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Archive for March, 2010

In the early part of the twentieth century, one segment of American society succeeded in gathering the political muscle to impose its will on the rest of society in the form prohibition of the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. National Prohibition (1919-1933) came about because its proponents strongly believed that the evils of beverage alcohol, demonized by its opponents as “Demon Rum,” and “John Barleycorn,” far outweighed any benefits to society.

In their attempts to cleanse America of the problems caused by alcoholic beverages, Prohibition’s backers created a whole new set of problems—unintended consequences— that turned out to be worse than the original ones. Things like bootlegging, speakeasies, organized crime, Al Capone, loss of tax opportunities, an overall increase in lawlessness. And by some estimates, the consumption of alcohol actually increased! The “Noble Experiment” turned out to not be so noble after all. Prohibition’s effects were so detrimental that it was repealed in 1933.

As something of a student of history, it appears to me that the controversy being stirred up today by the animal rights people about the evils of “modern farming,” “factory farms,” “animal cruelty,” and so on, have some striking similarities, but also some striking differences with Prohibition. It’s similar in the respect that one segment of society is grossly overstating their case in their efforts to legislate away our ability to choose to eat meat from animals. Because they believe that animals essentially have equal rights with people and choose to be vegetarians or vegans, they believe all other Americans should eat like them, whether they want to or not. And they’re fanatical in their determination to generate enough propaganda, raise enough money, and build enough political capital to make it happen.

The differences are that while there were (and are) some down sides to society’s consumption of alcohol, there is no real (as opposed to the agenda-driven, misinformation regularly found in the mainstream media) down side to the appropriate consumption of meat. People don’t typically commit DUI’s, abuse their spouses, neglect their children, or need to go into rehab because they consume burgers, pork chops or fried chicken. Consumed in reasonable amounts, foods derived from animal protein are delicious, healthy and nutritious products, produced primarily by American family farmers. The stuff about animal cruelty, misuse of antibiotics, and just about all the rest of it is a slickly-packaged, emotionally-based, agenda-driven 99 percent pack of lies and distortions, being force fed to a public no longer connected enough to the family farm to know the difference.

While the particular set of unintended consequences may be different this time around, they’re just as real, if not more damaging. If the animal rights movement gets its way, you could see things like: an increase in world hunger; not only American livestock producers going out of business, but also a large share of the crop farmers who supply feed grains to them; our national security being compromised by sending a key component of our food industry out of the country, similar to our current national dependency on foreign oil; animals in those countries not being treated nearly as well as they are here by American producers; the elimination of one of the few areas in which we actually have a trade surplus; loss of millions of jobs in food processing, manufacturing and other industries that support agriculture; the serious underutilization of one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world; just to name a few.

Perhaps the saddest consequence of all, however, will be the disappearance of a time-honored and noble way of life—that of the American family livestock producer. Since time immemorial, fathers and mothers, grandpas and grandmas, have passed down to their children and grandchildren, the family farm and their love of caring for animals and earning their living by producing food in a responsible manner. If the animal rights people have their way, however, those days can’t end soon enough.

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It was my third year in 4-H. After two years of fooling around raising green beans and carrots in a garden project, I yearned for a “real” project, which for me meant livestock. Although I really wanted a beef steer, the best I could talk my parents into was a couple of pigs.

An April visit to a neighbor’s hog lot procured my first two 4-H pigs—both Hampshire-Duroc crossbred barrows—which I named Curly and Moe after two of “The Three Stooges,” (sorry, Larry). Like their TV namesakes, Moe was the more dominant, less congenial of the two, and Curly quickly became my favorite.

Curly was an attractive pig, with the trademark black and white markings of his Hampshire lineage, and the floppy ears of his Duroc forbears. Those who “knew hogs” said that he had good length and a good rear end (hams) and my hopes for him accomplishing big things at the county 4-H fair in late July were sky-high. And if TLC could produce results in the show ring, he would have been a champion for sure.

For a summer Curly became my best friend. I brushed him, petted him, and he especially liked it when I scratched his belly while he was lying on his side. I spent many pleasure-filled hours preparing him and me for show ring to come.
The biggest problem I had with Curly was his stubborn refusal to stay out of the blasted mud hole in the shade of the roof behind the chicken house, which formed the southern boundary of his lot. I’d spend time brushing and grooming him, getting him to look pretty good, only to return later and find him sticking his nose out of a heretofore unimaginable pool of foul-looking- and-smelling liquid slime. Although I was frustrated by his utter disregard for the hours I’d spent grooming him, I soon learned not to take it personally—that was just part of being a pig in those days. It was how he kept cool on scorching summer days, given that he had no sweat glands. (Lesson #1: A pig’s wants, needs, and interests are totally different than anything I could’ve previously imagined.)

Finally July came and Curly and I headed to the fair. It was exciting stuff! The sights, sounds, and smells of the fair’s swine barn, coupled with all the other kids, some of whom quickly became new friends, turned it into one of the most fun experiences of my 12-year-old life.

Wednesday was the day of the hog show. My dad helped me groom Curly, and when he was bathed, clipped, oiled and powdered (as they did it back then) he looked SHARP! When it came time for his class, he didn’t blow away the competition as I’d hoped, but did place sixth out of a class of about 25. I couldn’t have been prouder. To reward him, I went down to the carnival and bought a bag of caramel corn, which I shared with him, feeding him out of my hand while we both rested up from the show.

Friday night soon came, with the 4-H auction, which capped the fair week. Although I’d hoped prospective buyers would recognize what a wonderful animal Curly was and bid accordingly, he sold for a pretty average price. My dad was a fairly small farmer, and the high bids went to the kids whose dads had larger operations, and had their prices bid up by competing agribusiness suppliers. (Lesson #2: Life’s not always fair). Curly was bought by a local funeral home, which resold him to a stockyard.

Only after the auction, when I was cleaning up my pen and equipment, did it totally hit me. I was going home and Curly wasn’t. I’d never see him again. I cried. Hard. And the tears would reoccur readily for several days.

But that summer I learned what every 4-H member who has ever raised livestock has learned—that however much we may love an animal, Curly’s real purpose in life was not to be my friend, but rather to be an excellent source of protein-rich nutrition for many people. He was a meat animal. To have “taken him back home,”—and have had him grow into a 600-pound “pet” who would eat our family into a homeless shelter—wasn’t realistic. If I wanted a pet, a dog would make a better one. (And looking back from decades later, the emotion and affection was one directional. Curly—other than belly scratching and caramel corn—was indifferent).

While I never went on to raise pigs vocationally, I still enjoy them as a species—I just plain like them. But what many people who have not had my or similar experiences don’t realize these days is that whether or not they are “cute,” or “likable,” farm animals aren’t pets. Their purpose in life is not to befriend us, but to feed us (Lesson #3).

Curly, bless his heart, was also an excellent teacher.

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