I am a vegetarian, and honestly, the reason is because I like cows. For all the overgrazing of land and methane cows fart and burp into the atmosphere, the real reason I don’t support the beef industry is that I think cows are just too damn cool to eat. I know that people argue that having sharp teeth proves we are evolutionarily intended to eat flesh. I don’t care. I like cows.
I know, too, that there is an argument for veganism—no eggs or cheese or animal products of any kind—as an environmental choice. And I respect it. But I like too much the idea of having a symbiotic relationship with animals. Even just having Frankie the little dog helps connect me and my family to the planet. I’ve perceived a similar but much stronger connection at small farms that keep animals and treat them with kindness and respect.
When I was at Hawthorne Valley Farm, I got up at 4:00 in the morning and helped bring the herd in for milking. The sky was still the color of blackberries and, coincidentally, milk. The cows stood on hill in black silhouette. Henry, the bull, shook his head and rang his bell.
The seventy-strong herd slowly sauntered over to the gate and followed us back to the cow shed. Centuries of breeding meant that, with their udders swelled with so much more milk than their calves could drink, they looked forward to milking. They depend on their being milked as much as we do.
So we get them back and milk them and feed them and eventually they are all lying down in their stalls, regurgitating their cud and chewing it. One of the farm hands I’m talking to is sitting on one of the cows, who doesn’t seem to mind at all. My feet are tired so I decide to do the same.
Before you know it, I’m lying on my tummy along the full length of a cow’s back, casually scratching her between her ears, and I can tell she likes it (mostly because a farm hand tells me so). I like it too. I really like it. She is warm and alive. And so calm, so incredibly calm.
A few weeks earlier, I had been talking to Ronny, who owns Ronnybrook Farm. He was telling me about the financial difficulties that come with dairy farming. I asked him why he sticks with it. He said, “Because I love the cows.”
Now, I’m lying on the back of this one cow, and you know what I realize? I love cows, too. And you know what I think? I think that the relationship that the farmers at Hawthorne Valley and at Ronnybrook have with their cows is kind of wonderful. It connects us to the planet.
Don’t get me wrong. I intensely dislike the factory farming of animals, and I believe that as a culture, we farm way more cows than the planet can support. But on small farms, where people and animals are working together in kind and respectful relationship, like at Hawthorne Valley and Ronnybrook, I think there is something special going on.
PS If I've got you all excited about cows, read about their emotional lives here.
PPS The picture above comes courtesy of Compassion in World Farming, whose vision "is a world where farm animals are treated with compassion and respect and where cruel factory farming practices end."