An Irish Farmer’s Story
"The Cow Book", Books, Cows, Economics, Farming, Ireland, John Connell
The Guardian published a moving excerpt from extract from The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm by John Connell. (Not on sale in the U.S., but you can buy it via Amazon.UK.)
It has been a busy week and I am tired, for between the days and nights I am but a servant to the cows. Sometimes I have wondered what it is all for. I do not earn money doing this work: the farm pays for itself and no more. To make a living through farming is hard work, and there are few full-time farmers in the area; most men have other jobs, as builders or tradesmen or teachers. Da is one of the few full-time farmers, but that was not always so. For more than two decades he was a builder with my uncle John, but he retired 10 years ago, for the work had grown too hard and, though he was still young, it had aged him. …
I take the calf in both my arms and the adrenaline is such that I do not feel his weight. I carry him to the fresh bedding, jack, ropes and all. I must move quickly , for we have lost calves with fluid on their lungs before. I pour water in his ears and he shakes his head and comes to life. But then he coughs, and I can hear the fluid, so I take a breathing tube with a mask on its end and fit it over the calfâ€™s muzzle. You extend the pump and its vacuum pulls the fluid up and, in theory, the calf should cough up the fluid. I do this three times, but the fluid does not come up, and he begins to wheeze. I cannot lose him. I pick him up with a roar and carry him over to the gate and sling him across it.
I have seen this done before, but the calf has always been lifted by two men, so I must have found new strength. I massage his lungs and give him a slap, and soon I see the mucus emerge. He lifts his head and I know that he is won. I release him down into my arms and carry him back to the fresh bedding, alive and safe. And with that, the half-door opens â€“ it is my father, bright and smiling.
And I know now that something has happened. Iâ€™ve passed a test of some kind, and I am glad. He opens the half-door and walks in. He is in his jobbing coat, which is his blue velvety coat for the mart. My uncle Davy follows behind, along with my young cousin, Jack.
â€œThereâ€™s money being made here,â€ says Davy, and we laugh. I stand up now and they admire the calf. He is a fine wee bull. I unloose the cow and leave her and her newborn to each other. She licks him, gently and softly, despite her size. Nature will do the rest. I am 29, but I feel so much older tonight. …
When the weanling calves had reached 14 months and put on the required weight, Da decided it was time to sell them. There are just four calves left now, too young to sell; we will fatten them on spring grass soon. Walking through the shed, I miss the presence of the others, their noise and smell and rumble. But they are the payment to the bank for the land. They are money embodied, nothing more. That is what Da says.
On this we do not agree. I cannot see them just as products. They are animals, not mere steak-holders. They may carry flesh but they carry personality too â€“ memories and feelings. But to go down this route is not businesslike. And farming above all is a business, I am told.
The reality of beef farming is that the cows live so that they can be killed. They are here so that they may die. If we did not eat meat, they would not exist, or not in such great numbers. All our cows on this farm will be killed at one time or other; they shall get old, or reach their weight, and all shall know the butcherâ€™s knife. But even knowing this, and even for the businessman-farmer, I do not believe it is solely about the money, nor that he sees the animals only as future beef. If it were, I do not think he should get up so instinctively in the middle of the night to deliver a new calf or tend to a sick lamb. There must be nature in the man for the beast, nurturing in the human for the non-human.
Through its relationship with man, the cow has been transformed into a carefully programmed â€œproductâ€ in the food chain. Where once the cow was manâ€™s most valued companion from the natural world, now its value in some nations depends on removing it entirely from this world. It has lost its sentience, it seems, in the minds of those involved in the industrial process.
In the west, the break with farm and butcher is nearly complete. As consumers, we buy most of our meat from supermarkets, packed and sealed. Sometimes it is dyed with red colourant to make it more appealing, or injected with water to add extra weight. Few children have seen farms other than on television, or in a bedtime storybook. Most people have never seen a slaughterhouse or a cattle carcass. When we are so alienated from the living source of our food, it is perhaps inevitable that the next step is to cut out the cow altogether. …
There may well come a day when cloned meat is available in the supermarkets of London and the delis of New York, when steaks are grown in labs and test tubes from stem cells. But we have a choice over whether we want this future.
And yet, even as some manufacturers are taking these radical steps towards an artificial future, other farmers are following an alternative path. The organic and grass-fed movement has allowed a small group of growers and farmers to survive corporations, conglomerates and cloners. Organic beef or grass-fed beef may be more expensive to the consumer, but the beast has had a better life, one free of housing, confinement and stress. We raise them to die, but they live a life of peace and nature. Our way of farming here in Ireland â€“ our familyâ€™s way of farming â€“ may be seen as a backward step, but it is a way in which the animal can live with dignity, and in which the farmer has retaken the old and respectful role of custodian of the land and the environment for the next generation.
Nobody wins the fight against the iron laws of Economics in the long run. Nobody. But you can’t help rooting for John Connell, who is perfectly right, aesthetically and morally. Human beings have an ancient, countless millenia long, relationship with our domestic animals and fulfilling our role as their servants, masters, friends, and admiring associates makes us and them both happy.
Alas! the world only gets older, stupider, and more urbanized. The middlemen get all the money, and farming is either an impersonal heartless, soulless, factory operation or a personal hobby supported by the farmer’s real job. But the consumer gets cheaper meat. The cruel god of Economic reality giveth as well as taketh away.
John Connell is essentially the same kind of thing as the Jacobite rebels of the 18th century: sure to lose, a doomed cause, but a cause you cannot help rooting for.