September 28, 2013


Some of us from the community will be teaching a Chicken Butchering and Poultry Care Workshop in Portland on October 27th. This article initially arose out of a discussion around that event about killing and eating animals, and whether that is right or appropriate.

In respect of this important conversation I've put together some thoughts on why animal husbandry is an important part of how people in cold climates go about meeting their needs, and also the essential roles that animals play in creating and sustaining agricultural systems in marginal environments, and those situations without the use of fossil fuels.

The butchering process is a big part of the Autumn season here on the plateau. It is the time of year where we codify our decisions about what animals we want to continue in our lines, and what animals we will pass on.

At this point in the community, I am the primary person who has taken on the role of cleanly and quickly killing animals. I was initiated into this path by Walt, as he taught me his methods and accumulated knowledge about the process.

Living up-close and personal with death.

Some Personal Background

I was a vegetarian for about a decade before coming to Windward and beginning to live close to a land base. I started along this path when I first encountered the harshness involved in the industrial meat system. My decision to become a vegetarian was one that was very personal and individual. I endeavoured not to go around telling other people to stop eating meat. Supporting the industrial meat system was something I personally did not want to do.

With more study I realized that the entire food system was vastly destructive and inefficient, and I endeavoured to buy wholesome, local and organic foods. At a certain point I began to understand that the only way I could ethically eat any food was to take part in the growing of it. Regardless of whether it is a plant, animal, or fungi.

Back on the topic of animals specifically, it was not until I had the opportunity to raise, care-for and kill animals did I begin to eat meat again. And only the meat from animals I knew.

The visceral, first-hand experience of life, death and regeneration over the last four years have been profound and challenging; leaving deep impressions on me.

The process of killing an animal is not easy, and not something which I take lightly, nor is it always straightforward clean process. Every animal is unique, every kill unique event. So bear with me as I speak more logically about why raising animals is appropriate in some instances. There are many more deeper emotional realities of animal husbandry that I have not brought forward in this particular article.

1.) Climate and Ecology are Essential Factors

There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution for meeting our needs and the needs of the Earth we depend on. Every piece of land is unique, and the myriad climates/microclimates of the Earth make broad generalizations about how people should or should notvery tenuous.

However, in looking at big-picture ecological patterns, and working toward the small details, It is clear that that animals have played important roles in the diets and economies of people in northerly climates, and also in "marginal" ecosystems.

Permaculturist Geoff Lawton in his subtropical food forest. However, despite it's diversity and productivity, this food ecosystem doesn't produce much non-animal protein.

In general, the more moderate the climate (tropical, subtropical, or near large bodies of water) the more capable it's ecology is of sustaining soil fertility with only vegetative matter, or without the help of large animal biomass. In such areas, most of the animal biomass is either up in the trees or in the water.

High temperatures, humidity and shade cover make the breakdown of detritus matter very quick. Lending to the fact that most all of the nutrients in the system are secured within the bodies of living organism, and are not in the soil itself.

Subtropical and tropical climates also receive little or no frost, allowing for a great diversity of plant species which yield high-protein and high-fat fruits, seeds, and nuts; as well as perennial crops that flower and set fruit year-round.

Looking at different cultures, it is apparent that people traditionally ate increasing amounts of vegetable protein and fat as you move toward the equator. This pattern is also similarly reflected as you move closer to the oceans, seas, lakes and large river systems.

As you move further away from equatorial regions, up in elevation, and/or away from large bodies of water - the climate becomes more "continental". With wider swings of temperature from day to night, and from season to season.

Rain patterns generally become less consistent throughout the year, and the landscape is considered to be more "brittle" (easily damaged) and marginal (hard for humans to live with).

Without Carabou and other large herbivores, life would be impossible for people living in inland boreal regions.

Cold-continental climates (characterized by long frozen winters, and short frost free windows), provide significantly less diversity and opportunity for growing agriculture crops. There are also far fewer perennial plants yielding readily consumable proteins and fats, the native ecology tends to be more geared toward the production of grasslands and boreal/coniferous forests.

These Ecosystems are much better suited to migratory birds and ungulates, insects, and small hibernating mammals rather than soft tree fruits and nuts. First people of such regions ate a significant amount of animal protein, because it was all that was available to them.

2. What are the starting conditions of the system?

It is important to understand what the condition of land is when you first start farming. If your land is an alluvial flood plain that has been accumulating deep rich soil. It is easy to start growing crops straight away. The more fertile soils are when beginning farming, the less likely it is you will need animals to create a critical mass of soil nutrients in a close-loop system.

However, in areas such as Windward's property, there is very low initial soil fertility. There are few species of plants, even with good soil, which are rugged enough to survive in our Continental-Mediterranean climate (long intensely-hot arid summers, and cold wet winters). In addition, we have heavy clay sub-soil which is a barrier to many plant's root development.

To give you an idea, it is the end of summer and I just dug a 3 feet deep post hole. The soil was bone dry and hard-pan clay. These conditions severely limit what kinds of plant species we are capable of growing.

The natural productivity of many "marginal" areas like Windward, is rough dry-land shrub steppe or coniferous forest, historically have not supported populations of vegetarians.

This is Montana's Red desert. It would be a noble experiment for a veganic permaculturist to try to start a homestead in these conditions without the help of animals.

In such marginal conditions, with very little concentrated fertility to begin with, and very slow natural soil building processes, we have little choice but to enlist the help of animals that can convert the things we cannot eat (course grass and leaves) into things we can (milk, eggs, meat).

