The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Ethical meat

Chicken in a forest pastureThere are really only two environmentally and ethically conscious ways to eat meat --- buy from very small farmers who raise livestock as part of permaculture systems or raise those animals yourself.  We're still a long way from reaching this optimal state, but I hope you'll let me show you what I hope our homestead will eventually look like.

Here in the eastern United States, forests are the native ecosystem for most areas, so I envision creating forest pastures to raise both chickens and pigs while allowing many native plants and animals to coexist.  In the prairie states, long-grass pastures are probably more appropriate.  In either case, it's also essential to spread livestock out so that manure becomes a boon rather than a pollutant --- don't raise more pigs than can be used to fertilize your garden.

We already feed all of our food waste to the chickens, but we don't waste much, so the scraps don't make up much of their diet.  We've approached all of the local grocery stores, hoping that they might give us spoiled produce, but unfortunately that is against corporate policy.  Those of you who live in urban areas would probably have better luck approaching small restaurants, and might be able to feed your livestock on food waste alone. 
Deer in the Clinch River
Hunting is another way of feeding ourselves high quality meat in a relatively natural setting.  Since deer are overpopulated in our area, we'll be focusing more on this option as time goes on.  Then there are honeybees --- while they only provide empty calories, it's hard to complain about a source of food that takes up no more than two square feet of land and produces roughly 49,000 calories per year.

Unless you make weekly airplane flights or turn on the air conditioner with the windows open, changing your eating choices is probably your best bet for helping the earth.  37% of the earth's terrestrial area is currently devoted to producing food, and at the same time habitat destruction is the biggest cause of extinction on the planet.  Isn't it time that we put some deeper thought into our food choices so that there will be a bit of space left for wildlife to survive?

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

This post is part of our Ethics of Vegetarianism lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Have you seen what fenced in pigs do to a wooded lot? Nothing alive but the big trees.
Comment by Errol Fri Jul 2 15:35:43 2010
I would think that the demolition pigs can do would be very similar to what chickens can do --- it all depends on how much acreage you use per animal and how quickly you rotate them through paddocks. I read at least once blog where a farmer raises pastured pigs, and his photos are very pastoral and not at all demolished -- clearly, he's found the level at which you can raise pigs without too much damage.
Comment by anna Fri Jul 2 17:19:04 2010

You have sure stirred up the bees (haha). I have enjoyed reading the different points of view and am open enough that I can see everyones different points. I think it boils down to what each person believes is ethical.

Background: I was raise in Arkansas on a farm. My early life my family raise hogs, cows and chickens enough to make a living. Later they became commercial turkey farmers and then finally commercial chicken farmers.

Current: My wife and I are in the rat race of life with our three kids. We have a cow we breed each year for a slaughter calf, raise chickens for eggs and meat, hunt for deer and raise a garden.

I believe that you have canine teeth in your head for a reason but don't mind if you chose otherwise. I believe that anyone can make an argument for the fact that anyone else isn't being ethical to their animals based on their own beliefs. I could argue that you are unethical to your bees by taking their honey and making it harder on these bees. If they where in the wild they wouldn't have to share. But I don't believe this way.

I am actually on what many of your readers would call extreme or even unethical. I don't believe that the commercially raised chickens that my parents grew were treated unethically. They were provided with everything they needed. They were even provided with a climate controlled environment, I can say that about my chickens today. Contrary to a lot of info out there they are not feed steroids or growth hormones. They are breed to be super fast growers with to much breast meat, just as we strive to have good layers or foragers. I have actually taken some of the chicks and grow them on my place and they grow comparatively to their siblings back on the commercial farm.

The factory that processed the chickens we grew, hung them by their feet and cut their necks. Sound familiar? Only they had a machine that cut their necks completely almost immediately. How many butchers can say that. Also their is no waste as anything that isn't used for human food gets sent of and made into dog food (hope I didn't ruin any ones use of dog food).

So what is ethical? My chickens have to suffer in the Arkansas summer heat and humidity and be subject to me as a butcher.

I will stop my soap box speech. I love this discussion and being challenged on my beliefs and hope I haven't offended anyone.

PS please don't make your dog a vegetarian, that is just unethical.

