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We need better language to talk about farming animals
The untruthful ways we write about meat farming. Words by Rosanna Hildyard; Illustration by Lucy Haslam
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 5: Food Producers and Production.
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I was recently reading a Instagram post by Farmer Tom Jones (who must always be referred to as Farmer Tom Jones to distinguish him from the famously randy singer of the same name) with a photo of four newly born piglets, all fine down and cute snouts, making their first tentative steps into the world. With another farmer, or maybe if this was some advertising copy for an ‘ethical’ meat company, these ‘piggies’ would be accompanied by some platitudes about the circle of life, about the proud mother, about how this was the start of some happy existence. But the words contradict the idyll of the picture ─ the piglets have since all died. “Eyes, tails, legs, squeaks, but not quite with the manufacturers stamp of approval” Jones says. The piglets had come too early, the gilt couldn’t produce milk, the crows and ravens had started gathering on the fence, smelling death. Ten piglets dead. Someone, clearly not reading the words, comments underneath: “Look at them! Brilliant”.
Perhaps we don’t know how to react to words this truthful about farming. The tenor of Jones’s post isn’t mourning, but annoyance: looking at it without emotionless, the gilt is an investment that isn’t paying off. All those days of care and attention for nothing. Jones jokes, mirthlessly, that he could start again or turn her into sausages. But there is emotion too: “You start again, give her another chance. It’s what you do and love.” There is no time for sentimentalising over dead animals that represent a livelihood, but there is a duty of care, a bond that goes beyond labour and money, a recognition of one’s self in the animal.
Today’s newsletter by Rosanna Hildyard is about the untruthful ways we often talk about animal farming, and how little they resemble the experience of rearing and caring for animals. Yet there is a long tradition of sensitive farming writing; in fact, the way Farmer Tom Jones talks about animals reminds me of one of the first pieces of ‘food writing’ 2000 years ago, which is the way the Roman poet Virgil talks about animal death in the Georgics. (If you’ve never read it, I recommend watching this video of Werner Herzog reading his own translation of an astonishing passage describing the madness of a horse). There is an honesty and sense of keen observation there that today, you might only easily find on a few farmers Instagram posts, or a James Rebanks book. This type of writing is precious; more of it in the mainstream may not just improve animal lives, but, like all truthful writing, it might enrich our understanding of ourselves too.
We need better language to talk about farming animals, by Rosanna Hildyard
My grandmother’s refrain echoes through the house.
‘Poor cows … Those poor cows!’
She is standing at the back door, looking out as the garden is battered by a North Yorkshire winter. ‘What about the cows?’ she asks, and repeats herself, over and over again, before answering herself: ‘You must get those cows inside!’
At length, a frustrated exclamation floats through from the kitchen. ‘The cows are in, Mum.’
‘In?’ she says, baffled, as though the idea of the cows being in the barn in January is lunacy. ‘They can’t be in.’
Those in the kitchen ignore her again. She turns back to mouth at the glass.
‘…Those poor cows.’
My grandmother has been a small-scale farmer for most of her life. After marrying my grandfather aged twenty, she moved from her childhood home in Sussex to rural North Yorkshire. The war had disrupted her schooling; afterwards – perhaps to make up for this – she was allowed to lodge in London for a few months, to study at art college. The story goes that, when she and my grandfather became engaged, she asked whether they would be able to delay their wedding, so that she could stay in London and finish her art course. He said, of course she could – but in that case he’d find some other girl to marry, because he had determined to get married that year.
So she went to Yorkshire, became a farmer’s wife, and ‘got on’. She continued painting, had a baby every two years (on average), and learned that ‘starved’ in Yorkshire meant not ‘hungry’ but ‘cold’. In the early 1970s, once the five children were reasonably grown, she took a step further into farming. She made a proposal: to expand the farm business into rare breeds. It was a forward-looking idea: produce less, but better, meat. She took it seriously. Her herd grew, gradually, winning prizes at Crufts-type cattle shows. My brother can remember hanging a sheet out on a hedge, painted with the word ‘CHAMP’, for her triumphant return from one of these in the 1980s. Her cattle were, however, the wrong choice: they were too small-boned and delicate to make much money as beef. But as I think about the abrupt ending of her artistic education, it seems to me that cattle breeding had replaced painting as something she found meaningful.
