The more I learned about the way meat animals are raised here in the US, the less I liked it. Upon realizing the way animals are treated - raised in close quarters with tails or beaks cut off, unable to turn around, fed a constant stream of antibiotics and growth hormones, subsisting on diets that they did not evolve to eat - I knew I couldn’t support the industrial meat production system. Don’t we owe some respect to the animals that nourish our families? Many people with similar concerns choose to become vegetarians, but my family has chosen a different way to opt-out: We raise our own meat instead.
Five years ago, my husband’s parents decided to begin raising meat animals again. My father-in-law worked with his dad and older brothers as a butcher when he was a child, visiting farms and processing animals for their neighbors. He had the old tools and the know-how, so they started by getting three piglets.
That fall, I learned how to butcher pigs. I found it to be incredibly interesting, since I have dissected more than my fair share of animals in my time as a science teacher. I loved studying the heart, trachea and other organs while we portioned the pig into ham, bacon and sausage to be sent to the smokehouse and vacuum-sealed pork chops and roasts.
The next year, we got some turkeys for Thanksgiving and now we also raise chickens. My in-laws raise all of these animals on their 15-acre farm where the pigs enjoy organic grain and garden scraps and the birds travel around in movable pen. We love all the animals and care for them as pets, giving them names like Wilbur, Henrietta and Tom. Some people choose not to name their meat animals, but I feel that animals need names.
When I mention in conversation that we raise our own pigs, chickens and turkeys, the reaction has typically been disgust. Most people have said they couldn’t eat their own animals. The way I look at it is this: An animal will die if I eat meat, regardless of where it comes from, so I would much rather know that the animal was taken care of, treated well, and loved. Supermarket meat comes with no such guarantees. I personally don’t get grossed out that the meat we eat comes from animals that I have snuggled with while they’re babies or scratched behind the ears. In fact, I much prefer it that way.
Making the transition to raising our own animals has changed the way I cook as well. We now eat the whole animal, as opposed to selecting just the cuts that we prefer. Instead of having boneless, skinless chicken, I have whole chickens in the freezer. While I do sometimes cut whole chickens into pieces, I usually end up roasting a whole chicken that will feed us for a few meals. The carcass and vegetable scraps from the week go into a pot to make stock. A single pig will feed our family for a year, which means we only have two pork tenderloins and a lot more pork chops and ham steaks. We also buy a side of beef from my husband’s uncle, and that means we get a lot of ground beef for meatloaf, meatballs, chili, tacos and burritos. No matter what I cook, I need to plan ahead and take it out of the freezer in advance.
I’m thrilled that I can feed my family meat from animals that are raised humanely and with limited antibiotics, hormones or chemicals. My son truly knows where his food comes from, and so do we. We are much less likely to waste food because we appreciate how much it takes to raise these meat animals, and we want to respect and honor their sacrifice for our family’s nourishment.
Raising your own meat is not an option for everybody, but it is the right choice for us.
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