Some people have hinted politely about it. With others, I can hear the smug mirth in the back of their voice while we’re having a conversation. A few have come right out and said it.
“Kathy, you have no business owning livestock.”
It’s true that I march to my own tune when it comes to farm animals. Try as I might, I can’t think of them as kinetic bags of meat and milk and leather. I can’t just toss a little buckling into the pen with a 150-pound bruiser and let them sort it out, or give the thumbs-up for surgery without anesthesia, or leave animals out in the cold to fend for themselves.
There are many different terms farmers can use for identy. There are dairy farmers, and family farmers, and sustainable farmers, and organic farmers. Me? I’m a marshmallow farmer.
I don’t raise marshmallows, of course. Or even those rows and rows of white-plastic-encased round hay bales you see in fields that look like King Kong’s marshmallows. No. It’s my heart. It’s soft and smooshy like a marshmallow.
I wrestle with the question that asks what delineates one type of animal from another—why does the dog deserve to spend below-zero nights lying on the hearth in front of the wood stove, while the goats must tough it out in the barn?
I mean, what makes one species deserve to be comfortable and another not? Sheep and cattle have feelings. Goats and pigs are at least as clever as dogs and cats. Chickens feel pain and fear. What makes them ineligible for comfort, I always want to know?
It’s not that I want to invite the goats into the living room with us. Not really. But I do admit that The Mister used to be nervous about coming home some evening to find a goat reclined in his favorite easy chair, smoking a cigar.
In lieu of bringing them indoors, I’ve gone to great lengths to keep my livestock comfortable. Warm tap water in their water buckets. Hot water in big plastic jugs to snuggle into the bedding hay like cozies. Heat lamps. Setting my clock for one in the morning so I can go out and check on them during the worst weather or during maternity season. Putting aside my own needs while I build a makeshift pen to keep the little one safe from the bullies.
Sure, I get some raised eyebrows. People tell me it’s not what they are used to, not how their father used to do things on the farm when they were growing up, not anything conducive to actually making any money. Not even anything that makes sense to most people who keep livestock.
“You’re going to have to toughen up if you’re going to be a farmer,” my goat guy chided me this past spring when I was grimacing as I handed over my days-old kids for disbudding. He’s been telling me that for years, and I always respond by studying the toes of my scuffed farm boots or assuring him that I’m going to start doing better.
“I’m not gonna,” I retorted this time, displaying a newfound confidence in who I am. “This is me—have you met me?”
“Yes I have,” he laughed. “Go sit in your car, and I’ll bring them to you when they’re done.”
Someday my tombstone might be inscribed with the words “Here lies Kathy, a foolish farmer who was ridiculously kind to animals.” And if that happens, I hope I can rest easy, knowing that it was a life well spent.