horses and they’ve earned their retirement. Once in a while I put my granddaughters on them and lead them around, y’know.” It would take a cold person to observe that the contrast with his previous statement.
Sentiment officially has no place in agriculture, but I’ve met precious few smaller farmers who don’t have a spot of it. Indeed, I’ve come to suspect that a sentimental attachment to things is in fact a requirement for good small scale farming – and that equally, keeping sentiment in check is a requirement for the transition from “a few pet chickens” to “agriculture.”
Keeping the sentiment in check is obvious – if you chickens are pets, it doesn’t matter if they stop laying – you feed them and hope they start up again. If you make your living on your chickens, if they stop laying, your bottom line probably doesn’t allow for extended periods of feeding chickens that don’t provide any return. The sensible thing is to eat them or sell them and get some chickens that will lay – going bankrupt and seeing the farm turned into developments isn’t worth the trade offs, no matter how much you care for any given chicken.
Less obvious, I think is the value of sentiment – and by sentiment, I mean the logical emotions of love and attachment that emerge from knowing something well. Much of good agriculture is about paying attention – and attentiveness is easier when it is governed by feeling. Nor do I know any way to be attentive to living creatures, or a living ecology, without coming to love them. Feeling for the land, sense of place, attachment and love for one’s animals – these are both necessities for close attention and the consequences of that attention.
Different people have different capacities for love, and different ways of expressing it – but it is inevitably present. My 90+ year old neighbor, who farmed these hills all his life is a man who doesn’t express emotion much – but get him talking about the dogs he’s owned over the years and you’ll hear a genuine and profound passion. His pride, and love and sorrow over their loss has not diminished, although many of those dogs have been buried for decades. Or consider the man we bought our senior buck, Frodo from – David is a man in his sixties who used to run a goat farm with hundreds of goats, and he sells the majority of each year’s goats. He’s narrowed down over the years, but as he told me of the death of Frodo’s brother due to the mishandling of someone he leant him to, there were tears in his eyes.
Here I would make a distinction between “sentiment” which is simply “emotion” and “sentimentality” – which is cheap emotion, the substitution of a weak thing for something deeper. I don’t think sentimentality has any place in agriculture – in fact, I don’t think it has much place in life. Sentimentality prevents you from experiencing real sentiment.
Sentimentality in agriculture would be the refusal to put an animal that is suffering and has no future down, because you love it so much or don’t feel you can kill something. Sentimentality in agriculture is the dairy-drinking vegetarian who expresses hostitility to someone who dares to butcher a cute little calf – not realizing that that calf will grow up to be a large bull, that there is no retirement home for bulls, and that it is their milk habit that caused that calf to be born. These are sentimental emotions because they are cheap and weak – they don’t require knowledge or love for specific animals, or a real understanding of the animals and their needs. Sentimentality is the meat eater who doesn’t want to know anything about the animals their meat came from, because it is just too hard to think about – and thus enables factory agriculture because they don’t want to know.
Consider, in contrast, the emotions of the farmer losing his cow. No, he can’t afford to indulge his sentiment – thus, he shakes his head and reminds himself and me that even though he feels terrible that there’s nothing else he can do. He needs to do what keeps his (economically marginal anyway) farm going. He cannot, however, fail to feel for those animals – those animals who fed his family, whose calves he midwifed, who he cared for for so many years. There’s nothing empty about this – the reminder that sentiment has no place in agriculture actually means the opposite – emotion has a powerful place in agriculture. It is just that sometimes you have to do the rational, economically sensible thing, rather than the thing you want to.
Sometimes, however, you don’t have to do the rational thing, the economically sensible one. Sometimes you can allow love to take over. For the dairy farmer, it is those horses that are a reminder of his daughters’ childhood the farm. He can keep them in return for what they’ve given him – and in return for what other animals he couldn’t keep gave him as well.
That same capacity to love is what makes him a good dairy farmer – and he is a good one. He’s held on in a place where dairy farmers are daily wiped out, he’s worked hard and harder, even though neither of his daughters wants to come back and he doesn’t know if the farm has a future. When other people retire, he still gets up to milk the cows, because he likes to milk cows and he loves the cows and the land and the way the land looks and feels. That’s why he tends his land so well, not draining the marshy areas for extra hay pasture, but keeping them intact. The same capacity for love and joy and memory and understanding that drive the keeping of those horses drives him to put the cows on the truck for slaughter – because he loves his farm more than any individual cow.
