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Column: Upper Valley Is an Animal Landscape

Sunday, April 07, 2013
White River Junction

One Friday night last month, after a dinner in town with friends, I returned home to check on things in the barn. I raise lambs for meat, and early March is when two or three dozen little lambs are born on our farm.

I was disappointed, in my tired state, to find a ewe that was well along in labor. I was warm and happy and full of food and conversation and wanted nothing so much as to crawl into bed for the night, but I wriggled into my coveralls and stepped into the pen to investigate.

The ewe, one of my oldest and most reliable sheep, was having a bad delivery. After an hour of struggling to orient the lamb properly inside the birth canal, I realized I was in over my head. A little after midnight, I called the vet, something I’d never had to do in my decade of breeding sheep.

The vet seemed even less thrilled than I was to find herself in a cold barn in the small hours of a now-Saturday morning, but she set to work, and an hour and a half later, had negotiated a truce. The ewe was alive and on the road of recovery, and the second of the twin lambs was nursing contentedly. The first lamb, the one whose head kept avoiding the birth canal, didn’t survive.

After thanking the vet profusely for coming out in the middle of the night, I stripped off my sodden clothes, staggered into the warm house, and found my brain turning over the same question, again and again: “Why do I do this? Why do I do this?”

Not for the money, that’s for sure. Even in years without a midnight vet bill, we’ve never broken even raising sheep. The sale of lambs for the freezer every fall brings in some cash, but then the ewes spend all winter devouring it, one luscious bale of hay after another. I view it as a personal challenge to try to figure out how to nudge ovine revenues ahead of ovine expenses, and we’re inching closer to profitability. After all, long before the dairy cow became Vermont’s unofficial mascot, a whole lot of farmers made a whole lot of money raising sheep hereabouts.

But the real reason I raise sheep is entirely different: I do it because it’s good for the environment.

In case you just choked on your morning coffee, my apologies; there’s been a persistent anti-meat drumbeat in recent years, and you can be forgiven for not expecting to find a pro-meat point of view in a family newspaper. But this is indeed the main reason why I raise animals for meat, besides the fabulous taste, of course — I believe it’s good for us and good for the environment here in the Upper Valley.

Which isn’t to say that many of the things that have been written about the horrors of meat aren’t true. Industrial livestock production is, without a doubt, causing desertification, depleting aquifers, polluting rivers, using up grain that could more efficiently be fed directly to humans, wrecking the rain forest, producing a product that is killing people, exacerbating global warming and breeding antibiotic resistance. But these truths leave out two other important truths.

First, the industrially produced meat that’s causing all these problems really shouldn’t be called meat — we’d be better off using a Seussian acronym for it, something like GLORP, Gasoline-Laden, Oddly Real-looking Protein, or maybe OOZE, Oil Obscured as a Zoological Entity. The stuff isn’t meat because it doesn’t have the nutritional profile of meat, which is produced by animals grazing on grass that’s been fertilized by their manure. GLORP, meanwhile, consists of grain fed to animals confined in feedlots, with that grain requiring tremendous amounts of petroleum to create the synthetic fertilizer needed to grow it. If you are what you eat, then GLORP isn’t meat.

Second, and here is where the local angle comes in, is the geographical fact that the Upper Valley is primarily an animal landscape, not a vegetable landscape. We love our corn fields and vegetable farms, but if you were to hop onto a plane in Lebanon and fly over the Upper Valley for an hour or so, you’d see that nearly all the vegetables grown here are wedged into a few relatively narrow strips of land immediately adjacent to our rivers. Most of the agricultural land in the Upper Valley is upland pasture, too steep for cultivating for crops. It’s land that is ideal for raising animals on grass, be it for milk, eggs or meat.

To repurpose Tip O’Neill’s famous political maxim, all ecology is local. What makes environmental sense in one region may make no sense in another. Cutting down the Amazon rain forest to grow hamburgers is an ecological disaster; grazing cattle and sheep on the lush pastures of the Upper Valley, with our decent soils, regular rainfall and need for local sources of protein, makes all the sense in the world.

Think about the opposite case: Eschewing local meat means that our protein needs to come from somewhere else. The Abenaki acquired their protein from venison, salmon, trout and white-oak acorns, none of which exist in sufficient quantity in the Upper Valley to feed all of us today. Nor can we grow enough legumes without either cutting back our existing vegetable production, converting our dairy lands to bean production (swapping one form of protein for another) or cultivating land that is too steep to endure the erosional onslaughts of Nemo, Sandy and Irene. That leaves either GLORP or imported legumes, typically soybeans, grown in vast monocultures in the central part of the continent and heavily dependent on herbicides, synthetic fertilizer (oil) and genetic modifications.

Two disclaimers are in order here. First, diet is a very personal thing, and I recognize that many people have good and specific reasons for eating little or no meat, be they religious, moral, medical or personal preference. I spent five years in my 20s as a serious vegetarian and have no regrets about that period at all. Second, I’m in the business or raising and selling meat, which gives me an obvious conflict of interest here, though I should point out that nearly all of my farm’s income comes from selling vegetables, not meat.

Rather, my point is a general one: What makes ecological sense varies from place to place, and in our place, here in the Upper Valley, locally grown meat is a great source of protein that can be raised in harmony with our natural environment. Growing our own protein also makes us less dependent on GLORP or other products imported from somewhere else.

Can meat be raised locally in the quantity needed to feed us all at a price we can all afford? That’s an article for another time, to be written by an innovative farmer whom I look forward to meeting some day. Soon, I hope.

Chuck Wooster is a farmer and writer who lives in White River Junction.

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