Now, aged ninety, she is unable to remember which college she studied at, and confuses her own childhood with that of her children. Sitting in the kitchen when she comes to visit us, her sentences trail shyly away. But in the barn, she can immediately spot which of my father’s cows is pregnant (it is almost imperceptibly fatter); which is getting old. She stands in the dim-lit foldyard, disagreeing mildly with my father over the fertility of bulls. She potters up and down, muttering proudly at the cattle. She reaches unhesitatingly through a shit-encrusted gate to pat their coarse fur.
I am interested in the ways we talk about meat farming. My grandparents, uncle and father are, or have been, farmers – beef cattle and arable – and I mostly grew up in the countryside. I know farming is a practice that involves intimacy with animals. It is both affection and exasperation – my father has a particular dislike for the cow that shits in the water trough, meaning he has to clear it – but the close relationship is there. These days, I am physically removed from animals. I live in London and eat mostly falafel, not because of strict vegetarianism but because – why eat bad mince when you can get an excellent wrap from Falafel & Shawarma for the same price? Despite London’s constant presence of foxes, rats and birds, I feel physically removed from animals – livestock, unlike slippery wild things, take up space and leave their trace behind. There are no cowpats in Burgess Park, or tufts of greasy wool stuck on stiles.
When I read about meat farming, animal life still feels at an emotional remove. On Monday, newspapers paint farms as struggling businesses key to the post-Brexit economy; on Friday, they are the setting for reality TV shows led by comically bumbling figures; in the weekend supplements there is always someone reporting excitedly about how ‘the new farming’ is changing everything. Yet I do not see a meaningful relationship between the discourse around farming and the practice of it. The way the media, culture and even farmers themselves talk about the labour of rearing animals is imprecise, often sentimentalised, and can be easily twisted to suit unethical ends; animals are, as it were, a blank canvas on which to project various self-serving, human-centric ideas. But when I watch my grandmother, I am struck by the fact that this is a dualistic job that involves daily, close care for animals before the act of killing. Emotion is involved, as well as the moral difficulties of rearing an animal to kill. Yet these aspects of rearing animals for meat are often left out of accounts in the media; the writing I see about meat production today seems troubled by this dualism, and prefers to ignore it.
If you pick up a copy of Farmers Weekly or any other mass-market farming magazine, you will find headlines about such gripping topics as ‘environmental management plans’, ‘price rises for Arla suppliers’ and ‘new statutory codes of practice for farmgate milk contracts’. It is language that is almost strategically tedious – it might relate to a factory full of spare parts rather than living, feeling creatures.
Such clinical language seems to anticipate the continued spread of American-style, profit-oriented ‘mega farms’ in the UK. A 2017 investigation by the Guardian estimated that around 800 mega farms were in operation here, a 26% increase from 2011. It is most likely an even larger number now; although the UK population may have started moving towards plant-based diets, around 86% of us still eat meat. Such farms keep thousands of animals indoors and ‘seriously constrain internally motivated behaviours, particularly comfort movements such as stretching, grooming [and] nesting’, according to Christine Nicol, professor of veterinary science at the University of Bristol. This is not even counting their impact on the wider environment.
We need more accurate, nuanced, and consistent language to allow us to distinguish between different forms and scales of farming animals. Apart from the obfuscating tedium of professional agricultural language (which is usually only read and heard by those working in the sector), representations in the popular media about farming animals are broadly divided into two distinct styles: violent, macho language on one hand, over-sentimentalised on the other.
