Social media allows people to curate an image of themselves they want to project to the world, and it is almost never the full picture of what is going on in that person’s life. The same can be said of farming. Instagram is full of magazine-cover-worthy images of #farmlife; rugged, attractive farmers, fat healthy animals, thriving crops, and gorgeous farmscapes that any non-farmer can use as fodder for daydreams. I’m guilty of this too! All of Shelterbelt Farm’s online presence shows my favorite moments of life on our farm, when the light was perfect, or an animal was doing something adorable, and I enjoy seeing similar images from friends’ farms.
But if we seek to develop a stronger bond between farmers and the non-farming public, showing only the beauty of farm life without sharing the blood, poop, and mud is doing viewers a disservice. Livestock farmers usually shy away from publicly sharing the small disasters and heartbreaking losses inherent in raising animals. Perhaps they think others don’t want to know about the sad stories, or maybe they fear reprisal from animal rights advocates. After all, how can we adequately explain the depth of our affection and attachment to our animals to someone who has never raised livestock, especially when we also sell meat from those animals? Could we blame someone for thinking that since we send animals to butcher, we wouldn’t mourn the death of our animals by other means?
Despite the risks in bringing this topic to light, I’d rather the public understand the authentic challenges farmers face, not the sanitized version presented in children’s books. The unvarnished truth is that no matter how much a farmer pays attention to all the details–good nutrition, access to minerals, clean water, clean bedding, observing their animals closely to catch problems early–things still go wrong. Some of those situations have happy endings, but some result in dead animals. All of it is emotionally draining, especially for a shepherd who loves each of her 60 ewes.
Lambing season is a time on the farm that presents multiple photogenic opportunities of bouncing fuzzy lambs, and in the past I have shared only these, despite heartaches unfolding in the lambing barn. We’re not quite through lambing season this year, but already we’ve had many dramas. Abandoned lambs, hypothermic lambs, lambs that were stuck inside their mamas… every day for a week we encountered at least one of these. And if our flock was 2, 5, or 10x as large, you could multiply the problems by the same factor.
The photo featured with this article shows just one of this year’s dramas: ewe #1825. Her cervix didn’t dilate properly, so she failed to give birth, and stole a lamb from another ewe to satisfy her urge to mother. The only way to get her lambs out was via C-section. I have learned a lot about lamb midwifery in the past 8 years, but I am not qualified to perform surgery. Thankfully I work with the Cornell Ambulatory Clinic, and they provide amazing and affordable service. Within hours, the ewe was prepped for surgery in the barn, with her side shaved, sterilized, and numbed, and the vet similarly scrubbed. The first lamb to come out was already dead and starting to decompose inside the mama. But the second lamb was alive! I quickly took that lamb to dry it off and get some colostrum into it.
This story does not have a happy ending. The following morning I found the ewe dead, of septicemia (blood poisoning) I later learned. Her live lamb survived for 2 days, but despite all our love and extra attention–and a dose of powerful antiobiotics–succumbed to pneumonia as a result of having aspirated fluid from the womb into its lungs.
This is all part of the process of nurturing living beings. After a rough morning in the lambing barn a few weeks ago, I commiserated with some farm friends who raise pigs. I had lost a great ewe; they’d had a sow roll over and kill 2/3 of her newborn piglets. Neither of us shared these stories with our customers or broader community. And if we had? Would it have upset our customers? Would they have thought we were just seeking sympathy? Or would their understanding of agriculture been enriched by this glimpse into the challenges faced by a small farm in their community?
The next time you see a gorgeous image from a farm, especially if it involves livestock, remember that this image is only one piece of the story. For every few adorable lamb photos, there’s one your farmer didn’t share, because it didn’t fit the idealized, romanticized image of farming. It had too much blood or poop in it.