Lambing

April 25, 2010

Diane and I were out at Appleschram (the farm where food for Thornapple CSA is grown) yesterday late in the evening. Diane spent a fair amount of time futzing around with the new arrival, a baby lamb. (Actually now that I think of it, is that redundant? Aren’t all lambs “babies”? … But in a larger sense, aren’t we all babies? … Oh, never mind. This kind of tangential spinning is just what happens when you let a philosophy professor get hold of a keyboard). By “futzing” I mean there was a lot of worry about every little thing. The sheep are normally on pasture, but the lamb and ewe Number 2928 were penned in the barn in order to keep the vulnerable newborn safe from predators. One worry: what the mother ewe was supposed to eat. I was sent repeatedly to pull up clumps of grass from the yard, and I must admit that Number 2928 really did seem to be enjoying the nice green treat.

Which sparks another tangent: Perhaps some of you saw John Schneider’s column in the Lansing State Journal yesterday. Schneider was reporting a critical comment from veterinarian Michael Thome regarding another feature in the paper stating that cows on small farms “get named by farmers, whereas the “factory cows” only get numbers.” Thome disagreed: they all get numbers. And my comment above on Number 2928 suggests that a similar point can be extended to sheep at Appleschram. But it is also true that Number 2928 is known as an individual and that Diane, at least, has a pretty good sense of her personality. Diane described her as “my favorite” and was delighted to think that she had had a baby. (And before we leave the Schneider tangent let me note that his blog on Thursday was expressing disappointment with the new Lansing City Market. Most of the people who replied to the blog were enthusiastic supporters, though I suspect that most of them also work for Pat Gillespie or Virg Bernaro.)

Unfortunately, we learned later from Jane Bush that the lamb in the barn with Number 2928 was not hers. Number 2928’s lamb had died in a “breach birth.” This means pretty much what it does in humans: trying to come out the wrong way. Supposedly it happens in only about 5% of cases, but given the relative inexperience with lambing at Appleschram, it was not possible to save Number 2928’s lamb. The mother of the lamb we saw had not been particularly receptive to nursing, however, so Jane had put Number 2928 and the newborn lamb in the barn together in hopes that given Number 2928’s generally more calm and receptive personality, she would allow the lamb to nurse. During our time out in the barn yesterday, it was not really happening. The lamb would try to suckle, but the ewe would push her away. Only when Diane held the ewe and tried to calm her by talking baby-talk to her would she hold still and allow the lamb to derive any satisfaction. Jane confirmed that this had been her experience, too. Jane had been going out a couple of times a day and holding Number 2928 so that the lamb would be able to get some of the colostrum so crucial to its survival. We will keep our fingers crossed and see what happens.

All of this may say more about Diane than it does about sheep farming. Her disappointment over learning the details of this story was obvious. I recall a friend who once observed the way that Diane tried to scold our dog Molly when she was just a puppy: “I would misbehave just to get someone to talk to me that way.” First the chickens and now the sheep were involving her emotionally and exacting responsibilities that she did not feel that she could shirk under any circumstances. For her part, Diane was wondering whether or not she should have just stuck to vegetables. However, I fully expect that there will continue to be animals of one sort or another in our farming future.

I’m on tap to meet with Laurie Thorp at MSU to brainstorm some “ethical attitudes” research she might do in connection with the plan to incorporate pasture-raised pigs into the Student Organic Farm at Michigan State. Right at the moment, I’m at a loss for ideas. Laurie is a bit like Diane, but probably a little further along in her ability to manage the emotional side of raising animals in a small-scale, sustainable agriculture setting. It seems to me that the emotions and responsibilities have probably always attended relationships between farmers, shepherds, ranchers and the animals under their care. I’m also sure that the people involved have developed rather different ways of dealing with them. Some develop sharp practices of emotional distance that deny farm animals any standing as living or feeling creatures, while others find a way to reconcile their feelings with the larger purposes and project of having animals be a part of the farm, in the first place. The physical and economic distance that now separates most Americans from their food probably has tipped the balance toward a kind of emotional distance for most of us. Oddly, the distance between consumer and their food may also encourage a highly artificial reconstruction of animals as “moral subjects” that undercuts the possibility of any true ethic of care—the ethic that I think motivates Diane.

Where we go from this for food ethics is anybody’s guess.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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