The Full Picture of Farming

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.

Ewe #1825, immediately after C-section surgery in the barn, with the lamb she stole from another ewe.

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.

4 thoughts on “The Full Picture of Farming

  1. A very sad story. You have my condolences. And, I believe you did right to share the pain and messiness as well as the joy and beauty. Thank you for dedicating your lives to sustainable and healthful food. May you and your family thrive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Erica, Yes I think it is good to share the sadness of farming as well. Our lambing seasons have had some stressful, really terrifying, moments but we have been lucky in not losing a lamb or mother yet. I know it will happen some day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The transparency in this article is both sad and heartwarming at the same time. To be this committed to the truth to share on your home page says about all I’d ever need to know to make a choice whether to purchase products from your family.


  4. We lost several sheep in a 24-hour period because one of them managed to break into a supposedly animal-proof bucket and they gorged themselves on corn. Their deaths were prolonged agony for them and for us. I remember our then-toddler daughter watching us dig graves and saying, “Now Gramma [my wife’s late mother] has sheeps with her in Heaven.” Farm kids understand death. You’re right; non-farners have a much harder time with the reality of it.


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