It all happened so unexpectedly.
I was in the studio for the radio show Foodie and the Beast, and had brought my 8 year old son Linus along for the experience. When the show’s co-host, Dave Nellis, lightheartedly suggested that my son answer a few questions live on the air, it certainly seemed harmless enough. Here’s what happened next:
Dave: “So, your dad tells me you want to be a farmer when you grow up.”
Linus: “Yes. But when I run the farm, I’ll do things a little differently. Instead of raising animals for meat, I’ll have a petting zoo and a wildlife preserve.”
Dave (eyebrows raised): “Wow, that’s certainly a different direction. Dad, what do you think about that?”
(Before I can reply, Linus chimes back in): “And I’ll raise the cows for milk, and make cheese. And I want to raise black tailed deer, too. But not for eating. For people to come look at.”
Dave: “My goodness. Is there anything that you’ll do the same way?”
Linus: “Yes, I’ll keep the laying hens, for eggs. And the sheep, too. But just for their wool.”
Dave: “You certainly have it all planned out! So tell me dad, what’re your thoughts on all this?”
What were my thoughts? Part of me felt like the father of Billy Elliot in this scene:
As a farmer who sells bacon and lamb chops for a living, what could I say to a son who’s having vegetarian inclinations? For that matter, what could a British coal miner possibly say to a son interested in the ballet? As it turns out (in the movie as well as in real life) it’s actually easier than one might think.
You see, before I became an organic livestock farmer, I was vegetarian for several years myself. The farming methods I employ were greatly influenced by confinement animals feedlots (CAFOs) that I visited as a child. When I began farming in my early twenties, I resolved that if I ever raised animals on our farm, I would raise them on pasture, in a free-range environment, without antibiotics or hormone supplements. In short, our farm would provide an honest alternative to confinement, grain-fed, chemical-residue meat.
Fast forward seventeen years. As I sat in the studio listening, I heard my own voice echoed by my son, notes of compassion and consideration as he navigated the same path I had travelled. After struggling with these issues for many years, I could certainly understand a reluctance for raising animals for slaughter. Ultimately, it was the knowledge that my customers genuinely cared how our animals were raised that clarified my own position.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Despite my organic production methods, I fully understand that some people will never eat meat. For many, vegetarianism is akin to religious beliefs, where matters of faith are nothing short of incontrovertible. But it’s through respecting both sides that we can elevate our understanding for one another’s food choices. And while we’re at it, we might actually influence farming practices across the country in a positive way.
So to parents with children who suddenly announce they’re giving up meat, here’s some advice from a dad, a livestock farmer, and a former vegetarian.
1) Support them
After all, your kids look to you for guidance. This is the perfect time to have a meaningful conversation, perhaps one of the first grown up talks you’ll have. Discussing the ‘birds and the beeves’ might actually be easier than talking about the ‘birds and the bees.’
It’s also an opportunity to divert your food budget away from inhumane and unsustainable factory farming practices. After recently speaking along side Paul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection with the National Humane Society, I’m convinced that even small changes such as ‘Meatless Mondays’ can send a powerful message to confinement livestock operations across the country. Consumer choices drive our economy, and the empathy your child is feeling could genuinely affect future farming.
2) Educate them
Like most things in life, food is far from a black and white issue. There are now thousands of family farms like ours that raise animals 100% on pasture, with no confinement or chemicals whatsoever. While this type of agriculture might not persuade all vegetarians, I know from two decades of farmers’ market experience that having a free-range option certainly appeals to many consumers’ core beliefs.
If you value these types of practices, and want to see more farmers raising their animals this way, then educate your family about your options. Best of all, the vast majority of these farms love visitors, providing a perfect weekend field trip for you and your kids.
3) Eat with them
Plan a menu. Visit the farmers’ market, and cook a family dinner together. When was the last time you cooked a vegetarian lasagna with your kids? How about preparing something as simple (and delicious) as a green smoothie for breakfast?
