Updated: Jun 16, 2020
"Ben, why are you here?"
Good question Farmer Dan. Why was I there? In the middle of Welsh farming country, surrounded by animals being raised for their bodies, for what they produce. I was in the belly of the beast, my worst nightmare, deep inside enemy lines. But the truth was I wanted to be there. I was asked if I'd like to accompany thirty eleven year old students on a week long school trip to a 'Farms for City Children'. I said yes. As a teacher I am passionate about education, as a vegan teacher I see true value in educating others on the realities of the animal agriculture industry. The closer someone gets to the truth, the easier it is to make clear choices. That's how I changed. Reading and educating myself empowered me to become vegan.
So what was my plan? Sneak out the dorms in the middle of the night with a balaclava, break the oppressive chains, open the gates and lead the great animal revolution? Unfortunately not. I don't think I would have got very far. No, my plan was to educate; be the voice on the other side, be an example of a healthy, positive vegan who showed love for animals and provide the point of view I wish I had when I was at school. My students knew I was vegan, so all I had to do was be there to answer any questions they came up with.
"Sir, is that vegan?" It sure is "Is bread vegan?" Yep "Can I try some of your soy milk, sir?" Of course
"Are you sad that the pig will be dead soon?" I am, are you? "Yeah. If it has to happen, I suppose it's okay" Does it have to happen? "No"
Back to Farmer Dan and his lovely welsh twang. He was a warm and interesting ex-teacher, enthusiastic about education and anthropology. We had both been greatly affected by Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (it tipped me to the vegan conclusion). Dan, and the farm staff, knew I was vegan before I got there. They looked after me well with delicious veganised food and showed me respect, which I reciprocated. Dan had sympathy with what veganism stood for (maybe because of Sapiens). While milking a goat in front of 10 kids, he explained the contradiction of being vegetarian; explaining that if you're vegetarian because of how animals are used and killed, then you should be vegan because the dairy industry is just as abusive. That message resonated with the kids. Me and Dan were allies in a strange way, even though he was still doing acts I was completely against, we had an understanding - not enough to fool around on the hay bails, but we had interesting conversations. The truth is we are creatures of our surroundings. Dan's world is farming, my world is suburbia. He was attached to a traditional way of living on a farm. I was attached to my dog and going for walks in the woods. This is not to excuse the actions of farming, it is just to highlight the conditioning we individuals find ourselves in - and how our choices are imprisoned by this.
During my time feeding goats, shovelling poop and putting the chickens to bed I bumped in to a number of farm contradictions. While chatting about sustainability, Dan admitted farms should turn more to plant based farming, but emphasised the role of sheep as conservationists; keeping the coastline in beautiful condition. What were these fluff balls conserving the coastline against? Nature? Beautiful, wild nature? Unfortunately sheep are devastating to the UK's land. Their extensive grazing prevents natural habitats to grow, leading to higher chances of flooding and lack of biodiversity. They originate from arid Asian lands, where grass is dry and limited. This leads to the abusive manipulation of lambs. Farmer Owen showed the kids how the orphan lambs are castrated and their tails docked; by an elastic band around both until they rot and fall off. "But don't worry" Farmer Owen said "They don't feel it". Their tails are docked because they have diarrhoea due to the rich British grass, a richness sheep are biologically unable to metabolise fully and end up squirting it out with infection luring poop.
Farmer Owen was friendly and chatty, his whole working life depended on the success of the sheep he rears and send to slaughter. He was quick to defend the practice of sheep farming stating "There would be none of these animals around if they weren't farmed" like they were native to this isle (they ain't, they're Asian). He also asked if I get enough zinc and magnesium as a vegan. I said it was easier than I thought it was going to be. He quickly followed up by showing me the cow milk mix he feeds the lambs, heavily supplemented with zinc and magnesium! Farmer Owen had four calves in the barn with the lonely lambs. As you approached them they would open their mouths ready to feed. One boy took a liking to them, standing in the pen while the beautiful babies sucked his fingers. I couldn't help ask Farmer Owen where their mothers were. "Another farmer's herd". I also couldn't resist "How long will they live for?". "Lambs, four more months. Calves, two years." The kids stood there wide-eyed, mouths slightly ajar; when they start their next year at school, the lamb they're holding will be sliced up on a shelf, in a Waitrose somewhere. While putting the sassy chickens to bed Farmer Les warned a kid to be careful with the eggs they're carrying. If they dropped one and a chicken ate it, it would have to be killed (the chicken not the child). Why? If a chicken realises it can eat a broken egg, it will eat eggs that have been sitting there for a while. So no eggs for humans! And we can't have that!
I had so many positive conversations with the kids that week. They got my position, they agreed with it mostly. The main contention being that they like the taste of animal flesh too much, a point they understood wasn't a much to stand on. Many of the children had tried vegan food, like Gregg's Vegan Sausage Roll and non-dairy Ben & Jerry's. While having dinner on the farm, one girl said that before the trip she told her dad she wanted to be vegan. He threatened to not make her separate food and she'd have to pick the animal flesh out of the food made. This 'dietism' was frustrating. Is this a form of emotional abuse? If a child under the care of an adult asks for permission to stop something because it has a negative effect on their mental (and possibly physical) well being, and it is refused? By the end of the week at least three of the kids made a commitment to trying vegan. I truly believe that is three more than if I hadn't went on this trip. Unfortunately social conditioning reared its ugly face on the day of the 8 hour coach journey back, with most kids going through their service stop McDonald's order. Thankfully where we stopped only had a Subway and Greggs. I took the opportunity to show off the options and show them the joy of eating well while living in line the values most of us share.