First, the misogynistic language exemplified by ‘Britain’s most famous farmer’ (so dubbed by The Times), Jeremy Clarkson. Once of cars, now of farms, Clarkson is probably the epitome of a certain kind of competitive ‘man vs land’ mindset. His description of the sheep he husbands on his Netflix-sponsored farm is typically brutish:
‘I […] bought two rams, which are basically woolly ball sacks, and in short order, all but three of my new flock were pregnant. The failures? I ate them, and they punished me for that by giving me heartburn.’
Like Farmers Weekly, Clarkson’s account of keeping livestock does not give a detailed account of rearing livestock; instead, he conceals the reality of living with animals with crass jokes. Over thirty years have passed since academic Carol J. Adams published her seminal work, The Sexual Politics of Meat, which argues that both women and animals become ‘absent referents’ in conversations about food: objectified, they are no longer seen as things that are alive, and suffer. However, as Clarkson demonstrates, the difficult and intimate work of raising animals is still displaced in popular culture by violent and sexualised language.
The banality of Farmers Weekly, and the violence of Clarkson’s language, allow us to blinker ourselves. In his essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’ John Berger argues that one of the many functions animals have historically served for humans is that they force us to reckon with ourselves: ‘when [man] is being seen by the animal, he is being seen as his surroundings are seen by him’. It may sound obvious, but animals are the only part of the natural world that can look back at humans; when we engage with them, we see our own relationship to them. To erase our relationship with animals in farming is, therefore, to forget our own complicity in their lives and deaths.
What may seem like the opposite kind of language to Clarkson’s can sometimes have exactly the same effect. A farmer who breeds the same cows as my grandmother has the following on her website:
Our breeding cows are individuals, each with her own character . . . We name each of our cows after a white flower. Tulip, our herd’s matriarch, has daughters, grand daughters and great grand daughters happily grazing with her.
Naming a cow ‘Tulip’ is just as unfair as Clarkson’s ‘woolly ball sacks’; it too conceals the reality of raising animals for meat. Respecting and naming animals isn’t a bad thing in itself – as Berger points out, humans of all cultures and eras have venerated animals as creatures that enrich, enable and define our societies. But this is sentimentalising animals on a customer-facing website as part of a marketing strategy – it’s just as disingenuous as talking about cows as though they are car parts.
Who does this sentimental language benefit? Farmers big and small are increasingly aware of self-marketing, and mindful that in order to attract custom, they must seem progressive. The bigger farms greenwash – ethics-wash? – their practice by using vague, sentimental language that conceals the artificial situation of an animal raised in the intensive conditions of a mega farm. When I walk through my local Tesco Express, I notice more and more ‘happy eggs’, ‘high welfare’ and ‘friendly farm’ labelling. But at present, even chickens raised intensively, with no access to natural light or adequate room to nest, can be categorised as ‘high health and welfare’. It’s difficult to tell, from these labels, which farms actually are higher welfare. This isn’t just exploiting animals: this kind of language exploits the human consumer, too.
Recently, I have taken to watching videos of a farmer called Minette Batters. There are plenty online: Batters speaking at COP26, Batters on Channel 4 News, Batters recording herself testing her cattle for TB. The current tensions in modern UK farming are best exemplified by Batters, possibly the most powerful person in UK agriculture. As President of the National Farmers’ Union, a union of around 50,000 skewed towards owners and businesses, she represents the ‘old guard’ of farming. But she straddles this duty with that of making farming palatable to the wider, non-farming public. In one video, Batters states that she gets ‘really attached to my cows. Some of them even have names.’ I find this interesting, and watch the video again. Batters smiles intently at the camera as she says ‘really attached’ – look, she’s a human! She loves her cows! But, unlike Tulip’s owner, Batters tempers this with multiple qualifiers: ‘some of’, ‘even’. The video continues. Batters insists that her cows ‘are part of the family’, then backpedals: ‘Certainly some of them, anyway’.
