Practical Issues > Health - Index > Vegan Index

August 19, 2005

Last of Four Parts of
a Short, Meat-Oriented History of the World,
From Eden to the Mattole
Cutting Up Mochie
 By Alexander Cockburn

Come now to a Parable of Swine.

Not so many years ago in North Carolina, the pig barons sensed opportunity for their 'right to work' state. In the traditional hog belt of the mid-west, unions and laws against some forms of agribusiness still protect the medium-sized farmer. Today, in North Carolina the hog industry is headed the same way chicken production went thirty years ago, with the vertical integration pioneered by Purdue and others wiping out a million small chicken farmers across the country. [33] The coastal plains and piedmont of North Carolina are now pocked by vast pig factories and pig slaughterhouses. People living here sicken from the stink of twenty-five-foot deep lagoons of pig shit which have poisoned the water table and decanted nitrogen and phosphorous-laced sludge into such rivers as the Neuse, the Tar-Pamlico and the Albemarle. Ammonia gas burdens the air, just as it does in northern Europe-doing more damage in Holland than factories or cars-where at least open lagoons are banned and the pig shit must be 'injected' into cropland rather than sprayed over it, as is the habit in the United States. In North Carolina it is as though the sewage of fifteen million people were being flushed into open pits and sprayed onto fields, with almost no restrictions. That's where the seven million pigs worth of manure goes.

Small hog producers have been bankrupted or become 'contract' producers for the giants, bearing the up-front costs. The economies of scale produce fewer jobs than in the chicken business or in the tobacco industry, which it is increasingly replacing. To insulate themselves from popular outrage or even regulatory surveillance, the pig barons have either bought political protection or gone directly into politics, there writing or endorsing laws favourable to themselves. Most conspicuous in this art is Wendell Murphy, head of Murphy Farms, the biggest pig business in the country, selling $200 million worth of hogs in 1994. Murphy joined the state legislature in 1982 and soon augmented the steady stream of laws protecting hog and chicken interests.

In North Carolina legislators may make money off the bills or amendments or votes they offer so long as they can assert that such profit possibilities do not cloud their judgement. Presumptively unclouded, Murphy pushed through or supported laws exempting his business from sales taxes, inspection fees, property taxes on feed, zoning laws, pollution fines. Laws imposing harsh penalties on animal-rights activists were also advanced and ratified. In 1993, after Murphy had left the assembly, one of his executives was still there to press successfully for a bill that blocked environmental researchers from getting state agriculture department records on hog-farm sites and sizes. In 1991, when Murphy was still installed as tribune for the pig business, the North Carolina legislature brazenly passed Senate Bill 669 allowing the nc Pork Producers Association to collect a hog levy which could be used to lobby state legislators, fight lawsuits and pursue purposes prohibited with money derived from a federal check-off.

Pork is power in North Carolina. In 1988 when a particularly dear friend of the hog, chicken and turkey industries-Senator Harold 'Bull' Hardison-was running for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in North Carolina, Murphy gave him $100,000. A few days later Hardison got another $100,000 from Marvin Johnson, head of Raeford Farms, one of the biggest turkey processors in the country. The legal maximum in such primary elections is $4,000. The State Bureau of Investigations uncovered these illegal disbursements but announced in 1993 that, given the two-year statute of limitations, Murphy and Johnson could not be touched. Hardison had done his part by advancing the laws protecting the pig barons from environmental laws and sales taxes. The pig men of North Carolina have a friend even higher up the political chain, in the form of us Senator Lauch Faircloth, a Republican who is part owner of Coharie Farms, the thirtieth largest hog producer in the country. Faircloth also owns more than $1 million worth of stock in two slaughterhouses. In Congress he is now ensconced as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Water, Wetland, Private Property and Nuclear Safety.

Just as with Don Tyson, Arkansas' chicken king, North Carolina's pig barons have the place sewn up, even without Murphy there as an elected representative. John M. Nichols, the Republican who leads North Carolina's House committee on Health and Environment is also a member of its House Agriculture Committee. He is now building a 2,400 sow farm in Craven County that will raise pigs for Murphy. Leo Daughtry, North Carolina's House majority leader, owns a part-interest in Johnson County Hams, which cures about 60,000 hams a year. Murphy's old seat is now occupied by Charles Albertson, a professional country-music singer and former employee of the us Department of Agriculture, who won his seat with the help of pork money. After two terms in the North Carolina House, he rose to the senatorial purple in 1993, where he was immediately named chairman of the Agriculture, Marine Resources and Wildlife Committee.

