I cherish the years I spent on my grandparents’ farm. I remember waking up to roosters crowing and the clank of the metal covers on metal feeding troughs slapping closed as pigs finished eating and turned to lie in the morning sun. I can still smell the magic of Grandma’s breakfast drifting upstairs to pull me out of bed.
I’d jump in my overalls and scramble out to help Grandpa feed the 40 sheep, two steers and the 50 or so pigs. The farm had changed over the years. The gigantic red barn that had once housed dozens of dairy cows was now nearly empty. It echoed with the calls of the remaining few sheep and low of the steers. Grandma collected the eggs from the 50 or 60 chickens and washed them — ready for her famous cakes and cookies, and for neighbors to buy a few dozen at a time.
In the spring, Grandpa would come home from the feed store with dozens of little yellow chicks, only a few days old, peeping and blinking at their new world. Grandma would set up the brooder house where the chicks would spend their lives over the next few months. They would peck and scratch the ground outside during the day, and at night they would huddle under heat lamps locked up safe from the night.
When I was six or seven years old, I became fast friends with one particular chick. He wasn’t any smaller or bigger than the others, but we had a connection. When I would walk in to sit and watch the baby chickens, while the others would nervously scatter to the other side of the small shed, he would come running to me. He’d jump in my lap to be held and petted. He had a way of looking me in the eye. He seemed like a long-lost friend somehow trapped in the world of being a chicken. I named him Foghorn. And I loved him.
Chickens grow fast. Soon August arrived. My aunts, uncles and cousins rolled down the dusty gravel road toward the farm to take part in the traditional family event. Grandma boiled water in huge pots out in the pump house. And Grandpa sharpened the long, steel blade of a homemade machete.
Midmorning came. My cousins picked up the nearly full-grown chickens by their legs and carried them to my Grandpa. I followed behind cradling Foghorn. I handed Foghorn to Grandpa. Foghorn looked at me and blinked. With one giant hand, Grandpa folded Foghorn’s wings to his sides and held his legs and lay him down on the tree stump. Seconds later, he handed Foghorn’s bleeding body back to me. I held him upside down by his legs as I was told to do and let the blood drain from his severed neck. As I stood in line with my cousins to take Foghorn to the scalding pots to make it easier to pluck out his feathers, I looked back at his head lying in a heap with the others… one last blink, beak open.
I was lost in a fog of confusion. I was proud of the tradition and for helping the grownups. But a friendship was lost that day along with my kindred spirit. And a trust was broken – trust between my grandparents and me and between me and my friend. While my remembrance speech at the dinner table that night kept everyone from eating the chicken, it didn’t stop them or me for long. I was told, and I was convinced, “It’s just a part of life.”
I spent my teen years living and working on a pig factory farm. My mother had married my step-father who owned and lived on what used to be a farm, but was quickly turning into a facility. My step brothers and I ran the daily operations – I had my hands in every gory detail. Nightmares from what I saw and what I did still keep me up nights – even after all these years. Immersed in the horror, I continued to be told and to tell myself, “It’s just a part of life.”
I was 18 and in college when I heard the word “vegetarian” for the first time. While on a field trip where I met my wife Barbara, one of our professors ordered pizza without pepperoni. I thought he had to be crazy. I’d steal glances of him eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while others stuffed their hands into a zip lock bag of beef jerky. I learned that he was vegetarian for environmental reasons. At the time, the reasons didn’t matter to me as much as the sudden realization that there was another way – keeping and killing animals was not “just a part of life.” That was a lie. It was all a lie.
When Barbara came with me from college for a visit to the “farm,” I suddenly saw everything differently. A sick mother pig opened my eyes and changed my life forever. I’d seen downed mother pigs (sows) dozens of times before. Female pigs are impregnated over and over again. They get so used up over their short lives that their health often deteriorates – often so badly that they lie down and simply can’t get up again. Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen because “farmers take care of their animals because they care or because they are the farmer’s livelihood,” just doesn’t understand the enormity of these facilities, the pressures of modern day farming, and the realities of using animals for profit. It’s less expensive to push a used up sow aside than to care for her. And that’s what animal farms are all about – making money.
