Where the Land Meets the Sky

I was vegetarian for over 10 years, until I once found myself making a bacon sandwich for my boyfriend, sometime in my early 30s. Resistance was futile. The boyfriend received only one half of the sandwich. Today, though the boyfriend is a distant memory, the meat-eating appetite remains with me.

I’m also deeply concerned about climate change and my off-farm work is very deliberately focused on sustainability. This means I’m constantly reminded of the ways our industrialized food system is damaging the planet, as well as negatively impacting human health outcomes. So, to live in accordance with my values, I rarely buy meat, and when I do it is almost always bought from a local farmer who is farming sustainably.

Otherwise we eat chicken we’ve raised ourselves, game that’s hunted on our land and generously shared with us by the hunters themselves, or lamb we’ve raised on our farm. This year marks the first year of a lamb harvest since moving to our farm. And I am sad.

I have dear friends who gasp in horror and ask me, “How can you eat them? You know them!” and I nod because they are right. I do know my flock. Daily in the winter months, in snow and ice storms, and in all other weather, I feed them hay and fill their water buckets. I hand-feed them apples and chat to them while I do it. On warm autumn days, I bend down the branches on the crabapple trees, so the less skittish sheep can gorge themselves. On the crazy-super-cold winter days I may pour molasses on the hay to give them an extra boost of energy and an added mineral supplement. I am often up at 1 a.m., 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. (and many times in between) checking on the mamas and babies during lambing season. My outraged friends are right: I do know them.

My children know them, too. And though I’ve tried to dissuade my children from naming the lambs, they do it anyway. And though I’ve explained to them many times that, because we choose to eat meat, the best meat to eat is from animals that have been well raised and looked after, it’s still hard for the children to understand. And I’m glad it is. And I’m glad I’m sad when harvest day comes around. It is how it should be. I know them.

We are in the midst of a farming crisis. Last year more than 500 small family farms in Wisconsin closed their barn doors for the last time. It is becoming harder for people to eat meat they “know.” And ironically, it is becoming costlier to eat meat that has been raised locally. But planning ahead and paying slightly more is worth it, for both human and planetary health. And so, my simple reply to my friends about the meat in a styrofoam tray and plastic wrap that they buy at a store is, “How can you eat that? You don’t know it.”

Etienne White lives where the land meets the sky on a farm in Iowa County where she raises grass-fed, Old English Babydoll sheep, as well as pastured chickens, a happy farm dog, a wily barn cat and her two spirited children. She runs a consulting business working at the intersection of sustainability and marketing, and is a sought-after speaker on sustainability in the United States and Europe.