I consider myself very fortunate to have a number of very inspiring friends - smart, strong, driven women who have shaped the way I look at the world. My friend Erica Hellen is one such woman.
Erica and I became friends when we were fifteen, before our education and experiences shaped who we are today. But even fifteen years ago, I knew that Erica had an activist's mind and an trailblazer's free spirit. I remember when, back in high school, she started getting informed and fired up about health and sustainability, and in the years since, I've watched her passion for truth transform her into a highly influential person.
Erica and her husband Joel own and operate Free Union Grass Farm, and raise beef, poultry, and pork on their pasture in Virginia. I've had the pleasure of visiting their farm several times, and am forever in awe of their respect and love for their animals, and their dedication to their health and the health of the land. They have a beautiful relationship with their local community, which respects and supports the good work that they do.
I've kept Erica and Joel in the back of my mind these last few weeks as I've worked myself into a frenzy about the environmental impact of animal agriculture, and I've had a hard time reconciling the facts I've uncovered through my research with what I know of their farm and the way they raise animals.
I had reached out to Erica a few weeks back, to ask some questions about dairy cows and how calves are weaned. After reading some of my recent writing about going vegan, she responded with a whole lot of information relevant to my current quest for the right balance in my food choices, and the unique perspective of someone who spends every single day in the dedicated service of the animals in her care. I was inspired to share some of her text with you, to give a voice to the other side of the meat/no meat argument:
ON THE DANGER OF LUMPING ALL FARMING TOGETHER:
First of all, not all farming is created equally. I can't stress this enough. The lion's share of most agricultural practices are, to put it lightly, real fucked up. Which is why I was a vegetarian for 4 years before I learned more about farming. But there is a way to raise animals in a way that treats them humanely and manages the ecosystem in a thoughtful, restorative way. So as I explain things, I'll try to keep the two separate. Lumping them together is a frequent frustration to us in the regenerative farming community!
ON DAIRY AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A REGENERATIVE MODEL AND A CONVENTIONAL ONE:
First, some nomenclature:
- Cow - a female cow who has had a calf
- Heifer - a young female, or a female who has never had a calf
- Bull - a male cow used for breeding, uncommon to slaughter for beef because testosterone taints the flavor of the meat
- Steer - a castrated male, likely for beef
Just like humans, cows must have a baby in order to produce milk. The amount of time they produce milk varies, but if a calf continues to nurse, or if a farmer continues to milk, they will keep producing milk. The amount does go down over time naturally until eventually, the cow weans its calf on its own.
In most conventional dairy operations, the baby is weaned immediately so the farmer can take the milk. The calf will get a colostrum supplement in powder form instead of naturally from the mother. Colostrum is the super nutrient-dense milk produced only in the first 72-hours, without which the calf will not thrive and will likely die. They will then be machine bottle fed until they are large enough to be sold at auction, or grain-fed until they are old enough for slaughter. Mostly likely, this is in a feedlot setting. A conventional farm's sole objective is to breed frequently to keep the mother producing milk year-round, and to get the milk as soon as possible after calving. This means the mother is re-bred as soon as she comes back into heat (22 days later) and is, as you can imagine, extremely stressful on the mother. Generally a conventional dairy cow's life span is pretty short, as yield is the goal and yield goes down with age and exhaustion.
In a regenerative model (read: sustainable), the schedule varies. Some farmers will keep the calf with its mom for the first few weeks. The mom will be able to lick the cow off after birth, which is a two-sided bit of magic - it gives the calf the will to live, and stimulates oxytocin in the mother, which is a hormone that is necessary to produce and "let down" the milk so the calf can nurse. It also stimulates bonding, which will make for healthier calf. The calf will nurse naturally for colostrum, then nurse as much as it wants to ensure it gets a good start in life. This is super important especially if it's a heifer (a female) that the farmer may want to add to the milking herd one day. If it's a bull calf, it will be generally be weaned sooner - within a couple weeks or less (as soon as possible) and bottle fed until about 4-6 months old. Then it will just live with the rest of the herd and eat a pasture-based diet. I've found that being a dairy bull calf is maybe the only situation in life where it sucks to be born male - they get the upper hand in nearly every other setting...
Mothers naturally wean their calves, but when they do it varies - also just like humans. Some will kick their calf off in 4-6 months, especially if they are bred. They know they're pregnant and want to devote their energy to growing the new baby. Some will keep letting their calf milk unless you physically separate them, which means the calf is super healthy but the mom is pretty stressed from the caloric upkeep.
Generally a regenerative farmer will give the animal a couple months before breeding the cow again to give her time to rest. This helps maintain health and well being, and means the cow will have a longer life. Gestation is about 9.5 months.
ON WEANING AT FREE UNION GRASS FARM:
We don't raise dairy cows, but this is all similar in a beef setting. Our mamas calve and then we physically separate them at about 6 months. We do this side-by-side so both parties can get used to it - they are separated by a fence, but still able to see and touch each other as they adjust. This reduces stress significantly. Both mamas and calves moo and holler extensively for 24-48 hours, but calm down within a few days. It's mostly about having a swollen udder and wanting the relief of the calf nursing, but their udder dries up quickly. The calves cry because they're used to getting that big meal and must now concentrate on grazing in the pasture. This is a noisy affair and definitely makes us feel guilty, but in a world of super fucked up things that humans do, this is pretty effing low on the list.
