The best way to help animals may be to eat them

Catherine Friend and a business partner

Catherine Friend and a business partner

by Catherine Friend
Da Capo Press, $24


Midtown Global Market
920 E. Lake St. #129, Minneapolis

Among the acres of corn and soybean fields along Highway 52 in southeastern Minnesota, Catherine Friend's farm is perhaps the only one with peacocks, one of whom is standing at the edge of his pen, displaying his feathers in a glorious, six-foot fan. Friend is also one of the few farmers in the area who raises sheep, dozens of which are lazing about the scruffy brown pasture, which hasn't yet greened for spring. When Friend and I approach the gate, one of the cuties responds by releasing a rapid stream of urine. Two others discharge torrents of dark, round pellets from beneath their tails. Now, isn't that a fine how-do-you-do.

The more sociable ewes approach us, and Friend feeds them handfuls of corn from an open palm. The ewes are all pregnant, their middles slightly bowed. I pat them on their backs, and their oily carpets leave a brown, waxy residue on my hand. A small sheep sits by herself and stares at me with big brown eyes. She has a long snout, a wet nose, and Dumbo-like ears that stick straight out. She is absolutely adorable. I've come to Friend's farm to talk about her new book, The Compassionate Carnivore, which I hope will help me reconcile my affection for these fluffy creatures with the fact that I like to eat them.

Friend wears Birkenstock clogs and a Carhartt jacket, a look that's part Loft Literary Center, part feed mill, and reflects her dual role as writer and farmer. A bookish city gal, Friend might never have found herself in the position of feeling a ram's testicles had she not met her partner, Melissa Peteler, through a City Pages personal ad in 1983. Eleven years into their relationship, Peteler convinced Friend to move to southeastern Minnesota and help her fulfill her dream of starting a farm.

At first, Friend hardly knew a feedlot from a parking lot, but after more than a decade of rural living, she refers to their tiny winding stream as a "crick" and hoists herself up on an old, weathered hay wagon like she's been doing it all her life. Today, their Rising Moon Farm is quiet except for the sound of sheep ripping mouthfuls of grass from the ground and chewing their cud. A few semi-trailers rumble past on the nearby highway. Occasionally a rooster crows.

The 100 or so lambs born each year are mostly Peteler's responsibility, but Friend helps out with the 30 to 40 they "finish," or raise to slaughter weight. While Rising Moon lamb isn't certified organic, Peteler and Friend follow basic principles of sustainable farming and humane animal husbandry. Rising Moon sheep, in contrast to their barn-raised brethren, are born out in the pasture and spend their lives roaming the acreage, grazing and spreading their manure. The animals' diet is mostly grass, with a small supplement of corn. They aren't given growth hormones, and antibiotics are used only if absolutely necessary. When it's time for the animals to be processed, they're taken to a small local slaughterhouse that kills them in a calm, respectful manner.

Friend and Peteler take orders for half or whole animals in the fall, and also sell meat by the piece at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis and from their on-farm freezer. As Friend explains all this, one of the sheep starts rubbing against her legs, which dangle off the edge of the wagon. "You want me to scratch your butt?" she says. "Is that what this is all about?" and pats it on the rump.

The inspiration for The Compassionate Carnivore began with a section in Friend's 2006 memoir, Hit by a Farm, which details Friend's and Peteler's adventures in agriculture. In a chapter titled "Meeting My Meat," Friend describes a playful sheep that started begging for affection, following her like a puppy, just weeks before its slaughter date. "How could I reconcile my love of animals with my desire to eat meat?" she asked herself. While Friend calls herself a carnivore through and through—"If you want to get my knickers in a twist, tell me not to eat meat"—after becoming a farmer, she writes, "I could no longer ignore the fact that my food had a face."

The implications of meat eating are a big deal that continues to grow bigger: Global meat production has skyrocketed in the past half-century, increasing 500 percent since 1950. In The Compassionate Carnivore, Friend notes that most of the growth in demand comes from developing countries, but meat eating is on the rise in America, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that annual meat consumption will be 220 pounds per person by 2016, and Friend translates that abstract poundage into actual animals, estimating that roughly 2,500 creatures are killed per person in a lifetime. More shocking, perhaps, are the statistics Friend presents on "plate loss": A 1997 USDA study estimated that Americans were throwing away 22.5 million pounds of meat every day. That's roughly 15,000 cattle, 36,000 hogs, and 2 million chickens needlessly killed, according to Friend's calculations. The sheer volume of these numbers, coupled with the fact that it's easier for humans to feel compassion toward individuals than toward large groups, is one reason Friend believes the well-being of livestock has largely been ignored, even as animal lovers say they're just as concerned about the animals they consume as they are about wildlife and pets.

Friend notes that the personal nature of food choices may be why the concept of responsible meat consumption has lagged behind other environmental choices now ingrained in public consciousness, such as recycling and reducing fossil fuel usage. But in the last few years, beginning with Eric Schlosser's 2001 publication of Fast Food Nation, awareness has spread quickly. "We're getting closer to some sort of tipping point," Friend says.

While Friend's book asks readers to change their meat-eating habits—to waste less meat and replace factory meat choices with meat from animals raised humanely—it does so without being a chirpy, unrealistic self-help tome, or a gruesome factory-farm exposé. Friend straightforwardly outlines the benefits of pasture raising in terms of animal and environmental health, and she connects the dots from an animal's life to its meat to the lives of those who eat it. She cites nutritional studies showing that meat from grass-fed animals contains less fat than meat from corn-fed animals, as well as more health-promoting substances.

When Friend details the differences between concentrated animal-feeding operations, so-called CAFOs, and sustainable pasture-raised farming, she does so without villainizing commercial farmers. "It's important to separate any judgment about farms from a judgment about farmers," she writes. She notes that farmers made choices "based on what university researchers were telling them, based on what seed and chemical agribusiness companies were selling them, and—here's where we come in—based on what you and I, the consumers, were willing to pay for meat."

While Friend can be critical, she can also be funny. The carpeting in her house, she writes, "has lost that 'just laid' look. (Hmmm, haven't we all....)" When describing a woman who collected boar sperm for a living, she writes: "Once the semen was deposited into the little plastic cup, she had to smell it to make sure it smelled right, whatever that meant. And you thought your job sucked." But Friend's tone can also be tender, as in the chapter, "Letter to My Lambs." "When you were born," she writes, "your ears were much too large for your face, so you looked as if you were wearing windmills." I could hardly read it without tearing up.

This empathy, of course, raises the question: Why not become vegetarian? Friend defends raising livestock by explaining that not all land, including her hilly acreage, is suited for growing crops, because planting grain on steep slopes will cause erosion. Planting grass can keep the soil in place, and animals can convert grass—something people don't eat—into edible animal flesh. But her biggest argument against asking compassionate carnivores to become vegetarian is that boycotting meat won't help sustain factory meat's alternative. "If everybody who is concerned about inhumane conditions stops eating meat," she writes, "the farmers who are trying to be humane can't succeed."

From our perch on the hay wagon, Friend says she's confident that individual choices can spur change in spite of overwhelming odds. I'm about to express skepticism when the sheep suddenly take off running, the entire flock forming a long white trail into the barn. Friend explains this is what happens when one sheep decides to get a drink of water—all the others follow. "If we lead the world in meat consumption," she says, looking toward the barn, "we can lead in changing how we consume it."