I was lucky enough to grow up in New Jersey, the garden state. There are many people who think New Jersey is just the home of the Sopranos, Bon Jovi, and the Cake Boss. Sure, that’s definitely a part of the state; but what those folks don’t see are the beautiful pastures and farmland. We lived in central Jersey, outside of Princeton, which is horse country. Dairy products and eggs are also an important agricultural industry in the state. There were farms pretty much everywhere.
My family is Pennsylvania Dutch and Sundays were spent eating potato salad, ham, fritters, cole slaw, and a whole bunch of different vegetables—whatever was local and in season. I rarely ate the meat that everyone else was eating; pork chops and ham were just not appealing to me. I loved the little pigs on the farms; I always had an affinity for them, and I was just not interested in eating them. My grandmother would always ask my why I didn’t eat like everyone else did; but I couldn’t really answer. I knew that I didn’t like it, but at the time I couldn’t articulate the reason.
My mom would always spend a lot of time shopping for food; and being an only kid, I almost always came along for the ride. We routinely stopped at the farmers markets along the roadside, too; if she saw a farmer out with bushels of freshly picked Jersey corn or tomatoes, she just had to stop to take a look. Those trips were appealing to me. I could smell the freshness of the food—the sunshine that warmed up the watermelon before it was picked, the water that was sprayed on the peppers, the dirt that was sitting on the potatoes.
It took me some time to really start thinking about the food I ate. When I turned 40, my asthma flared up for the first time in nearly 10 years. I started going to more doctors for help—first a pulmonologist, and then an allergist. When I was a kid, I was in the hospital several times because I had severe asthma and allergies. This was the 70’s, so I spent a lot of time in an oxygen tent. These memories came flooding back when my asthma kicked in; but this time, I knew that I had to do something differently if I wanted to treat my health problems instead of putting on a proverbial band-aid.
I thought it would be a good idea to start examining what I was doing that could be effecting my health adversely, and set out to change some of my habits. My husband and I had been experimenting with vegetarianism years before, and he managed to stick to a meat-free diet for years. I, on the other hand, took a little more time to forsake my turkey. It was the one meat I enjoyed the most, probably because I associate it with Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday). In 2008, Jim asked me if I would like to go to Farm Sanctuary, an animal protection organization with a sanctuary in upstate New York (they also have one in California). I knew then that if I agreed to go, I would be giving up meat forever.
I was right. Jim, our daughter Rebecca, and I spent a weekend up in Watkins Glen for the annual 4th of July “Pignic”. We saw the most beautiful animals that day, many of whom had survived horrific circumstances and were living out their lives safe from the cruelty of humans. I loved Chicky and Echo, the turkeys that came to greet us when we went into their pen. They were like friendly dogs that walk up to you at a friend’s house—only they were turkeys that were bred to be eaten. Their breasts are gigantic; many turkeys and chickens have a hard time walking because they’ve been bred to have these massive structures that their bodies can’t support. We also saw the sheep, so curious about people walking up to their barn. We learned that they have specialized areas of the brain for face recognition, just like humans. I could see by the way they looked at us that they were actually curious and really interested in our visit. We also met a goat that had been rescued from a neglectful home, whose leg had to be amputated because it had frozen to the ground. This was probably the most profound moment I experienced on our trip. I was watching this goat run around and hearing our tour guide tell his story. She told us that the goat actually had a prosthetic leg but since it was July it made him really hot–so he liked to run around without it. I hadn’t heard anything like that before—either about prosthetics for farm animals or about their comfort preferences! I just watched this happy-go-lucky little guy in amazement. My life was not filled with cruelty, abuse, or torture and I still felt sorry for myself about the most inane issues. This little goat was running around without a care in the world; he must’ve felt completely cared for and safe in his new home. Seeing that compassion and how it changed the lives of the animals, as well as the people who rescued them, was a significant moment for me.
Then we met the pigs. They live in this huge barn, which is important because these guys are enormous! It was summer and very hot, so all of the pigs were lying down in their hay and napping. Most of them were so happy that we gave them belly rubs; they made these little noises to express their enjoyment. I stood among them and wondered, if a person could connect to an animal on this level, how could they support their slaughter and eat them?
Years ago, before farms were turned into factories and people had less access to fresh food, it made more sense to raise animals for food. Unfortunately, today they have been commoditized. They are bred and fed indiscriminately to produce a product. There’s no thought behind this idea—it’s purely for profit. I, for one, can’t condone the production of these animals anymore. Not only do I believe we are killing sentient beings for no good reason, but I can’t get behind the inhumanity of the whole system. Pumping the animals full of genetically-modified corn and soy, treating them with hormones, paying barely minimum wages to undocumented workers, disposing of waste products inefficiently and harming our water systems and land—this is not a sustainable way to do business, and surely not a way to continue living.
These days, eating no meat and very little dairy, I’m beginning to feel so much better. I still love going to farmers markets and picking out fresh produce. I still have issues with allergies; but my asthma has improved significantly. I believe I did the right thing by choosing vegetables over meat. For these reasons, I will continue to eat my vegetables—for my health, for the life of those beautiful animals, and for the sustainability of our earth.