This week we celebrated our first Thanksgiving as farmers. A holiday that has had so many meanings throughout the years, Thanksgiving, to us, presents an opportunity to reflect on food, indigenous peoples, and indigenous relationship to food and agriculture. Where does our food come from and how is it produced? What indigenous peoples have lived and continue to live on the land we have recently moved to? How do indigenous food cultures differ from what exists in the western world today, and how can we learn from these traditions to restore balance to our agriculture?
As we dive into these questions, we discover deeper and deeper layers of the same answer: Although many different indigenous cultures exist and have existed throughout the world, their common thread missing from today’s mainstream culture is an expanded worldview that reveres the sacredness of all things and includes a human responsibility to participate within a balanced abundance. This worldview sets the foundation for sustainable agricultural traditions that promote robust natural cycles and create relationships between all components of an ecosystem.
Through our exploration of biodynamics here at S&S Homestead, we have learned that this approach to farming revives traditional European agricultural knowledge and mirrors much of this generalized indigenous worldview. In fact, a recent paper by Julia Wright published in Chemical and Biological Technologies in Agriculture argues that biodynamics, unlike other modern regenerative agriculture movements, reflects many of these indigenous themes. As farmers of European descent growing food in North America, we would do well to learn from both the indigenous agricultural practices of this continent, such as Three Sisters and milpa gardens, along with the traditional knowledge of our own European ancestors from Germany, France, Ireland, Poland, and Russia, some of which is presumably contained in biodynamics.
In his book The Biodynamic Farm, Herbert Koepf describes the function of a “whole farm organism,” a phrase often used in the context of biodynamics that highlights the holistic nature of its worldview. When considered as an organism, rather than as a system or as an inert piece of land, a farm takes on two important characteristics. First, a whole organism cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. The soil, the grass, and the sheep all have their own form and function, but in isolation they lose their mutual relationships that are essential to the pulse of the farm. Second, living organisms of all kinds have a special character that cannot be isolated or explained by reductionist science. Although our mainstream culture lacks the nuance and maturity to fully confront this idea, it is obvious that there is a fundamental difference between something alive and something dead. Biodynamics views the farm itself as a holistic ecosystem of relational beings all of which contain this life force capacity.
This week we had direct experience of this perspective of the whole farm organism as we slaughtered twelve of our twenty lambs. Over the two-day process, we observed the mysterious cycle of life to death and back towards life, as well as gained an appreciation for how the sheep fit within the whole farm organism both before and after their death.
This was the first time either of us has directly witnessed the slaughter of an animal, but we have been preparing for this moment over the last couple of years as we learn about the importance of being connected to our food. Finding this intimacy with food is a challenge within a mainstream culture that avoids death at all costs. As consumers, we are encouraged to either purchase animal foods that are pre-cut and wrapped in plastic to disguise their origin, or to consume a diet free of animal foods that thus appears to bypass the problem of death altogether (more thoughts on this false dichotomy to come in future blog posts).
Through our grappling with this issue, we have determined that our only path forward is to fully participate in the process: to raise and care deeply for animals, and then, in full respect and reverence, to take their lives in order to nourish our bodies and our communities so that we can live and bring our own gifts to the world. For anything to live, something else must die. This is how nutrients and energy are cycled through the natural world in order to create abundance. In spite of the empty promises of mainstream culture (e.g. fake meat and botox), we humans cannot extract ourselves from this reality. For us to live, other lives must end, and, some day, we too will die and our bodies will go on to nourish future life. Of course, this understanding of direct participation within the cycles of life and death is another key tenet across indigenous worldviews.
Given this background, we were well prepared to be fully present at the slaughter, taking the next step in deepening our connection to our food and our evolving worldview. As a farm in the San Juan Islands, we are fortunate to be a part of the Island Grown Farmer’s Cooperative, which operates a mobile slaughter unit that Henning helped create and that allows for a slaughter that is respectful of each animal. Rather than transporting animals long distances over the ferry to a remote facility, the mobile unit truck travels to each island to reduce animal stress as much as possible. The truck then transports the slaughtered animals to a butcher facility on the mainland and then meat is distributed back to the farms or directly to customers. In the past, the mobile unit has been able to come directly to S&S Homestead Farm, but this year we brought the sheep to a neighboring farm just five minutes away that has better infrastructure for the large truck.
The morning of the slaughter everything was very methodical, but you could also sense deep respect for the process from everyone involved. Each lamb was moved out of sight of the others and then killed, first by stunning the brain and then by slitting the throat. The lamb was then taken into the truck to be skinned, gutted, and prepared for transport to the butcher. This process is considered the most humane approach by the USDA.
We did not know what to expect from our own reactions to witnessing the slaughter. The killing process was incredibly quick, and suddenly we found ourselves standing in front of the animal on the ground in front of us as blood streamed out from its neck. (Note that another good reason for slaughtering on this farm is that all the blood runs down concrete and is applied to their compost to cycle back into the farm, not letting any part of the animal go to waste). Reflecting on our reading of Koepf, the questions we found ourselves asking were: When exactly is the moment that the special character of life leaves an organism? We have seen an animal go from living to dead; what really is this mysterious life force that animates all living things?
Perhaps these questions are meant to be asked and not answered. Perhaps it is in the process of asking that we find the meaning.
We returned to the farm after the slaughter with all the offal from the animals. We carefully cleaned and packaged the edible parts, which we are very glad to eat as another way to honor the entire animal and consume the most nutrient-dense parts of the body. The inedible parts we buried inside of a compost pile. This pile was made from the offal of animals slaughtered just last spring and has already transformed into beautiful compost thanks to the decomposition work of billions of macro and microorganisms. This compost will eventually be added to the garden beds, nourishing future life on the farm.
In burying the offal in the compost we observed the final piece of how the sheep fill essential roles within the whole farm organism. As living animals, the sheep graze the grass, promoting strong regrowth of the grass, which in turn creates healthier soil. While they graze, the sheep pee and poop on the fields, adding fertilizer onto the landscape. After slaughter, the parts of the sheep continue to nourish the farm through the compost, and the meat and skins are sold to customers, creating income to keep the farm business viable and connecting the larger community to the products created on the farm. Much of the meat will be sold to a restaurant on the island to be featured on their menu, engaging even the passing tourist with the work of the farm. The sheep that remain on the farm will continue in their role, now sharing resources such as food and water among fewer animals. These are just the most obvious of the many ways in which the sheep are an inseparable component of the farm organism, which itself is made up of infinite webs of interrelating beings and natural processes. This holistic appreciation of the farm is central to biodynamics and indigenous worldviews alike.
As we reflect this Thanksgiving on this indigenous perspective to agriculture and how it relates to biodynamics at S&S Homestead, we renew our motivation to engage with indigenous communities and traditions. We are newcomers to this island, and we need to learn about the indigenous peoples who lived and continue to live in this region, in order to honor their legacy and to acknowledge the wrongs done to them by western people and culture. We also commit to learning more about our own ancestral agricultural traditions, through biodynamics and beyond, so that we can incorporate the wisdom of our own lineages into our work. Finally, we continue to be inspired to expand our own worldview beyond material reductionism and embrace “the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible,” as phrased by Charles Eisenstein.