While you’re at market, ask your producers about their growing practices. Just as not all animals are raised the same way, the same certainly holds true for fruits and vegetables. Shop with your kids, get to know your farmer, and you’ll appreciate that amazing meal all the better.
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I always enjoy reading your articles and very much enjoyed your book!
Here in Australia we have an organisation called Animals Australia that has a website called Make It Possible (http://www.makeitpossible.com) – the video is pretty good. It is all about educating people about factory farming and having people commit to giving up factory farmed meat, reducing meat intake or giving up entirely.
I have tried for many years to go the organic meat route and most of the time we manage to do this and I’d love to be able to do the same with veggies. It is very expensive to go organic here in Australia – our grocery bill is about $550+/week for 3 adults and 2 children with just organic meat and it would be at least another $100 more if I went with organic veggies too. Admittedly that is also because we try to avoid generic/private label brands of food products (our two largest grocery chains are gradually pushing out other brands and replacing them with their own private label brands) so we are not purchasing the cheapest options. I figure that we should try our best to put the best food that we can afford in our bodies rather than the cheapest, nastiest options. I prefer to spend more on food and less on other things.
One of the things we do is try to eat smaller, good quality meat portions and more veg and also to eat fish more frequently (but even fish is tricky when you look at the factory fishing methods and destruction of fish stocks around the world).
We have all taken the pledge to effectively continue our non-factory farmed choice although it can be quite a challenge in our modern, busy lives. Fast food is almost completely off the menu as most of those places use the cheapest, factory farmed meat to maximise their margins. Even eating out at restaurants is a challenge as there are very few that serve free range or organic meat. When we do eat out we generally go for the fish or the vegetarian options, but I have found that I just can’t be bothered with the hassle any more and prefer to just eat at home with produce that I get from our local markets and organic butcher.
Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book!
I’ve never visited Australia, but with all that coastline near the major cities, I always imagined that your country would have a robust fishery independent of fish farming. Is that not the case?
You rock! I always love the intelligent posts you write. Thanks
Thanks Kathy, much appreciated :^)
Well, we only eat what we know was raised carefully, animal or vegetable. I spent many years as a teenager on a very minimal diet because I just couldn’t bring myself to eat something I didn’t know the source of, or the effects of its production. As a thoughtful parent, I know I can expect my children to also question my choices, I would actually be most hurt if they didn’t. I want them to grow up mindful, and as long as they know why they are making choices- ill feel I did a pretty good job. As one of your customers, ill say we don’t eat a lot of meat and eat it rather seasonally ( sometimes I buy a 1/4 beef or half hog from other sustainable farms). So, we eat many meatless meals. A very good vegetarian friend just gave me a wonderful cook book I’ve been enjoying. I find that the veggitarian cook books tend to be more creative ( like other cultures) with favors, so it’s fun to try new recipes and let them influence everything we eat.
I’m very grateful for your support! And what an excellent addendum… I’d certainly be disappointed as well if my children didn’t question some of my decisions.
Great story, Forrest. Thank you! There is no future if we keep treating animals and the land as we generally do now. The tough challenge is to reach and win over hundreds of millions and billions of people around the globe to either change (in our “developed” world) or not immitate us “developed” people.
Exactly Peter! One person at a time… this change is really happening, and positive peer pressure works.
Interesting story. In our house, our son started with no mammals – that was about six years ago, Then we moved to vegetarian for him and vegan for us two years in April. It was a political and health issue for us. We do not believe in big agriculture and feel it has hurt this country’s farming more than helped it. We also found the more we did not eat animals the better we felt and realized, especially as we were getting older, that our bodies really didn’t need it. We still get all the questions of where do you get your protein and such and we go into those explanations once again. We have actually had some friends move away from animal products also. I applaud your son for his forward thinking.
Great article Forrest! I also love the clip from Billy Elliot, thanks.
“The birds and the beeves?” I think you just found your next book title, Forrest! (But you’ll have your work cut out for you — you set the bar almost impossibly high with your first. It was FANTASTIC.)