Comment by Erich Fri Jul 2 19:06:23 2010
Pigs dig deep.
Comment by Errol Fri Jul 2 19:28:11 2010

Daddy --- true, but they still won't really tear an area up if you keep them below the carrying capacity. I mean, Lucy digs deep (she gets obsessed by small mammals in the ground now and then), but since she only digs a hole here and there, our yard certainly isn't torn up. I think that pigs are extremely destructive the way people keep them in tiny pens, but it does seem like you can keep them in such a way that they are relatively light on the land. The trick is giving them serious acreage, not cooping them up in a tiny space.

Erich --- I'm so glad you chimed in! You brought out a point of view which hadn't been represented at all, and I can't see how your calmly typed words could have offended anyone.

Actually, one of the main things that our broiler experiment has taught me is the purpose of factory farming. Despite having access to plenty of pasture, our broilers eat more food per pound of meat than a factory farmed bird, not less. I think we probably do have some lessons to learn from factory farming. Maybe if food waste isn't available, the Cornish Cross really is the best option for the small backyard chicken-keeper? And I agree that the humaneness of the slaughter at your parents' poultry operation is probably better than ours --- we do our best, but now and then we don't cut 100% right the first time.

I wonder, though, how much the industry has changed since your parents were in it. (Or how huge operations compared to theirs.) Actually, my biggest concern about factory farming is the waste stream. If there's one thing I've learned on our farm, it's that manure is gold in the right proportions, but if you keep too many animals in a small area, it turns into a major pollutant. On the other hand, there are ways to work that manure back into the farm cycle. For example, the compost we bought this spring was the byproduct of a nearby poultry operation that scooped the poop, combined it with horse manure and other organic matter, and then sold it to farmers. I don't think that factory farming has to be inherently problematic, as long as the individual producers in charge take a permaculture outlook to the entire ecosystem within their farm.

Comment by anna Fri Jul 2 21:26:17 2010

While I could agree with your comments about ethical meat and permaculture, I wonder is this is a viable alternatative on a large scale?

Could you feed the current population of planet earth with permaculture? I would hope so, but I kind of doubt it.

Wether we like it or not, human society has evolded from hunter/gatherers to farmers to our current technological society. Personally, I kind of like my gadets. :-) And even on your homestead, you'd be hard pressed to do without them, I think. Even simple tools like a shovel or wheelbarrow require many different technologies to make. Let alone things like a chainsaw or tiller.

To have such a technological society, a large percentage of the population is employed in something else than food production. And I doubt if a small percentage of farmers could feed the rest of the population without relying on large-scale mechanized agriculture.

In my opinion, we should look to the future, but learn the lessons from the past. Let's use our growing knowledge to invent better ways to grow food with the use of less energy and environmental inpact.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sat Jul 3 08:22:01 2010

Regarding pigs and the damage they do, I think that you're on the right track with wanting to give them plenty of space. Historically speaking, each family's pig used to be let loose in the forest and more or less left to itself until the fall (pigs - at least the old breeds with a small amount of wild boar in them - tend to be very good foragers). Each farmer registered an ear notch for the pig, so that when the slaughtering time came, you would know which pig was your pig. I haven't read of any occasions where a few pigs managed to take out a forest; they'll take out the saplings and eat down the weeds, which I presume is what you'll be hoping for anyway for your permaculture approach.

Erich, just for the record, I wasn't offended at all by your post; I was happy to hear about how well your family's chickens were treated. I expect that many of the nasty things one hears about large scale farms comes from a few bad seeds; there is the occasional small scale farmer who's cruel to his animals too, but I would presume that most farmers, whether large scale or small scale, are good to their animals because that's their business. Personally, I generally tend to try to buy my meat from small, local farmers primarily because I would like to help keep them in my increasingly suburban area. Also, it's my understanding that the eggs from chickens which range more freely are lower in cholesterol and higher in some trace nutrients. Of course, I'd keep chickens myself if my husband was willing to eat eggs in other ways besides baked goods.

(On a random side note, if one simply has to make a family pet a vegetarian, it's better to do it to a dog - dogs are omnivores and can live on a vegetarian diet, although I think it would be cruel to do that to one. Cats, on the other hand, are true carnivores and will sicken and die on just veggies.)