I looked into that momma pig’s eyes and it felt like a movie moment – she entered my heart. I gave her a little food and water – she couldn’t reach it by herself. I still have a hard time thinking about this as I write about it over 20 years later. I told my step-father about her. He handed me a gun. But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to put her out of her misery. Barbara and I gave her a little more water and food, got back in the car, and cried our way back to school. We talked about her all the way. We talked about the family farm, the whole animal agribusiness industry, about the waste and violence. We talked about how it was all so unnecessary. We made a commitment to each other and a promise to that momma pig – we’d go vegetarian. I’ve never gone back to the farm.
It took us a few years to go fully vegetarian. At the time, we lived in a very rural community, in a tiny house directly across the street from a Hardee’s hamburger joint and a Dairy Queen. We could just about read the giant behind-the-counter menus from our living room. We knew only two vegetarians and wouldn’t hear the word “vegan” for another three years. But we persevered and moved along the path – refusing to buy flesh, but still eating it with family and friends. That’s the power of culture – we knew it was wrong, it went against our own values, but still we struggled to live our own values.
Then on New Year’s Eve 1989, after we’d both graduated college and moved out of state (to Iowa City), we pulled a packet of steaks from the freezer. The steaks had been a Christmas gift from a family member. We cooked up the steaks, but couldn’t eat them. We looked at each other… and we looked at those steaks. “Let’s not do this anymore.” The promise stuck. We’d gone vegetarian.
Shortly thereafter, we were gleefully shopping in our local co-op for rennet-free cheese and free-range eggs patting ourselves on the back for our thoughtful choices when a new friend of ours who happened to be vegan offered, “If you’re vegetarian for the animals, you should look into going vegan.” What the heck is “vay-gun?” we thought. Her comment set us on the vegan path and onto what has become our life’s work.
This was before the internet. The only dairy-free milk on the shelf was a gritty soy milk that I had to plug my nose to get down. Our first experiment with homemade seitan kept seitan off my radar for years because I thought it was supposed to be a globby mess. There were no commercially available vegan cheeses or ice creams (that we could find). I feel like going vegan 20 years ago took willpower and diligence. And maybe it still does today, but times have changed. Now even the most modest supermarkets in the Midwest where I grew up have vegan ice creams, cheeses, milks, hotdogs, burgers and so much more. Going vegan is easier than ever.
Now, nearly everyone I meet knows what “vegan” means. And more and more people understand why choosing vegan is such an important and powerful consumer choice. Because of this shift, the way I do outreach has shifted too. My days of debating, arguing, and trying to convince people to consider vegan foods are quickly becoming days helping those eager to learn more about the vegan path.
Today the old family farm is empty. Grandma died recently and the homestead will likely soon be sold. She’d kept the big barn painted and in repair, fulfilling a promise to my Grandpa who passed away in 1988. Grandpa saw even then that the family farm had become a thing of the past. The surrounding farmsteads now stand empty, barns crumbling to the ground. Those few that survived have become intensive factory farms where animals spend their lives in misery and confinement.
Factory farms are so hellish that people have come to lionize smaller family farms because they want so badly a release from the guilt and the horror. “We surely can’t really be doing that to animals, can we?” they tell themselves. “Of course not — look at all the “humane” farms.” And it all feels better… for a little while. But it’s just another lie. We lie to ourselves that the animals we are using and eating must have somehow been magically exempted from the mutilations, the broken families, the confinement, the indignity of living at the total “mercy” of humans as their property and commodities, and the final ultimate cruelty of stealing their precious lives from them.
Of course, there is no such thing as “humane” animal farming. I’ve lived it; I know. Even on the smallest, most thoughtful of family farms like my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ farms of “the good old days,” the animals were and are used against their will and needlessly killed before their time. There may be opportunities to be “less cruel” but this does not amount to being “humane.” That is a lie.
Naming animal products “humane” is a marketing ploy to bilk good people who honestly want to do the right thing. People who, like me, didn’t realize there is a better, nonviolent way. People who didn’t realize that eating animals is not “just a part of life.” We want to escape the pain, the horror, and I understand that. I want to escape it, too. But the animals can never escape it. Happily, there is a solution.
Vegan choices offer a powerful opportunity to stop inflicting unnecessary suffering and death on others. Vegan choices offer each of us an escape from the pain of being a part of the cycle of misery. Our freedom and our redemption lies in no longer taking part in the suffering of others. Choosing vegan is when I became free, it’s when I became happy, it’s when I became the person I think I always was but hadn’t met yet – someone who passionately and unapologetically cares.
Read more from Matt Bear on the myth of “humane” animal farming at his post, Even on Small-Scale Pig Farms. And check out the work of his organization, NonviolenceUnited.org.