ON SUSTAINABILITY OF VEGETABLE FARMING:
Let's talk about veggies now! Vegetable production is not inherently more sustainable. Eating a veggie-based diet doesn't necessarily lighten your footprint if those veggies come from large scale monocultures. If that monoculture is located in a desert (which is common because you have to use less herbicide), water for irrigation must be pumped in. Obviously that's even more problematic. If you are dealing with soy or palm oil et. al., you should definitely be asking if they bulldozed miles of rain forest to cultivate. It is also important to note that any soil that is used for cultivation requires fertilizer: if you take something out by way of harvest, you must add something back. If you don't, which is the case in many large scale commodity situations, you see massive depletion desertification. See: The Dust Bowl.
Fertilizer is an important topic. Is it synthetic or natural? If the fertilitzer used to grow your veggies is synthesized in a lab, you can guarantee it is comprised of petrochemicals and dinosaur bones. Big 'ole footprint. The most natural form of fertilizer known to man comes right out the butts of animals. The best vegetables you will find are grown in soil amended by natural animal manures, in a diverse setting in a climate suitable for growing vegetables (not a desert).
If animal fertilizer comes from animals raised in a feedlot, they will likely be given antibiotics in their feed, whether they are sick or not. In a feedlot setting, animal manure is perceived as a waste product, even though it is immensely valuable. It is stored in slurry pits and either spread on conventional, mono-culture crop fields, mixed into animal feed, or disposed of.
The most sustainable form of food production happens when you combine animal and vegetable production. As the animals graze, they both increase productivity of the soil and the soil's ability to sequester carbon. Grasslands are massively underused worldwide. (See: Allan Savory.) They also fertilize - they give back. That land can then be used in rotation to produce the best damn veggies you'll ever eat.
ON THE FOOTPRINT OF HER ANIMALS:
Now, I will say certain animals on our farm have larger footprints than others. Chickens, ducks, and pigs are all omnivorous, and to grow them to a good slaughter weight in a reasonable amount of time we supplement their diet with antibiotic-free, hormone-free, non-GMO, Virginia-grown grains. But - the footprint of that grain is pretty high by the time it is grown, harvested, milled, mixed, and delivered to our farm 45 minutes away. Our chicks are born in a hatchery in Pennsylvania, driven here on a USPS truck, driven to our farm and into our brooder, and then driven out to the field. Same with the ducklings. That's a lot of fossil fuels, even for a pastured product.
ON THE DEMONIZING OF ALL BEEF PRODUCTION:
So here's my biggest buggaboo of them all: every article you read when you try to figure out how to "reduce your carbon footprint" will tell you the first thing you should stop doing is EATING BEEF. Depending on your location and the kind of beef you have available, this is total muther fucking bull shit. Beef is the #1 most sustainable thing we produce. But! Our beef is 100% grass-fed. Cows are herbivores. Cows should only eat grass. If you're feeding them grain, which can still be done in "organic" feedlot, the point has been missed entirely.
These animals only have one bad day...
...and I think that ain't bad at all. We keep the girls, we give them names, we give them apples and pears from our trees. We give them love and ear scratches. We help their calves stand up and make their way to the udder for the first time. They trust us.
ON THE WELFARE OF HER ANIMALS:
Our calves are born on our farm. They nurse their mama's milk until they are 6 months old. All the while, we walk them around the farm, creating temporary paddocks so they harvest the grass in one location as they fertilize it, but not so long that they compact the soil or kill the forages. Grazing stimulates growth. It increases forage density. It makes way for native seed to re-emerge. When intelligently managed, this disturbance generates more active soils, and soil micro- and macro-organisms literally build topsoil. Deserts are brought back to life this way: it's kind of magic, but mostly science.
After two years of life this way, we take our steers to slaughter. Our slaughter house is an hour away, but that's the only trip they make in a vehicle. If we could slaughter them on our farm, we would, but the law man says no. As Joel Salatin puts it, these animals have only one bad day, and I think that ain't bad at all. We keep the girls, we give them names, we give them apples and pears from our trees. We give them love and ear scratches. We help their calves stand up and make their way to the udder for the first time. They trust us.
ON THE BALANCE OF THE ECOSYSTEM:
Everything in life is an exchange. Life depends on death. In eco-minded circles, we encounter a lot of folks who've been led to believe they can exist on this planet without the death of another living thing. As a farmer, a person who works outside with grass and animals and soil and turns them into food, I know this is impossible. There is absolutely no such thing as an animal-less ecosystem. Even the microflora in our gut are living creatures depending on us, another living creature, to survive. It is up to us to manage that exchange responsibly, consciously. As we do it, we must ensure that we protect the environment. We fence the animals out of our waterways to prevent nitrification and erosion. We water the animals with our deep wells, by using gravity from our pond, and with rainwater catchment trailers. We live in a place where it rains, and we market our products to people who live no more than 2 hours away. We don't ship.
ON THE DRAWBACKS:
There are problems, of course. I've been thinking a lot about packaging. We use a ton of plastic. The best way to store meat for a long period of time is in plastic, and there's just no way around that I can think of. Even bio-degradable plastic is totally cost-prohibitive, and the end user will likely throw it in the trash regardless. So that's something I'm trying to process. Processing poultry is very water-intensive. Keeping meat in cold storage requires a lot of electricity - but it's on our docket to convert to solar as soon as we have time to do anything else at all and the money to invest in the infrastructure. Time is our most elusive resource.
Thank you, Erica, for sharing your extensive experience and providing a unique and balanced perspective! I hope that you and Joel continue to do what you do for years to come! All images are courtesy of Erica's Instagram, which is just a treat to follow. Check it out here!