Photo, above, by Jimmy Brown
[Editor's Note: After Dodo member Bob Comis wrote about his plans to give up pig farming out of ethical concerns, we asked him to document the process -- and challenges -- of changing livelihoods. This is his first post in a series. You can also follow him on Twitter: @StonyBrookFarm]
I suppose the most difficult thing is to know where it all began. Does it go all the way back to my pre-teen years, to my hours and days spent catching and playing with caterpillars and letting them crawl all up along and down my arms and hands, so many and for so long that I had an allergic reaction? Does it go as far back as sixth grade when I felt an overwhelming sense of shame over and distaste for the transgression of the sanctity of life that unfolded in front of me as the little robin gasped its last breaths – eyes open wide, bright red blood pulsing out of the bb hole in its neck – while my friend Joe, who had shot it, walked around and talked about it with puffed up bravado? Or, is it much more recent than that? Is it rooted in my thoughts, feelings, and experiences over the last decade of raising animals, mostly pigs, to kill so that we can eat their meat? Perhaps it is a thread running through all of my days, composed of discontinuous, short strands inclining me here, there, everywhere, woven, braided, twisted together, to form a life's tenor that I am able only now to articulate.
The important thing is that it had a beginning; it put down roots; it grew into something strong; and now it speaks and drives me to act. What is it? It is my belief, recently voiced to myself (and to others, I suppose, as well), that it is morally wrong to kill animals for food, especially highly sentient, emotionally rich animals with great capacity for suffering and strong, clearly expressed interests.
Today, it is more than a belief. It is practice. With the force of my inner voice ringing in my head, I first became a vegetarian. And then I knew that I could no longer raise pigs for slaughter. I decided to quit pig farming and farm vegetables instead.
At the moment that I made that decision, however, a cacophony of the concerns of personal finance, entrenched occupation, and interpersonal obligations erupted in my head. I knew that I could not just up and quit. Getting out of pig farming and into vegetable farming would take time, and it would take a plan.
The thought of embarking on another farm start up terrified me. When I started pig farming, I knew nothing about pigs. I grew up in the suburbs, playing video games and eating fast food with my friends in a shopping mall. I was just a suburban kid swept up in the anti-factory farm, buy local movement. Everything I know about raising pigs today I learned the hard way, in the painful, often heartbreaking crucible of trial and error.
Pigs, quite a few, got sick and died. I often got angry at the pigheadedness of the pigs when trying to work with them and kicked and hit them. They escaped, and I spent hours chasing and herding them back into their paddocks. They grew slowly, or too fast. The pork – the pigs' sole purpose – was too fatty or too lean. It was often soft, pale, and watery. Over a very trying decade, however, the pigs stopped getting sick. I stopped kicking and hitting them. I perfected my fences. And, I zeroed in on the perfect feed formula. While I continue to learn more about pigs and pig farming every day, what I learn is no longer a matter of life or death; it is no longer a matter of frustration and anger; it is no longer a matter of the financial success or failure of the farm. A decade in, what I learn now is about tweaking, perfecting the farming system I have put in place, and perfecting my relationship with the pigs.
In this new day, in this new, vegetarian life, however, I understand that there is only one way to perfect my relationship with the pigs, and that is to stop farming them altogether. In spite of my anxiety over leaving the comfortable life I have created for myself on the pig farm, I have to do it. I am willing to do it. But, I don't want to give up farming altogether. I love farming. I love nurturing life, making it grow, thrive, flourish (the irony of this love is not lost on me). I love being connected to the land, tied to the seasons, at the mercy and out in the bowels of the weather. I love feeding people. I love how every day is different. I love how at the core, every day is the same; farming is about routine. I love living my life outdoors. Most of all, I love that I found a type of life – physical, thoughtful, driven by necessity – that has made it possible for me to step out of the darkness, after three decades of struggling with depression and anxiety.
Now that I have come up with a plan, it is time to set it in motion. There is a lot to do, and little time to do it. Because my wife already supported me through one five-year long farm start up, I am unwilling to ask her to do it again, so it is important that I hit the vegetable farm ground running. Over the next year, as I wind down the pigs, I need to start raising vegetables, and I need to start building a community to support the farm.
This first year, I am going to raise vegetables on a very small scale, barely an acre, and have a mini Community Supported Agriculture program, maybe 15 to 20 shareholders, in what will be a sort of "proof of concept" year.