Most of my chickens don’t have names – and that’s intentional. My mother and step-mother have chickens, and they all have names. Their chickens are beloved pets, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We love the pet chickens as well. But when we come home, most of the chickens are pretty much indistinguishable from one another. If one dies, we’re sorry, but we don’t mourn. We do honestly by them – they get good care, plenty of food, days in the sun roaming the property, all the scraps we can provide, flocking dynamics. I don’t enjoy butchering chickens, but I don’t feel I have done badly by them when after a summer in the sun or a few years of laying, we kill them quickly and as painlessly as possible, and eat them.
I realize this seems the height of callousness to some people – and I can understand that. I also recognize that there are other reasons than sentimentality that someone might find this evaluation of equity on both sides unsatisfying. I’m not claiming that everyone who disagrees with me is sentimental – nor am I claiming that there aren’t other choices that could be honorably made. Maybe one’s love for a place means recognizing that because you’ll never be able to kill, you shouldn’t have chickens. Or maybe one’s deep sentiment means choosing differently. It is not my contention that mine is the only way – but I do want to draw a distinction I think it is important – between honest disagreement and emotions that substitute for understanding.
And once in a while, a chicken like Blackberry stands out. We don’t tolerate nasty roosters here – they become chicken soup on the theory that there are simply too many nice animals in the world for us to make space for the mean ones. Most of our roosters will tolerate us picking them up and all are non-aggressive. Blackberry, however, is special. He is beloved. And the very fact that a rooster could be beloved, to me, seems a good sign – it means we are being attentive. We are watching closely enough, that we know our creatures well enough to develop relationships. And we know our economic realities well enough to know that we cannot allow relationships to emerge in every case.
I do want to stand up for sentiment in agriculture because I would argue that our industrial society discourages real sentiment, the emotion that emerges from knowing things, and exchanges it for sentimentality. This is an exchange that runs deeply to our detriment, in part because it enables us not to know things.
Sentimentality creates the CAFO farm – the sentimentality that says we are too weak to bear the pain of knowing animals and watching them die. This is what turns our food into styrofoam packages and allows CAFO agriculture, where animals are carefully hidden from our view, and the relationship of our purchases carefully concealed. Sentimentality allows us to care about the extinction of the preferred charismatic megafauna of our choice, ideally something with big eyes, but that we see no connection between our purchases, our acts and the habitat destruction of the animals in question. Sentimentality enables us to care about the child Pakistani-flood victim on nightly tv enough to send some money – but not enough to try and reduce the number of climate-related natural disasters by giving up some of our priveleges. Sentimentality enables the patriotic fervor that allows us to not know how many Iraqi or Afghani civilians die in the interest of our national “greater goods.” Sentimentality is the emotion that emerges from the condition of not knowing – and it is what you have left in a society that conceals at every level real knowledge. It too is both cause and effect – it permits great evil, and it facilitates lack of knowledge of the real.
Sentiment – love, anger, attachment, affection – real emotions – these derive from knowledge, and they can’t be faked. And when you know things, the choices you make get more complex. The realities you live in get harder and greyer. Sometimes love means you have to kill something. Sometimes one love means that another loved thing get sacrificed. Sometimes you have to go against your feelings. But the only way that never happens is when you substitute sentimentality for real feeling.
We live in a world where sentimentality poses as real emotion, where we are often actively discouraged from understanding consequences, from developing real love for people and things, and from paying attention. It is easy to miss the distinction between the two entirely – because we have blurred so many things together.
It would be easy to say that there’s no connection between me carrying the rooster into the barn at night and the fact that my family tries to live on less each year, that there’s no connection between my neighbor, trying to hold on to his dairy farm and the horses. Neither is wholly consistent – and you could argue that I should subtract the feed I spend on Blackberry and he the hay and oats he gives his horses. My energy bottom line would go down a tiny bit. His economic bottom line would be a little more stable.
That’s just not the only way to look at it. The love that enables the farmer to give to those horses what he cannot give to the cows is something that needs a place to go. The love my children and my husband and I have for a rooster who gives back more than ordinary chickens is a way of expressing the love we have for our farm in general – fierce, protective, passionate. The whole thing is alive, and sometimes to keep it living we cannot do everything we’d like to. But we can pour out our love in selected places, keep an honest and just relationship with even the animals that don’t get all our love, and pour into the land and its creatures the complex realities of our passion and sentiment.