Anna, I've enjoyed your lunch series this week - like many others, it really got me thinking about my place in the world and it's food chains. I'm afraid that in the end, however, I would still rescue the fish trapped in the puddle - I figure that as I am a part of system - not some being sitting outside and apart from it - my meddling a little probably won't have too much effect in the long run. The system has some built-in checks and balances to manage that sort of thing. Of course, it can only be so flexible, so meddling on a large scale probably should be frowned upon.

Comment by Ikwig Sat Jul 3 09:38:57 2010

We love our gadgets too, and I never meant to say that we should go back to a hunter gatherer existence. On the other hand, just a hundred and fifty years ago, the U.S. was primarily an agrarian society. Yes, we had some gadgets, but they cost more than they do now, so most people lived more simply. Farmers still had time to specialize in certain areas and invent and philosophize, and had enough cash to buy a few time-savers, definitely including things like wheelbarrows and shovels. We were a more independent nation then, with inventions and thoughts flowing out of our soil copiously. While I can see your point that outsourcing our food needs to a few farmers leaves a large proportion of the population free to innovate, the reality seems very different. Instead, we have a large proportion of the population working mindless, unfulfilling jobs to make a few head honchos rich. Honestly, I think the common person is a lot worse off now than they were a century ago, despite having more gadgets.

My feeling is that we've gone too far in the specialization direction and away from materially participating in our own well-being. Personally, I'd like to see a happy medium, where most people grow the majority of their own food and only have to make a bit of money to pay for those specialized objects. At the personal level, permaculture is extremely effective, and if most people had their own garden and orchard and pasture, I think the method would feed the world. On the other hand, permaculture might not work as a replacement for the large-scale monoculture operations --- but I think that entire concept is the problem. I don't think we should be outsourcing our food to huge corporations, whether they grow a huge field of corn on chemical fertilizers, whether they grow several different veggies in a large-scale organic operation, or whether they even manage to achieve permaculture.

Granted, people tell me that they don't have time to grow most or even some of their own food. But that's an illusion. We all make decisions about how to spend our time, deciding whether we want to make twice as much money as we truly need so that we can get a fancy house, or whether we want to only work a part time job and have time to spend on our own lives. In fact, the average American currently watches 4.5 hours of TV per day. Whenever I see that figure, I'm blown away. You can definitely grow all or nearly all of your own food in that amount of time. Like becoming a vegetarian, it's all a personal choice about how you want to spend your energy.

Comment by anna Sat Jul 3 10:14:51 2010
Ikwig --- I love your last point (about being part of the system rather than an outsider looking in.) That is my achilles heel when it comes to envisioning natural and permaculture systems --- I tend to be too much of a preservationist. When I sit down and think hard, I know that we are part of the ecosystem, and that my preservationist ethic is, in it's own way, no better than the hands-off "I'm not part of the food chain" approach I've been maligning in this week's lunchtime series. I need to put that idea into my permaculture musings --- maybe your words will spawn another lunchtime series in a month or two once I've thoroughly digested it!
Comment by anna Sat Jul 3 10:21:51 2010

Farmers still had time to specialize in certain areas and invent and philosophize

I got the impression that the "philisophers" of past ages were mostly clergy or landed gentry. I.e. people who didn't exactly have to work hard for a living.

And while it is true that individuals can be very inventive, a lot of inventions require cooperation, either for their inception or their realization.

including things like wheelbarrows and shovels.

I included those because they are commonly made from steel. Making and steel (or even wrought iron) is a very laborious process. without modern equipment. Not something you can do efficiently alone or in a small group.

Just look at an old-fashioned blacksmith and the resources they needed e.g. a furnace and bellows, lots of charcoal or coal, raw iron, an anvil, hammers and tongs, chisels and other tools. And the time it takes to make something relatively simple as a shovel blade that way.

Honestly, I think the common person is a lot worse off now than they were a century ago, despite having more gadgets.

That depends on what one counts as better or worse? Certainly the life expectancy has gone up, and things like infant and childbirth mortality have gone down due to improved healthcare. And the amount knowledge that is now readily available for those who want it is also huge.

I agree that it would be better for most people to lead a more active lifestyle.

My feeling is that we've gone too far in the specialization direction and away from materially participating in our own well-being.

