What Growing Up on a Farm Taught Me About Humility

Cold days are better for killing animals. Warmer months demand time in the wheat fields. Plus, heat and sun quickly turn meat rancid.

On my family’s farm in rural Kansas, we did our butchering in the fall and winter, when the work drew no flies.

On gray afternoons, I would get home from school — after an hourlong bus ride on muddy roads — to see a large, pink carcass hanging near the cinder block farmhouse where I lived with my grandparents.

Grandpa would have already shot a bullet through the heifer’s brain, drained her blood, cut off her feet with a handsaw and begun to peel away her skin. Then, having hooked two of her legs with a steel spreader connected to the long arm of our tractor, he would have used hydraulic controls to lift the heavy creature — who, not two hours prior, grazed in the pasture and huddled against the north wind with her family — and sliced her underbelly from anus to neck.

We would spend the evening in the butchering shed — a small barn next to the house with a garage door, a bloodstained concrete floor and a rosebush growing up its south wall. Grandpa did the carving. Grandma stood at the grinder making hamburger. My job was to weigh the meat on a metal scale, wrap it in white butcher paper and label it with a marker. More often than not, friends and family pitched in and left with steaks for their deep freezers. Grandpa saved the heart and liver, which he pickled in a jar in our icebox.

This was an average day for me, growing up. During those formative years, witnessing death did not desensitize me to the plight of our fellow animals. Rather, life on the farm in general strengthened my reverence for the more-than-human world, which so plainly dictated our lives. While we opened and closed the gates that trapped farm animals, we were often at their mercy.

On winter mornings when we would have preferred a warm bed, we crouched in the snow and pulled a breech calf into the world before sunrise. We were aware each day, when we entered the pasture to check the water in the stock tank, that even the smallest of the Charolais cattle could beat us in a fight. We had friends who had been trampled or gored by bulls, and Grandpa told the story of an area farmer who, years before, slipped on a patch of ice while inside one of his pens, hit his head and was eaten by hogs.

On Sundays at the little Catholic church down the dirt road from our house, we stared up at Jesus’ bleeding, hanging body and listened to the sermons about man’s dominion over the earth. But in our bones we knew it was the other way around.

Our humility was not just the result of doing hard, undervalued work. It was also the result of being undervalued people.

Even as a child, I understood that families like mine, poor rural farmers, were low in the pecking order. Television shows and movies portrayed us as buffoons and hicks, always the butt of the joke. Our presumed incivility, and even monstrousness, was suggested in conversations, often to laughter, by humming the banjo tune from the 1972 film “Deliverance,” present in many VHS collections during my 1980s childhood. “Squeal like a pig,” some jokers continued — a reference to that film’s infamous rape scene.

We didn’t need those cues to know that society held us in low esteem, though. All we had to do was look at our bank accounts.

We worked the land and killed animals so that others would eat, so that we would afford propane for the winter, and so that the rich, rigged industry we supplied grain to would become a little richer.

The profound humility instilled in me by my upbringing left no room in my worldview for exceptionalism of any sort. It also left me troubled by the ways that most humans calculate the value of things — animals, plants, land, water, resources, even other people — according to hierarchies that suit their own interests.

More than once, while wrapping meat, I sliced my finger on the sharp edge of the butcher paper. There was nothing special about my blood. It was red just like the pigs’ and the cows’. It was clear to me that there was nothing special about me or my family, either, doing that most essential work of feeding others. Nothing special but also nothing lesser.

From there, near the bottom of the proverbial social ladder — where women drove tractors and people of all races lived in single-wide trailers — I began to see through the many false narratives of supremacy that govern our society. That men are better than women. That white people are better than everyone else. That the rich are better than the poor. Even, yes, that human beings are better than animals.

Credit…Antoine Cossé


The experiences of my early life left me forever in mind of the animals that society consumes and the workers who spend their lives among them. It also left me rageful toward industries that devalue both. In some ways, my professional mission to champion the exploited and expose the powerful — as a journalist, an author and an advocate for social justice — can be traced back to lessons I learned on the farm.

Unfortunately, farms like ours — and the ancient, intimate tradition of husbandry into which I was born — have been disappearing for decades, forced out of business by policies that favor large industrial operations.

Today an estimated 99 percent of the meat in the United States comes from factory farms, barbaric places that leverage the selfish, amoral paradigm of human supremacy for immense capitalist gain. Industrialized agriculture has made meat, eggs, milk, leather, cheese, wool and other animal goods readily, cheaply available to the modern consumer but at a terrible cost — both to the animals, who endure savage cruelty, and to the low-wage laborers, many of whom are immigrants of color, who suffer injuries to body and spirit.

This likely isn’t news to you. The details of this dark business, while partly obscured by ag-gag laws, are widely documented, yet they remain underdiscussed. The torturous treatment of animalsat the hands of multibillion-dollar monopolies is among the greatest horrors being committed on this planet.

