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The first thing I noticed as I started to drive the tractor down the farm road to feed and water the next group of pigs was how sad I was. Ordinarily, sure, I feel conflicted, sometimes guilty, super guilty even, but sad, actually pit in the stomach, slumped shoulders, aches behind the eyes sad? No, never. Raising pigs in fact has, in spite of the on and off again intensely conflicted feelings, been a joy. In nearly 10 years of raising pigs and having them killed so that people, I included, can eat their meat, I had never felt sad. Until, that is, I went out to do my pig chores the morning after becoming a vegetarian. When I made my decision, I had thought I could be a vegetarian while continuing to be a pig farmer at the same time because it is important that there be as many pasture based pig farms as possible at this critical time in our agricultural and cultural evolution.
The pigs that morning, however, seemed different. I seemed different. It was as if in becoming vegetarian, my perspective, my whole experience of being, had shifted to a new plane where I wasn’t able to see where the pigs ended and I began, and knowing that I had transgressed that fuzzy zone of indistinction between the being of the pigs and my own being by having nearly 2,000 of them killed over the years, and knowing that I would continue to do so, made me feel as if I had become mired in a bog of sadness that threatened to suck and pull me down beneath its suffocating surface.
As I sat, rumbling along on the tractor, noticing the depth of my sadness, I was suddenly startled by the realization that there was only one way to escape that bog, and it meant sending my life careening around a blind corner. I understood that much more than my diet had changed the moment I became a vegetarian. I understood that I, personally, could not be a vegetarian pig farmer and be truly happy. I felt I could not ethically say no to eating pigs and other animals, but say yes at the same time to raising them for slaughter, regardless of how nice I could make their lives, or how painless their deaths might be in the quality, calmly paced, small slaughterhouse that I use. It wasn’t a matter of being uncomfortable with the contradiction vegetarian-pig farmer. Rather, it was a simple psychological reality. As matter-of-factly as I can put it, in that moment, I experienced an intense desire to have nothing more to do with death.
Photo: Zach Phillips
I decided on the spot to give up pig farming and become a vegetable farmer instead. As if for emphasis, I suddenly stopped the tractor and sat still in the seat on the edge of the snow covered, frozen field with pigs eating at their feeders and nudging around through the snow behind me. Then as I sat there, wheels started turning in my mind. Reason, and reasons, many of them, kicked in. As I thought about it, I understood that making a transition to vegetable farming couldn’t be done overnight, if it could be done at all with the resources -- land and water, finances, equipment, labor, etc. -- at my disposal. I had too many existing obligations and was hindered by too many constraints, too much debt, and other than what I picked up working for awhile as a field hand on a vegetable farm, I know practically nothing about growing vegetables on a commercial scale. The sadness, which had begun to ease in my moment of inspiration, settled back down heavily. I realized also that the transition had to be done very carefully, in a way that didn't ruin my relationship with my wife (she already carried me through one farm business start up and it is unreasonable to ask her to do it again), my financial future (I am 40-years-old and have saved practically nothing for retirement, having plowed everything I had, literally and figuratively, into the pig farm), or my view of myself in my dealings with other people (I have handshake agreements with numerous people to buy and sell pigs that are months and months out). While starting to get a little cold sitting still on the tractor, I quickly calculated that if I made the transition without violating one of those criteria, it would take -- it will take -- up to a year for me to do it. I fell back on the very shaky, thin-iced rationalization that I had been killing pigs for nearly a decade, one more year wouldn’t make much of a difference.
I am, and perhaps always will be, an idealist, but as I have gotten older, I have come to understand that it is best to temper, though not abandon, idealism with the understanding that one’s idealism at best points toward an aspiration, not drives one forcefully towards a goal. I do not want to continue pig farming for another year. I will be honest, I want out now, today, but we do not always get what we want, even when it means doing work that we do not want to do. The "real world" that is opposed to idealism carries with it forces that powerfully constrain us.
The vast majority of people who become vegetarian or vegan need do nothing more than change their diet and get rid of a few pairs of shoes and some belts. I find myself in a position where I have to change my whole life, literally turn it upside down and shake it out. I have to give up a successful business 10 years in the making, just when it had taken off. I have to give up my life with pigs, a life that, while complicated and full of inner turmoil and conflict, has been wonderful. And, in the end, if vegetable farming does not work out, and there is a very good chance it will not, I will have to give up my life as a farmer completely and most likely have to return to a cubicle in an office somewhere bathed in the deadening, washed out light of fluourescence. I am willing to upend my life for the pigs, don’t get me wrong. It is just not easy, at all. It is, in fact, incredibly difficult -- my chest tightens in panic every time I think about it -- in spite of being incredibly inspiring at the same time -- my heart swells with anticipation whenever I think about it.
When I began my life with pigs, I was a living, breathing disaster, a train wreck of depression and anxiety. Living with pigs, getting to know them so well that I now speak pig, healed me. Is it fair that my healing came at the expense of the pigs’ deaths? No, of course not. Should I have found some other way of life that could have been just as healing? In retrospect, of course. However, it is only through the healing power of living with pigs that I find myself where I am today. Should I absolve myself in some small way by honoring their deaths? No. I deserve no absolution for what I have done, nor for what I will continue to do for one more year. Yet, is not being healed a form of absolution? Death for happiness? In the end, I can only say that being healed by death is like killing for peace. Killing might indeed bring a sort of peace through subjugation, but at the expense of a huge, perhaps overwhelming, chunk of oneself. In the day to day, I am happy, but deeply, I am not completely so. It is different for others who do not suffer as intensely the ethical conflict and feelings of guilt as I do, but I understand now that for me, no matter how happy I might feel, I will not be free to attain the infinite fullness of my own self, my own being, until I live a life free from killing.
Yanked from my thoughts by a frigid gust of wind that found its way to my core down the tiny gap between the top of the zipper of my coveralls and my face mask, I put the tractor back in gear and let the clutch out. As the tractor rolled along I could just make out the sound of the hard packed, frigid snow crunching beneath the tires over the loud rattle of the diesel engine.
I know that many will condemn my decision to continue raising pigs for slaughter for one more year. They would rather I find sanctuaries for all 500 pigs that I am responsible for. All that I can say, and again, this deeply felt, but ultimately essentially shallow sentiment offers no absolution, no get out of jail free card, is that I am so very sorry. I am doing the best I can, even if the best falls far short of good enough. I will do this job, no matter how hard, for one more year, as I cultivate and take care of the first seeds of what I hope will be my new life as a vegetable farmer, a life where there will be no more death on this farm, where I can let go of this burdensome sadness and open myself up at least to the possibility of real, deep, durable happiness because there is only life.