Thanks for this post, Forrest. I went vegetarian as a child, and have been grateful that my parents were mostly supportive, though bewildered. Thirty years later, they are largely vegetarian now too. It was really difficult to articulate the logic of it as a child. There is something to be said for parents supporting ethical decisions of their children, even if it’s inconvenient or if they don’t exactly agree. How else can we expect them to live their beliefs?
Incidentally, I gave a gopy of Gaining Ground to my CSA farmer Nigel at Eatwell Farms up in Dixon, CA and he loved it. Thanks for sharing your experience!
I stopped eating meat when in college, over 30 years ago. An experiment that mostly took hold. After getting breast cancer and a powerful craving for meat during and after treatment, I had to rethink. I now eat meat and healthy animal fats from great farmers, and avoid anything soy or GMO. I love what you and other wonderful farmers do to support my choice, and also very much enjoyed your book.
My husband was vegetarian for more than a decade and I ate no red meat and very little chicken or fish during the same time. We thought it was healthier. But our youngest became severely anemic due to both iron and B12 deficiencies, likely due in part to my diet during pregnancy. We’ve since learned how nutritious grassfed and pastured meats and animals fats are and changed our diet radically (youngest is also intolerant of gluten, soy and dairy — pretty much all the non-meat protein sources). If my kid wanted to be vegetarian, I would first seek to understand his reasons and try to find ways to address them without giving up meat. Life depends on life… there is no way to escape that fact. There’s a great book called The Vegetarian Myth… it’s a bit raw and polemical, but fascinating and compelling, and the author points out that even if you avoid eating dead animals, your vegetable garden needs them.
BTW, I got my library to buy a copy of Gaining Ground and devoured it in days…
hahaha. My new puppy literally devoured Gaining Ground too. I was most upset but had luckily already read it. I managed to repiece the cover back together with sticky tape like a jigsaw puzzle and the rest of the book is still readable although it has tooth marks on many pages.
Puppies are the toughest critics!
Great post! Telling my meat-eating parents that I was “coming out” as a vegetarian led to much confusion, but eventually acceptance. I believe in picking the sustainable lifestyle that works for each person, and the answer is often different for each person. I really enjoyed your book. Just thought you might want to know, I posted a review on my blog: http://www.greenmomster.org/2013/11/farming-for-future.html. Enjoy!
Thank you for growing healthy food in a way that respects the animals that provide us nourishment. Also, thank you for joining the conversation on how animals are raised. My hope is that some day the expanses of field corn will be replaced by pastures occupied by animals treated with respect.
Another reason to raise animals the way you do Forrest – overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. Apparently over 80% of antibiotics in use are used in agriculture. A very interesting, and scary, read is https://medium.com/p/892b57499e77
I wonder what the future is going to be like for our kids.
We should be careful about congratulating someone for their ‘forward thinking’, simply because they have chosen not to eat meat; vegeterianism and veganism are not the last word on ethics or progressive (small or large p) thinking. What you are doing at Smith Meadows is ethical, forward thinking and progressive. It is far too easy for people to let those who are uncomfortable with slaughter become the hijackers of animal husbandry ethics. This is the same ruthless ideology that we find behind big agriculture’s selling itself as the only way to feed the world, and therefore they are ethical…
Hi Mike, I was just thinking this today when I was reading through an email from PETA. To me ethical treatment of animals does not necessarily mean not eating them. What it means is not putting them through torture during their lives or at the time of death like the big industrial agriculture systems and slaughter houses do. I agree with PETA that these systems need to be removed from our food production but believe that we can still have meat production if we produce food in a smaller, ethical scale like Forrest. This will likely mean that we have to eat less meat, but I believe that is a healthy thing anyway. We just need to eat less meat that is ethically raised on a smaller scale and everyone wins – we get to eat healthy, ethically raised meat and the farmers can survive by charging higher prices for the lower production.