In comparison, our small farm was as humane as any enterprise raising animals for slaughter might be. And while we lived in poverty, according to many definitions, it was a fortune and privilege to grow up with a big garden, with cows and pigs and chickens.

Subsistence through modest land ownership historically has been refused to people of color, stolen from Indigenous peoples and made economically unfeasible for poor folks of all stripes, who set off for cities in order to survive.

Whereas most Americans today have no direct contact with the animals they eat, I carried their manure on my boots. Thus, long before I learned about the industry that delivers chicken tenders and bacon strips to the masses, I had an aversion to factory-farmed products. The beef was too gray. The chicken smelled wrong. The egg yolks were too pale.

Ironically, our culture associates eco-consciousness with higher socioeconomic status, as though greater wealth denotes greater character. But in my experience, environmental impacts are most keenly felt and understood by the poor and unheard.

In fact, as I have climbed out of poverty and into a class of highly educated, financially comfortable liberals, I have found that for all their supposed interest in justice and claims of being on the right side of history, most of my peers give little thought to animal suffering in their eating decisions.

Of course, wealth and class play a role in what food and products you can afford. Socioeconomic barriers to values-based eating choices undeniably exist, particularly in urban areas cut off from healthy food options. But one doesn’t have to afford expensive grass-finished beef or frozen patties engineered from pea protein to make effective food decisions, and white male chief executives didn’t invent plant-based living. Bougie restaurants serving charcuterie boards sure as hell didn’t invent local venison salami, which we made from the deer we hunted.

To be certain, many middle-class and affluent consumers far removed from agricultural work have learned about the problems of factory farming, including its contribution to climate change, and altered their habits. I applaud their important efforts. For some people, though, working near the bottom of the class ladder provides not just knowledge but a knowing, and that knowing deserves respect.

As a young adult, I lived in poverty and faced food insecurity. These conditions limited my choices, but they did not negate my affection for the earth. I grew up driving a farm truck with wheat kernels on the floor of the cab and an “Eat beef” license plate on the front bumper. I knew people maimed by farm machinery and disabled by agricultural chemicals. Regarding the conditions of farm animals and farmworkers, I had no option but to understand.

For me, there is no taste of meat without bodily memory — the heat of a newborn calf in my cold arms, the smell of the mother’s cascading excrement, the danger of her heavy hooves. I could see the cows on our farm from my upstairs bedroom window and the pigs and chickens from our front door.

My early proximity to animals did not cause my empathy for them, I suspect, so much as it starkly revealed it. To be sure, similar experiences did not make animal rights activists out of most of the people in my farming community. But in general, I observed more environmentally conscious behaviors among the rural working poor than in other socioeconomic spaces I’ve inhabited.

Maybe it was because minimizing waste and reusing and repairing old things were economic necessities. Or perhaps it was because carbon-spewing air travel was an unaffordable luxury. Or maybe it was because they had no choice but to look into a cow’s eyes before they killed her.

I do not wish to valorize the working class or demonize those who are better off. Both groups vote in droves for politicians who cater to massive agricultural corporations, the fossil fuel lobby and other powerful entities that destroy our planet.

But guilt for crimes committed against other species and against the earth is not equally shared. Wealthy corporations and the governments beholden to them, choosing profit over sustainability and moral decency, created and fortified the food systems with which the average individual has little choice but to engage.

Navigating those systems today, while living again in rural Kansas after years in cities, I now eat eggs from my neighbor’s hens and, about once a month, chicken, beef or bison raised and slaughtered down the road. At other times, living without access to such food or means to afford it, I went without eating animal products for years at a time. I haven’t consumed dairy in more than a decade, but for those who do, the particular devastation of family dairies makes local milk and cheese much harder to come by.

Still, I am part of the problem. I ate fast-food hamburgers well into my 20s, and my home almost certainly contains products that were tested on animals. My cat eats canned meat from factory farm byproducts, and I’m wearing mass-produced leather sneakers as I type this.

I am sympathetic to the argument that any consumption of animal products is unethical and unnecessary. Realistically, however, the urgent problem for our time is not whether they will be consumed but how.

While it is important that consumers from all socioeconomic backgrounds care about the earth and its creatures, ultimately only policy has the power to restrain the agriculture industry’s worst abuses. I am heartened by long-term legal efforts to extend personhood to other animal species and, more immediately, by the New Jersey senator and famous vegan Cory Booker’s new legislation to make slaughterhouse practices more humane. In a more perfect world, future farm bills would somehow rebuild the nearly four million small farms lost to urbanization and industrialization since the 1930s, allowing future generations the closeness to animals that engenders awareness.

My family, squeezed out like so many others, had to sell our fifth-generation farm more than 20 years ago. I was a first-generation college student by then, working toward a more comfortable life.

No education, however, would surpass the one I received in the butchering shed, where I held a bleeding muscle with my bare hands and placed it on the scale. Today, when I look at that scale — now an antique on display in my kitchen — I give thanks for those who worked and those who died so that I may eat.

Credit…Antoine Cossé

Sarah Smarsh is the author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.”

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