I am anxiously waiting for my seed order to arrive. According to UPS Tracking, the package has left Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine, and I do not have much longer to wait. How much longer I have to wait for spring to arrive so that I can start planting remains to be seen.
The branches of the trees I can see through the window are leafless, bony. There is not even a hint of buds on their growth tips. There are but patches of bare ground peppered about the fields. The exposed grass is brown, still in its torpor. There is still snow, everywhere. The ground is still hard and full of frost.
Ideally all, or at least some, of the people who join the farm this year would be interested in becoming the farm's "core group," as Elizabeth Henderson calls it in her book "Sharing the Harvest." The core group serves in many ways as the farm's board of directors, helping the farmer articulate, implement, and stay on top of the farm's mission and goals. The core group also often supports the farm and farmer by donating personal time, to help manage logistics, such as CSA membership, shareholder communication, and share packing and distribution, and/or to lend a hand when there is too much to be done on the farm. Many, maybe most, CSAs function perfectly fine without a core group. However, if a farmer needs to leap from 15 to 20 shareholders in the first year to 100 or more in the second year, which is what I need to do, I believe it is necessary to cultivate much more than plants. I believe cultivating a core group for the In Line Farm CSA – In Line Farm, you see? By farming vegetables, I am farming "in line" with my ethics, as opposed to against them when I raise pigs – is essential to making successful a rapid transition from pig farming to vegetable farming.
Maintaining the interest and investment of CSA shareholders, even a committed core group, depends in large part on offering a wide variety of vegetables over the course of the season. For this season, I ordered, in no particular order, spinach, beets, peas, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, Brussels sprouts, sweet corn, kale, potatoes, winter squash, Swiss chard, green beans, wax beans, onions, shallots, melons, tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower and dry beans. (It's funny, I hardly ever cook with dry beans, but I love growing them.)
I have a garden every year, so I know a little about how to grow vegetables. But there is a huge difference, as I discovered with pigs when I quickly scaled up from a few pigs to 500, between growing something in small quantities and growing something on a commercial scale, even on a miniature commercial scale. I do know about cultivating and harvesting vegetables on a commercial scale because I worked for two seasons as a field hand on a vegetable farm down in the valley. Bringing the vegetables to life and keeping them going long enough for them to be cultivated and harvested will be the challenge.
There is something about this transition from pig farming to vegetable farming that I have been skirting around as I nonchalantly write about the challenge of growing vegetables. The whole transition process might very well fail. Successfully transitioning from pig farming to vegetable farming, especially over a short period of time, is far from a given. For one thing, my land is not particularly well-suited to growing vegetables, though it will do. For another, there is my ignorance, which, admittedly, is great. I could lose whole crops to my ignorance. Then there is the weather. On average, weather conditions around here are excellent for growing vegetables. Any particular year, on the other hand, can be disastrous: too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, spring thaw too late, fall frost too early. I don't have enough years to make it or break it for the weather to average out. If this year is a disastrous weather year – compounded by my ignorance – it will be over before it got started. Finally, there is the issue of marketing. I have been taking it for granted that if I grow vegetables, shareholders will appear, as if by magic. What if it is not that simple? While I was able to successfully market the pig farm, what if marketing the vegetable farm does not work out? What if the market for CSAs in my area is saturated? I don't think it is, but what if I am wrong? As with the weather, if I cannot quickly attract shareholders, it will quickly be over.
So many people try to start small businesses and fail. Just because I pulled it off once, why should I expect to be able to pull it off again? Believing that this plan will be successful simply because I came up with it is like believing that I deserve some sort of Karmic payback for giving up my life as a pig farmer. Karma doesn't work that way, and neither does starting a small business. I need to acknowledge that this attempt at transition is ripe for failure. Ripe for failure or not, in the end, even failure – losing my life as a farmer, any kind of farmer – will be success because all that matters is that in making the effort I am embracing life.
Even as I sow the first seeds of my new life, I continue taking lives. I took nine pigs to the slaughterhouse this morning. They are being killed one by one right now, as I type. Some of them have already been wheeled along the snaking overhead rails from the kill floor into the cooler. Their lives were not their own, unlike their deaths.
I don't want you, or I, to forget that. The transition could be only about my entry into vegetable farming instead of also away from pig farming. I could write it that way. But, I won't. I am not going to hide behind forgetting. Though it is difficult, I will bear witness, in public, and remember. I owe the pigs, and the people who ache at their loss, at least that much.