Such is the swollen empire of pork in North Carolina. Its reeking lagoons surround darkened warehouses of animals trapped in metal crates barely larger than their bodies, tails chopped off, pumped with corn, soy beans and chemicals until, in six months, they weigh about 240 pounds, at which point they are shipped off to abattoirs to be killed, sometimes by prisoners on work release from the county jail. Near the town of Tar Heel, in Smithfield's Carolina Foods abattoir, half the workforce are Latin American immigrants; a number of others are prisoners. The sows are killed after about two years or whenever their reproductive performance declines. It takes maybe eight to ten people to run a sow factory, overseeing two thousand sows, boars and piglets. A computerized 'finishing' farm, where the pigs are fattened, may just require a part-time caretaker to check the equipment and clean up between arriving and departing cohorts of hogs. The noise in these factories is ghastly, and many workers wear ear pads against the squealing and crashing of the animals in their cages. When the Raleigh News and Observer did a series on North Carolina's pig barons in early 1995-following a pioneering article in Southern Exposure in 1992-readers were told they could call the paper's number in Raleigh, 5495100, extension 4647 and listen to a recording of this terrible sound. Thus do we travel toward necropolis from Olmsted's visit to Porkopolis nearly a century and a half ago.

Art met meat early on.

Nearly 20,000 years ago a paleolithic artist drew an auroch-wild ox-in black pigment on the walls of a cave at Lascaux, near what is now called Montignac, in the department of the Dordogne in France. He made the auroch-ancestor of the Spanish fighting bulls, and of the Longhorns-eighteen feet long, its outline first sketched out with bird feathers, then etched in with a stone blade. The artist prepared the surface with fat and oil, then blew powdered ochre onto it through a bone tube. In the lower gallery at Lascaux there's a picture of a man lying dead. He had evidently been attacked by an auroch, which itself had a lance in its flank and entrails hanging from its belly. Before him, on a pole, is a bird. Throughout the cave there are many paintings of pregnant animals. Art here was surely an instrument of magic, an expression of ritual; magic not contrived in sorrow and repentance, but in hope; art enlisted, in Arnold Hauser's words, 'to secure the path to future enjoyment.'

The relationships between people and other creatures in the paleolithic period necessarily remain mysterious. Discussing how hunters and gatherers perceive their environments, Tim Ingold cites one example:

    Among the Cree Indians of Northern Canada, it is believed that animals intentionally present themselves to the hunter to be killed. The hunter consumes the meat, but the soul of the animal is released to be reclothed with flesh. Hunting there, as among many northern peoples, is conceived as a rite of regeneration: consumption follows killing as birth follows intercourse, and both acts are integral to the reproductive cycles, respectively, of animals and humans. However, animals will not return to hunters who have treated them badly in the past. One treats an animal badly by failing to observe the proper disposal of the bones, or by causing undue pain and suffering to the animal in killing it. Above all, animals are offended by unnecessary killing: that is, by killing as an end in itself rather than to satisfy genuine consumption needs. They are offended, too, if the meat is not properly shared by all those in the community who need it. Thus meat and other usable products should on no account be wasted. [34]

The 'path to future enjoyment' was next secured by the domestication of animals, which turns out to be the main topic of the Middle Eastern Holy Books, much of which consist of bragging about the size of herds and flocks. The self-sustaining family farm or the journeys of the pastoralists were well on the path to destruction by the mid-nineteenth century, with the rise of the modern commodity markets. But the values of family-farm life remain an important ingredient of the culture of consumption: not 'Murphy Hog Industries', but 'Murphy Farms'. Not 'John's Slaughterhouse', but 'Farmer John' in Los Angeles. Hence, restating Hauser, the 'needs of everyday life' today require that we use the magic of art to conceal the slaughter house. Our 'needs' are a continual supply of meat, not provided by the chances of the hunt, nor by the family farm with Peter the Pig and Daisy the Cow, but refrigerated in plastic wrap, dissociated from an animal context and accompanied by the quiet assurance that it can always be obtained by money. The modern cave painter should depict a credit card and a Safeway. But art mostly has not made the transition from the pre-industrial state, when 90 per cent of the world was peasant and 10 per cent 'other,' with the latter living off the surplus of the former. From this world come most of our values and sentiments about the animals we have domesticated for work, companionship and food.

The British artist Sue Coe, who now lives in New York, escorts us to our modern state. In terms of art history the only previous depictions of this sort were of the Day of Judgement, of Inferno, as for example displayed by Coppo di Marcovaldo in the Baptistry in Florence. Coe gives us the meat machinery of the slaughterhouse depicted as the day of judgement, with no heaven, only the purgatory of the feedlot, and the hell-fires of death.

And finally, on a personal note.

I wrote those last words and went forth with my friends Karen and Joe Paff to chop up the carcasses of two sheep on the tailgate of Joe's pick-up outside my house: one for my deep-freeze, the other for the Paffs. Our neighbours, Greg and Margie Smith, had raised the sheep on their fields a couple of miles further down the Mattole River.


Eating Mochie

Unlike Sue Coe, I'm not a vegetarian. She once sent me a wonderful print of hers called 'Modern Man Followed by the Ghost of His Meat', a fellow accompanied by an accusatory posse of pigs, chickens, cows and sheep. The posse after me would be ample enough, starting with the crow my mother trapped during the Blitz in London, continuing with whale-wartime London again-and then picking up with the bullocks I helped consume, raised by local butchers on their farms around the southern Irish town of Youghal where I grew up.