Specialization is what builds civilizations. And that process started hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Even a hundred and fifty years ago, there were lots of essential jobs that required years or decades of practice to master. The aforementioned blacksmith being a case in point.

Or your homesteading adventure, for that matter. :-) Wouldn't you agree that you've been learning quite a lot on-the-job, as it were. And that your specialist knowledge as a biologist comes in handy?

Comment by Roland_Smith Sat Jul 3 11:58:14 2010

I still don't think you're hearing what I'm saying, though. Nowhere did I say that I wanted us to do away with all specialization. My thesis is that if we simplify our lives and realize that we only need the important gadgets rather than every new update of those gadgets that the advertisers push as absolutely essential (but which really aren't), we can cut back on our work hours to the point where we have time to grow our own food too.

Growing your own food does not take up your entire work week, so there's plenty of time leftover to devote to making and inventing the gadgets that are really important. Right now we're caught in this spiral where we, as a society, can't tell the difference between our wants and needs, and the advertising industry constantly tells us we need more, so we just keep working harder at our jobs, which means we "need" more "conveniences" like fast food and frozen dinners and monoculture vegetables to make that lifestyle possible. But those conveniences cost a lot of money, so we have to spend more hours working at our jobs to pay for them. If we can break out of that cycle, we'll all be healthier and happier.

I'm not saying that we should go back in time. Instead, I'm using some examples of the good things about past societies to show us the way toward a future society where we can combine the best of the past --- free time, independence --- with the best of the present --- longer life expectancy, some worthwhile gadgets.

Comment by anna Sat Jul 3 12:17:38 2010

I hear what you are saying. I just doen't think that it is feasible for the total population of Earth, for several reasons;

  • not enough arable land (I could be wrong about this; it's not my area of expertise.)
  • not everybody will be interested in growing their own food.
  • you underestimate the complexity of manufacturing todays "gadgets". I do not think that a society of part-time farmers would be able to hold (let alone improve) a level of technology close to what we have currently got.
Comment by Roland_Smith Sat Jul 3 19:08:45 2010

Just a thought: what about the success of Victory gardens during WWII? In both the U.S. and England, people were asked by their goverment to "help out the war effort" by taking care of their own produce, and many people answered the call. Gardens were put in not only in backyards, but in vacant lots, on rooftops, even parts of parks were plowed up and loaned out to locals who wanted to grow their own food. (Although many victory gardens ended with the war, there are still examples in both nations - and probably in other countries as well - of public land being divided into plots and either given out or rented for a small fee for urban dwellers who wish to grow their own food.) And the people not only grew their own veggies but still had time to work at war jobs and take care of their families and even read a book or listen to radio program or take in a movie!

I think that Anna is right: 4.5 hours a day is more than enough time to tend a garden and put the produce up via canning or freezing to supply one with food for the winter. People did it in the past and people could still do it today. Really, if anything, we have more time available today for such activities (otherwise we wouldn't be able to spend 4.5 hours each day in front of the tv, heh), because many basic chores are less time-consuming now (cooking a meal and doing laundry spring to mind as good examples, especially if you're using all the latest gadgetry).

The real issue, to my mind, is that people are no longer in the habit of thinking that they need to grow their own food. Two or three generations ago, people moving into suburban areas from off the farm kept a garden and a few chickens as a matter of course: they were used to taking care of many of their own food needs. During WWII, of course, the government told people to take care of their own food needs (to not do so was unpatriotic), and most people found that they could grow their own produce just fine. But today's people are mostly told that buying groceries at the store is just as good as, and easier than, growing their own food; they've bought into the idea that convenience is the most important criterion when making a decision about food; they've forgotten that an hour of working in the garden is as good as an hour working out at the gym (and much less expensive); and no one is telling them that they should grow their own food. So they don't. But would it be possible for them to do so? To take care of more (or even the bulk) of their families' food needs by keeping a garden and/or an orchard and/or some chickens or rabbits? Yes, I think that it absolutely would. :)

Comment by Ikwig Sat Jul 3 22:00:02 2010
Thank you, Ikwig! You said it so much better than I could have, and your victory garden example is spot on! I think it does all come down to our personal mindset and our government/community's mindset.
Comment by anna Sun Jul 4 08:32:44 2010

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