Laura Wolfgang holds Oliver, her Black Welsh Mountain lamb. (Photos by Scott Carlson)
Poultney, Vt. — At Green Mountain College’s post-petroleum farm, students learn how to grow crops without using fossil fuels to drive tractors or haul in copious quantities of fertilizer. Much of the work here—plowing, mowing, improving the soil, and so on—is done with the aid of animals, which are vital partners in the farming endeavor.
Recently, I stood out in a sunny pasture here with two sustainable-agriculture students, Dayna Halprin and Laura Wolfgang, along with a cow named Princess. True to her name, Princess conveyed an air of bovine entitlement, amplified by the way that Ms. Halprin and Ms. Wolfgang stroked her hide and cooed at her.
“I love Princess—she’s a good cow,” Ms. Halprin said. A moment later, as Princess’s big, wet nose nudged her face, she added: “Hey, don’t eat my hat!”
“I see that you’re very affectionate with these animals,” I said, “so do you ever put them up for slaughter?”
The answer was yes, of course. This is a diversified farm, in which each plant and animal component, depending on the time of year, offers something to make this place productive or profitable. A chicken can be both a pest controller and an egg producer, for example. Pigs can consume waste food. Cattle can offer muscle power or produce calves and milk. And all of them produce soil-enriching manure.
And one of the final products an animal can offer — or give up, depending on your point of view — is its body. Ms. Halprin and Ms. Wolfgang see it as a “give-and-take relationship.”
“We really do love them, but they do have a purpose here, and that is part of a sustainable agriculture system,” Ms. Wolfgang said. “I see meat production in the Northeast as an essential piece of creating a less fuel-intensive food system. You can’t survive on vegetables that you can grow in the Northeast through the winter. You need to have a local source of fat and protein.”
These two young women have real emotional investments in the process. Last year, for example, Ms. Halprin took a calf named Philip to slaughter.
“That was really hard for me, because I had seen him get born—I pulled him out,” she said. As one of his primary caretakers, she spent a lot of time with Philip. She had been a vegetarian for years before his slaughter. “He was the first meat I had ate and pretty much the last meat I’ve eaten since then,” she said.
Green Mountain College probably draws more than its share of vegan and vegetarian students, Ms. Halprin and Ms. Wolfgang say, so slaughtering animals has been controversial on campus. The debate blew up a couple of years ago when some students were assigned to feed the farm pigs. Soon they found out that the pigs were destined for the dining hall, and they launched a campaign to save them.
Z. Vance Jackson, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Green Mountain, said the college saw this as an opportunity to teach the students about “socially responsible dialogue”—that is, how to discuss a touchy subject without devolving into yelling and screaming. He was the moderator of a forum about the topic.
“It was a highly emotionally charged atmosphere,” he said. “You could tell that people had strong feelings one way or the other, and rather than exploding at each other, we wanted them to talk it out.”
Ms. Halprin was presented as one of the voices of the farm, arguing for meat production. The emotions around the issue led to surprising assertions from some of the anti-meat students. Some of them, Ms. Halprin recalls, said they would rather eat factory-farmed meat—from animals raised in often-horrific conditions—than eat the pastured animals on Green Mountain’s farm.
Eventually, the college conducted an online poll, and the vast majority of students said that the animals from the farm should be served in the dining hall.
Bloodshed has always been a part of farm life. E.B. White, who based a much-loved children’s story on the threatened slaughter of “a runty little pig,” was himself a part-time farmer. In The Points of My Compass, he wrote about shooting a fox that had been causing trouble on his farm. “The fox is not even the biggest and meanest killer here—I hold that distinction myself. I think nothing of sending half a dozen broilers to the guillotine…. I have plenty of convictions but no real courage, and I find it hard to live in the country without slipping into the role of murderer.”
Richard W. Bulliet, a professor of history at Columbia University who has written extensively about human-animal relationships, has said that since so many of us live in urban areas and are deeply separated from farm life, we have attitudes toward and relationships with animals that might have been unimaginable to previous generations. We live in an era of “post-domesticity,” he has said, that has influenced more than just our attitudes about animal rights and vegetarianism. He goes so far as to suggest that a separation from the mating and slaughter of farm life has amplified our interests in pornography and gore in cinema, for example.
Whatever the case, at Green Mountain College the process for Ms. Halprin and Ms. Wolfgang is certainly up close and personal—and they seem to embrace it.
As we were winding down our tour of the farm, Ms. Wolfgang said that she wanted to show me her lamb, Oliver—a Black Welsh Mountain Sheep that she had raised on a bottle after he was rejected by his mother. She jumped the fence surrounding the sheep pasture and called to him.
“Baby! Bay-bee! C’mere, babe! Come on, little boy!” He bounded over the tall weeds to her, bleating hungrily. She held him in her arms and explained that her arrival in the pasture once meant a bottle of milk. “But not anymore,” she said in baby talk. “Now it just means love and scratches. Love and scratches! Good boy!”
Oliver, too, will be slaughtered this fall, and Ms. Wolfgang plans to kill him herself. She wants to use Oliver as a demonstration animal to teach other students about sustainable meat production. But there are logistical challenges to work out, she explains. The killing shot should be done with a gun, and she has never fired one, so she needs to find someone to help her with that part of the task. Also, firing a gun is not legal near the college, and she wants to kill Oliver in a pasture where he is used to grazing, to reduce the stress on him.
“They get to know the pasture, and when it’s time to slaughter them, you don’t load them into a truck and take them to a place that they are unfamiliar with and put them in this stressful, horrible situation before you slaughter them,” she said. “It’s much more humane to come out to the pasture—it’s you, they are not afraid of you, and suddenly they are not there anymore.”
She doesn’t cry, but her voice tightens with emotion as she talks about it.
“It’s definitely going to be hard,” she says. “It’s an experiment in whether I can actually be a livestock farmer, because this is part of the process.”
Princess nuzzles Dayna Halprin in the pasture as Ms. Wolfgang watches.