These days I live in Humboldt County, in the Mattole Valley, a couple of hours drive south of Eureka. The ranchers here run cattle on the hills, or the river bottom or the King Range, which is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The sheep have come and mostly gone. Here it's cattle, raised and grazed and shipped off to the feedlots. I suppose my house goes through a couple of sheep, a pig and a hindquarter of a cow each year. The pig would be one raised by a 4-H kid-Cisco Benemann's was the best so far-from around Ferndale, an hour over the hills, and killed and cut up by a local butcher. The cow for the last two years was called Mochie, raised by Michael Evenson.

At a Christmas party last year I ate a good piece of beef, said so, and Michael told me it was from Mochie and sold me a hindquarter. He gave me this little piece of Homeric history about her origins, which go back to the early 1970s, when a number of counterculture folk headed north from the Bay Area and settled in southern Humboldt. Michael bought Mochie's grandmother as a day-old calf in a Fortuna auction in 1972. She gave good milk in Michael's three-cow dairy. At the age of sixteen or seventeen, she'd had fourteen calves and earned retirement. She died in the pasture of natural causes at the age of twenty-two. Her last calf was a heifer, who herself had fourteen calves. Michael sold her to a couple that wanted a milk cow, and he got back the calf she was about to have:

So the animal you had part of was that calf that came to me. I was out of milking and dairy by then. I had very few animals and the pasture was in perfect condition. About sixty acres. When I first got there we figured about fifteen acres a cow but after we reseeded it, this dropped down to ten. When you reseed, you reseed a balanced diet, with perennial and annual grasses, so the soil is always alive with something. A lot of variety. It was a mix Fred Hurlbutt, a rancher in Garberville, developed. My animals were slaughtered in winter and the butcher thought they'd been on grain. I don't grain feed animals. Too concentrated and unbalanced. My animals always had choices, in the kind of grasses to eat and where to sleep. I had cross fencing but they were generous enough pastures and choice. I had goats in the 1960s and they really taught me animals like choices. They let you know when they're not happy. There have never been any diseases on my place.

Bullocks I'd slaughter after about two years. I don't lie to my animals. I tell them the only way I know, using English, that I'm going to slaughter them. I give them as much love and care as I can. Then, when they're slaughtered they will be part of my body, part of your body. You do the same in your garden.

The couple I sold Mochie's mother to are hippies living east of the Eel River. She's a midwife and he grows lettuce. They're new settlers, and they were the ones who called the calf Mochie. I never sent any animal to a commercial slaughterhouse. Mochie was four and she was breaking fences and wandering. I used a 30.30 and shot her behind the ear, out through the eye.'

Michael is off red meat now. A friend of his, the late John Iris, who started the Wild Iris Institute for Sustainable Forestry, got bone cancer when he was fairly young. In the military he'd worked in missile silos in Europe, and with nuclear warheads in Vietnam. He lived in Briceland and went on a macrobiotic diet. Michael joined him, eating fish and chicken, but nothing from the nightshade family, for example tomatoes or potatoes. No milk, no red meat, 'even though I had a freezer full of beef and a cow I was milking. I felt better. I'm realizing now my life has changed because I no longer have twice daily contact with cows. I wouldn't say life is more peaceful. It became more turbulent.'

So much for versions of pastoral in the Mattole Valley. Most people don't have the option of getting Greg Smith to kill them a lamb. Probably most people wouldn't want to cut it up. Someone in the supermarket in Garberville the other day went to the manager and complained because the meat-counter man had some bloodstains on his apron. But even so, there are options. If you don't like the thought of debeaked chickens sitting in a wire box all their lives, don't buy them. [35] Figure out if you can have a meal that squares with ethical standards you can live with, or even vaguely aspire to. If you don't want to eat a piece of an animal tortured by hog barons, then cut up by prisoners, aside from campaigning against such cruelties and conditions, ask yourself, is there a way out, at a level that goes beyond eating the pre-Fall diet, only so long as Sue Coe's paintings remain vivid in your mind.

The End

This essay appears as part of Dead Meat, presenting Sue Coe's record, in the form of paintings and diaries, of slaughterhouses in the United States. Dead Meat is published by Four Walls Eight Windows Press, in New York, and paintings in it may be seen at the St. Etienne Gallery, 20 West 57th St, New York.

Footnotes

[33] Hog farming in North Carolina has been the subject of some fine journalism, notably David Cecelski and Mary Lee Kerr's 'Hog Wild' in Southern Exposure, Fall 1992, and an excellent five-part series in the Raleigh News & Observer, first published 1926 February 1995, and reprinted 19 March 1995.

[34] 'From Trust to Domination', in Aubrey Manning and James Serpell, eds, Animals and Human Society, London 1994.

[35] As with organically-grown produce, there are purchasing co-ops and kindred organizations, that seek out free-range animals, humanely raised. This does not deal with the moral absolute, but it does address less environmentally destructive, more artisanal and ultimately more equitable forms of production. Not the full bill of rights to be sure, but a slightly more elevated bill of fare.