And in the process, produce concentrated manure and organic materials - beginning the soil biological processes necessary to support a more diverse, deciduous forest ecosystems which may be able to provide us with the nuts and seeds with a less animal based diet.

In short, in harsher areas, we need animals to at least help kick start the process of establishing productive plant based food systems.

3.) Veganic Permaculture is probably possible for those living in tropical, subtropical, and coastal maritime climates.

So long as the functions and yields of animals are being effectively replaced, and if:

With those conditions it seems reasonable that a person could meet their needs and go about not eating meat, nor raising any animals. However, it takes a long time to establish systems that include large over story nut trees. This is particularly the case in northerly climates. To do so is an inter-generational endeavour, and what will we eat in the mean time?

4.) Life feeds on life, no matter how you swing it.

If one is raising animals for reasons other than meat (fur, eggs, milk...) one is still supporting the killing of animals.

One has to breed animals in order to sustain a population of animals. Where there is breeding, there is a need to "cull" animals that have traits that should not be propagated (like misshape teats of a dairy goat, or crook-legged chickens).

Dora's misshapen udder, not something you perpetuate in a dairy herd.

If an individual doesn't do the breeding and culling themselves, and instead PURCHASES animals - that does not change the reality. It is merely proxying the killing process to someone else.

In a similar vein, as Malthus pointed out:

"...the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence, that population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and, that the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice." [or by us killing the surplus animals]

Animals will reproduce until they deplete their resource-base and the population crashes - creating the niche for them to expand again.

Population fluctuations are regular part of most-all natural systems. Both prey and predator animals are kept in check by each others population fluctuations.

If, for instance, we have self-reproducing flock of egg laying chickens, they will continue to expand until they run out of food, or something comes and eats them. If we are stopping predators from eating them, we have to take it upon ourselves to manage their population.

This is how agricultural peoples have managed a relatively stable food source for several thousand years (and maybe longer). That is, a food source that does not peak and crash regularly.

We have to selectively breed and cull animals to maintain a stable population within the carrying capacity of the land. This is true for any self-sustaining animal system, regardless of if the animals are raised for meat or not.

This chick was hatched at Windward, and raised to be an egg layer. Many of it's brother and sisters did not make it to maturity, and most of the roosters in this batch were culled to make space for the layers to live.

Here are some of the logical consequences of this is that, if someone utilizes any animal products (such as eggs, wool, garden supplements, cat food) you are still supporting the killing of animals.

5.) Fossil Fuels - The Elephant in the Room.

So, if we want to move away from animal products entirely, what are the options? There is only one known and practiced option the currently exists, and that is the use of synthetic materials and plastics derived from fossil fuels.

If ones argument against the use of animals is that it creates unnecessary suffering, consider the social, political, economic and landscape-level impacts of fossil fuels. And weigh the suffering caused by both systems for yourself. (not to mention the reality that fossil fuels are finite)

In a similar vein, it is important to understand the role that fossil fuels play in managing soil fertility in the industrial "conventional" agricultural system, and to lesser degree in organic and small farms.

For most of agricultural history, humans utilized animals as a primary way to manage soil fertility.

Today, most soil fertility is managed with the use of chemical fertilizers created and/or made possible by the enormous energy inputs of fossil fuels.

This change took place in the in the mid-40's when Carl Bosch successfully scaled up the production of Ammonia via the Haber Process. As a species, Humans are currently growing most of the proteins that make up their bodies, via Ammonia synthesized from atmospheric nitrogen via the Haber-Bosch Process.

The only other way I know that people have fed themselves for any length of time (across all climates)is through the use of at least some animal systems to help manage the fertility of soil.

So it appears that fossil fuels and animals are our only known examples of how to manage high-production agriculture in any sort of sustained way.

The issues of fossil fuels are a big subject. If you want to get a better sense of the scope of the problem, and the solutions that Windward is working toward, please read Windward's Abiotic Focus.

Some Closing Remarks

The animals were here first, when we reproduce we displace them.

Animals are a vital way in which natural systems accumulate and distribute nutrients, and are thus important in anyone's work in building resilient life-support systems that are modelled after natural systems.

Moreover, animals play an essential role in creating and sustaining soil fertility in marginal lands, and in continental climates too cold/dry to support intensive vegan permaculture systems.

Anytime we include animals in how we meet our needs, we are intrinsically inculcated in the processes of natural selection, and thus the killing (obvious or otherwise) of animals.

We live in a world whose ground rules are such that life death and regeneration are necessary and impossible to escape. No matter how "ugly" or "wrong" that may be perceived to be. No matter if we understand it or not.

We can either take a close look at our impacts on the web-of-life, and make balanced and informed decisions and actions about how we go about meeting our needs, or we can ignore our true impact go about with a misunderstanding that it is possible for us to live without being involved in killing - or even, that such a fundamental aspect of the world we live is somehow even capable of being "wrong".

All in all, what I go back to often is something Bill Mollison wrote so succinctly,

"It is my belief that we have two responsibilities to pursue: Primarily, it is to get our house and garden, our place of living, in order, so that it supports us; Secondarily, it is to limit our population on earth, or we ourselves become the final plague. Both these duties are intimately connected, as stable regions create stable populations. If we do not get our cities, homes, and gardens in order, so that they feed and shelter us, we must lay waste to all other natural systems. Thus, truly responsible conservationists have gardens..."