Here, Batters is struggling with the dualism inherent in meat production: you live with an animal, worship it, even, and then you eat it. Berger observes that ‘the vestiges of this dualism remain among those who live intimately with, and depend upon, animals’. ‘Remain’ is a key word: in the UK, the Enlightenment – which brought in theories about the separation of the human from the soulless animal – coincided with enclosure of the countryside, and both contributed to the spreading conception of animals as something distant from us. Berger was writing pre-1980; Batters is speaking in a UK that is altogether more globalised, yet also where urban living has increased, and most people are at a greater distance from primary production than ever before.
Here emotional disconnect about meat production can function as self-protection for not only the consumer, but for the farmer, too – even Clarkson burst into tears when he personally had to drive some sheep to the abattoir. It is important to remember that most of those working on the frontline in meat farming can’t afford to be sentimental about their livelihoods: farming is a job with tiny margins and unpredictable setbacks, and farm labourers, of course, are among the most silenced voices in the labour force, often on short-term, cash-in-hand jobs, and with their only UK union disbanded in 1982. As the number of mega farms in the UK increases, we are in a dangerous position. No matter how much farmers feel they care, these farms focused on profit margins do not, ultimately, prioritise animal welfare. Now that we’ve left the EU, the UK must regulate farms and food, and mandate space, fresh air, and prices for animals, which makes precise language when we package, discuss and report on meat production all the more important.
Often, it’s easier for an individual to pretend an animal is a machine, or to tidy it away with a joke. Yet treating a living thing as a product is a slippery slope under capitalism. When we admit that our language assumes an animal is, for example, a machine, it forces us to look not just at animal welfare and different ways of farming, but also at what Berger calls ‘the universal use of animal-signs for charting the experience of the world’. When we recognise that our ideas of what farm animals are, are only ideas, we realise just how much we are grappling with. Like my grandmother, for whom time slips away, the concept of what animals are, exactly, has slipped away from us – if we ever had hold of it at all. Perhaps the people who live closer to animals have a more precise grasp of their mysteries – perhaps not.
My grandmother does not talk much about cattle anymore. At Christmas, we try to remind her of the prizewinning ‘CHAMP’, a heifer whose name was Pearl. But Pearl has been and gone in my grandmother’s mind. Nevertheless, her fierce attention to the cows brings home to me the genuine relationship that farmers can have with animals – if the conditions are right. The fact that some UK farmers pride themselves on animal welfare is, I think, a hopeful sign. If we can dig into the source of this pride, things can be made better for animals. Chickens should live on more space than one A4 sheet of paper. Care must be something that is practised, not just felt.
Rosanna Hildyard is an editor and writer from North Yorkshire. She is a Barbican Young Poet and an alumnus of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective. Her poetry and fiction has been published in PERVERSE, Banshee and Modern Poetry in Translation, been shortlisted for the Benedict Kiely Award and come second in the Brick Lane Short Story Prize. Her short story collection, Slaughter, was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize 2021 and is available from Broken Sleep Books.
The illustration is by Lucy Haslam, an illustrator based in Bristol who specialises in editorial illustration and narrative comics. She likes to sit back and let the textures do all the heavy lifting in her work. You can find her work at lucyhaslam.com and get in touch at email@example.com.
This newsletter was edited by Rebecca May Johnson. Many thank to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits and proofing.
Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat (Bloomsbury, 1990)
John Berger, ‘Looking at Animals’ from About Looking (Bloomsbury, 2009)
Barry Cockroft, ‘The Dale That Died’ (Yorkshire Television documentary, 1975 [available for free on BFI Player]
John Clare, Poems, ed. Paul Farley (Faber, 2016)
James Herriot, Every Living Thing
Forrest Gander and John Kinsella, Redstart: An Ecological Poetics (University of Iowa Press, 2012)
Amanda Owen, The Yorkshire Shepherdess (Pan Macmillan, 2015)
Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside (Orion, 2020)
James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life (Penguin, 2015) and English Pastoral (Penguin, 2020)