Elderslie Creamery barn with feeding goats

Art for the Least of These

Top Image: Goats in an Indoor feedlot producing milk for “artisan goat cheeses” going to big box stores. 

On the way home from dropping my children off at school, I heard an NPR story on the dramatic rise in violence in the daily routine of Wichita schools. Listening to this made me wonder if we are being creative enough or artful enough to positively influence such a delicate social problem. I think we are dangerously eschewing artful living and artful solutions for pragmatic, mechanical ones. 

            I am a livestock farmer and cheese maker, so my contribution to this should be taken with a large grain of salt, and frankly, I don’t have many credentials to be able to speak into these situations, but I think an artful solution requires a fresh perspective and cross-discipline consideration.  

A month ago, I got into several arguments about whether art matters in work. In a couple of these kerfuffles, the question was whether there is such a thing as artisan cheese or artisan milk. Please bear with me as I respond and say why it matters to our lives and those of our children.  

             Matthew Scully, who writes for National Review, gave a review of Martha Nussbaum’s recent book “Justice for Animals.” In her book, Nussbaum argues that the way humans treat animals is a litmus test for our ability to have authentic sympathy for another being, or said another way, is our ability to ignore the suffering of animals an invitation to ignore the suffering of other human beings? Nussbaum argues that we either grow comfortable with animals’ abstract isolated suffering and frustration, or we can grow the delicacy of our emotions by seeing in their suffering or frustration a sorrow or deprivation that needs to be solved or at least ameliorated. 

Goats grazing the smooth brome at Elderslie

                Animal husbandry that denies innate behaviors to animals and frustrates them through overcrowding, pragmatic environments, and unnatural modes of life must be called deeply undesirable in my opinion. Nussbaum would go so far as to call it immoral. For chickens, there arose a public outcry for the plight of this humble bird because they were so manipulated as to make it clear that cruelty was being committed. Cage-free eggs came about because we had sympathy for chickens. That sympathy for another gives nobility to us and makes us more caring people, and makes the world a better place. Conversely, a lack of that sympathy for an animal nurtures in us an ability to ignore cruelty, an ability to tolerate a dark slavery of nature which eventually will affect our treatment of one another. 

            In the chicken industry, it is well known that chickens in overcrowded and poorly designed (from the chicken’s perspective) environments can become violent. The artless solution to this is to remove their beaks, thus permanently maiming them so that they don’t cause economic damage to one another. The more artful solution is to see that these simple creatures want to use their beaks to do something, and if they are denied that doing – seeking bugs and sifting through the grass – these frustrated little creatures become violent. They hurt one another for lack of occupation. 

            I told someone I believed artful dairy was very important, and they laughed at me. I am used to this. I said that artfully fitting a herd to their environment so that they are seasonally occupied eating different forages out on pasture and producing milk that has interesting seasonal flavors is a very different thing than confining a herd of goats in an indoor feedlot where they live a monotonous life on their 16 square feet of straw over concrete. Pragmatic low-cost animal husbandry isolates animals from their environment, and they live forgotten; invisible to those who consume their milk, denied their natural habits, and are frustrated. I think the way we treat animals can teach us much about the way we treat people. I do not think we can ignore that we, too, are animals, and the art with which we build our environments and ways of life has everything to do with our happiness and our daily contentment. The goats and chickens can teach us a lot about our own lives, our problems, and our way forward. 

Beauty will save the world, but it will require that we have sympathy for the least of these. Goats and chickens are pretty humble, but how we treat them is a training ground for how we will deal with children. 

Goats in a rye and brome pasture at Elderslie spring 2023 

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