A vegetarian farmer for local animal agriculture

I am a farmer of 25 acres with seven cows, a few goats and chickens. I am a vegetarian and plan to sell an older milk cow for meat this coming spring and bring sheep onto the farm as well. I take a strong interest in expanding the local food economy. In the debate for and against meat consumption, I take an approach based on the landscape and climate I observe in the Southern mountains: It's very steep, universally forested and very rainy.

A brief history: Commercial agriculture has always been marginal in Western North Carolina. Before anything local was marketable just by being local, tobacco was the farm's cash crop. Before that, corn was, for a time, grown as a fattening fodder for the hordes of livestock driven through WNC from east Tennessee to Spartanburg. The result of plowing for corn and tobacco on steep hills in a climate of year-round rainfall caused a period of incredibly destructive soil erosion. On my farm, I walk past big gullies in the young forests every day and observe topsoil barely one-inch thick in parts of the pasture.

With this in mind, I believe keeping steep farms in grass and, thus, in animal agriculture, is a good option to mitigate erosion of steep land. Also, as a farmer without machinery, I appreciate the ease of raising animals compared to the hard labor of growing, weeding and harvesting crops. Unless more vegetarian people are interested in becoming intensive farmers and terracing hilly land to prevent soil erosion, I don't imagine there will be or even should be a shift toward plowing hilly land for local crops.

Though I am a vegetarian, I do not preach vegetarianism. I suppose that's because I know people who really love their meat, and that demand for good meat is not going to decline. Bottom line: I believe local, grass-based animal agriculture is a plus for our climate and landscape and that feedlot farms are terribly destructive. But there is a question we might ask: Is there a line between big feedlot farms and local farms that import most their animal feed? Should I feel ill-at-ease feeding my livestock a little bit of distant grain? Probably, though I am happy that they derive most of their food (rotationally) grazing on seasonal grasses, clovers and pasture weeds that enrich the soil of my Appalachian hill farm.

— James Geoffrey Steen

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11 thoughts on “A vegetarian farmer for local animal agriculture

  1. entopticon

    Thank you so much Geoffrey, for such a thoughtful, and well reasoned letter.

  2. Betty Cloer Wallace

    We used to have many small sustainable WNC farms like yours, Mr. Steen, until county planners and chambers of commerce began promoting and rewarding growth at any cost, i.e. tourism and second home ownership, which priced the land right out from under most farmers. And now, when someone works to maintain a small comprehensive farm such as yours in a responsible manner, their effort is often called “hobby farming,” a term both irritating and wrongheaded.

    So many people nowadays talk a good game about preserving our rural landscape and environment, but county planning boards are filled with developers, realtors, surveyors, business people catering to tourists, and others with commercial interests who see small farms as simply part of the quaint mountain scenery rather than a real way of life.

    Best wishes to you, Mr. Steen. I admire you and your approach to good living.

  3. entopticon

    In my haste I read Geoffrey, but I now see that the letter writer’s first name is James.

  4. Betty Cloer Wallace

    So, entopticon, do you think we were we both duped? I do not know anything about James Geoffrey Steen, but I did buy his letter lock-stock-and-barrel. What he wrote was how I have always lived, and I do so hope I was not wrong about him or his intentions……… but………

    Mr. Steen, are you for real or just another one of the many sockpuppets who take up so much time of real people who really would like to have legitimate and meaningful discussions on this site?

    And, Mountain Xpress, enquiring minds want to know whether James Geoffrey Steen is a real person as per his letter.

  5. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Jeff Fobes, is James Geoffrey Steen for real, i.e. is he a real person and legitimate farmer as per his letter today which you have put forth for consideration and comment by your readership?

    I do so try to avoid flailing at windmills, and ghosts.

  6. entopticon

    Betty, he is echoing what I have heard a lot of other small farmers say, so I have no reason to doubt him.

    A friend of my wife’s, an author and a small farmer recently wrote a post on her blog site about how she has been a vegetarian for years, but is considering eating meat from local farms now, because she has been learning more about the environmental benefits of small farms. An amazing amount of small farmers chimed in to say that they went through the same process. Some had been vegetarians for decades. One starting out small farmer in Northern California commented that every single small farmer that they knew in Northern California was a former vegetarian. Like James, they continue to be one, but are understanding of the people who choose otherwise.

    My wife’s friend cited the book, The Compassionate Carnivore as being particularly compelling:

    Nicolette Hahn Niman is an interesting case in point. She is a vegetarian who was working on Bobby Kennedy Jr’s environmental task force to expose the ills of factory farming. In the process she met Bill Niman, an innovative, natural cattle rancher, and the two got married. She details her odyssey in her book, Righteous Porkchop:

    If vegetarians find that it works for them, then more power too them. I’ve found that it doesn’t work well for me. After researching the issue, I find that the evidence that small farms that include animals are important to sustainability is overwhelming.

  7. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Thank you, entopticon. It is so important that WNC small farmers try to support each other (before we all expire from rampant “progress”) in the face of just about everything working against us. I’d like to think I’m addressing that issue in an arena (this site) that believes it important.

    My overriding concern here is whether we are all just buffing our gums when we try to have meaningful discussions about issues such as this…… or whether this is simply a game for sock puppets with not much else to do but deceive and insult each other.

    I do hope Mountain Xpress will sort through these matters and decide how deception and sock-puppet game-playing (on their dime) fits into their overall mission (meaningful discussion, or whatever).

  8. Piffy!

    Great letter, sir, thank you for your perspective!

    [b]So, entopticon, do you think we were we both duped? I do not know anything about James Geoffrey Steen, but I did buy his letter lock-stock-and-barrel. What he wrote was how I have always lived, and I do so hope I was not wrong about him or his intentions……… but………[/b]

    I’m confused Betty, what makes you question the legitimacy of this letter?

  9. Betty Cloer Wallace

    PFKaP, entopticon’s post about the letter writer’s name caused me to think he knew something about the writer and to question the legitimacy of the letter, but now, upon re-reading the thread, I think I just might have become gun-shy and overreacted because of so many duplicitous personalities around here! I’m rather like Alice down the rabbit hole expecting that nothing is quite what it seems.

    I really do like the letter and think people such as Mr. Steen should be treasured.

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