I have spent enough time with animals to know that there is nothing rosy and romantic about farming. The perfectly clean farm girl, in her lacy frock, leading lambs out to pasture? She does not exist. Her frock would be dirty, one of the lambs she leads would be eaten by a coyote, and later, when those lambs go to slaughter, she would weep bitterly.
Brad Kessler suggests, over and over again, in his book Goat Song, that farming and milking goats is somehow spiritual, that it is a way to connect to the people we humans once were, thousands of years ago. He romanticizes every bit of goat farming, from the haying that produces the goats’ food to the breedings that produce the goat kids themselves.
In reality, farming is just a lot of hard work. Farming is waking up before the sun, in the freezing cold, to break ice on your animals’ water and knowing that you’ll have to do it again twice before bed. Farming is trying two days and two sleepless nights to save a sick animal and then watching him die and brushing yourself off and saying “better luck next time, eh?” There is beauty in farming. There is nobility and grace in a person who makes his living with his own hands, in a person strong enough to take all of the failures that come with farming and keep on keeping on.
However, Brad Kessler doesn’t describe this nobility. Quite honestly, I don’t think he would know it if it stared him in the face. He is a novelist, not a farmer. That is perfectly OK–there is a place for everyone in the world, and for some, that place is as a novelist. However, once he made some money as a novelist, he decided to live out in the middle-of-no-where-Vermont and raise and milk goats and then write a book about it.
Now, key parts of farming are practicality and pragmatism. For thousands of years, living with and feeding from animals were necessary to survival. When you are trying to survive, you have got to make difficult, practical decisions. Brad Kessler and his wife, Dona, aren’t trying to live off of what their animals produce. They are already well-off financially and are doing a fun project. Perhaps one could call they goat-hobbyists. This is most evident in their treatment of their animals. Each goat has a name and is loved as a companion animal and an individual. Brad and Dona’s relationships with their goats are much more similar to the relationships that humans generally share with dogs than those that humans generally share with the animals that produce their food.
I am proud of the (small amount of) farm work I have done. More than that, I am proud of those I love who farm: my two closest, dearest cousins and their respective husbands farm for a living. My best friend also is currently studying agriculture and working at a farm and intends to farm when she finishes college. One of the things that I love about all of these people is their practicality and pragmatism, their ability to say: “oh well, better luck next time” after a catastrophic failure. Kessler doesn’t even begin to discuss the failures and the tragedies always present in farming. He doesn’t tell about being bone tired, itchy, and beat up and still having to work 7 days a week.
I also take issue with the accuracy of some of Kessler’s assertions. For example, he implies that a male goat would be intensely interested in a menstruating woman. Even if human pheromones worked on goats (which I do not believe that they do–pheromones are generally species-specific), male goats would be intensely interested in human females during ovulation, which generally takes place about two weeks prior to menstruation. Although this is but a small inaccuracy, it draws many of his other assertions into question–if this guy doesn’t understand female cyclicity, is there also other stuff that doesn’t understand, that I might not catch?
Kessler quotes Jim Corbett, a Quaker, saying that a herder perceives food as a gift that regenerates itself. Forgive me if I am mistaken, but I believe that herding animals, when done on a scale large enough to feel oneself completely, is a tremendous amount of work and that really, nothing is a gift. The animals must be fed properly, which means that if adequate food is not available, it must be procured–grown or found elsewhere. Cows, does, and ewes must be bred, calves, kids, and lambs delivered. Adequate water must be found. Fences must be build and then maintained. Milk, meat, and eggs are only a gift if they are a gift in trade for all of that work.
I recognize that the work of raising and keeping animals is a very different kind of work than the work of growing plants and grains. However, it is still difficult work, and not the paradise that Kessler depicts. Keeping goats as pets, in order to write a book about them, is very different than keeping animals to make a living–and it doesn’t matter if we are talking about farmers in today’s world or about people who lived 1000s of years ago.
There were valuable aspects of Goat Song. I really enjoyed the descriptions of cheese making. In addition, Kessler does a decent job of making his experiences accessible to post-domestic society (to return to an idea that we discussed early in the semester). His research on and discussion of pastoral people was interesting and thorough, if not quite as academic in tone as I would have liked.
I do not mean to bash Goat Song. However, I really did not find it to be partucularly useful to me. I think that, in general, Kessler’s experiences (and, more importantly, the way that he tells of them) simply propagate incorrect ideas present in post-domestic society and do nothing to create an awareness of what animal agriculture was (1000s of years ago) or what it has become.