The Politics of Sight: Observing Farm Animals, Then and Now

Farmers in pre-industrial America were intense observers of animal behavior. They had to be. At a time when farm animals were integral to material life, agriculturalists couldn’t afford to neglect their economic livelihood. Some historians estimate that early American farmers may have spent the vast majority of their days–all of their days–tending to the seemingly endless wants and needs of their animals. I believe it. Spend time with the records of any early American colony and you will find yourself enmeshed in world of cows, pigs, and fowl.

The result of this persistent, inevitable observation was a deeply intuitive sense of the intrinsic value of farm animals. There is, of course, no denying that farmers ultimately exploited their stock to serve human needs–that goes without saying. Less appreciated, however, is the fact that dominion over animals was, as far as my research is revealing, as gentle as it was customary. Farmers paid consistent attention to the most subtle behaviors of the animals under their care, even going so far as to note what kind of sounds animals liked to hear. Abuse of animals could quickly lead to social ostracization.

Industrialization of animal agriculture undermined this habit of observation. Destroyed it, actually.  Most consumers today have no idea that meat, milk, and dairy necessarily requires the ruthless exploitation of sentient beings. It never crosses their minds. Producers, too, have little incentive to observe animals, much less understand their inherent value as animals. A highly rationalized factory system obviates that need, deadens our powers of observation, and sets us on the distant periphery of immense abuse. I know this may all be painfully obvious, but I think the demise of observation as the essential bond between humans and animals in agriculture is one of the most important, and destructive, developments in human history.

The resurgence of small-scale animal farming claims, in some respect, to recapture this lost bond. I’m dubious of such a claim. I can only speak anecdotally on this issue, but most small scale animal farmers I know outsource much their labor, are by no means as dependent on their animals as their pre-industrial forbears were, often work other jobs, and, frankly, seem to spend more time blogging than farming. I think it’s safe to say that very few small scale animal farmers today spend the vast majority of their day, every day, with their pigs, cows, chickens, and goats. They might fashion themselves as pre-industrial farmers nurturing the same bonds as those forged by their agrarian ancestors, but the world is no longer pre-industrial.  They’re a band of hobbyists whose work is as close to pre-industrial farming as a Renaissance festival is to the medieval era.

All of which leaves us with a paradox–or at least a weird situation. At a time when farmers truly appreciated the “animalness” of their animals–an appreciation borne of intense observation–they were, due to the vagaries of a settlement society, directly dependent on those animals for their livelihood. Today, however when plant-based agriculture has advanced to the point that it produces enough plants to feed 7 billion people, a cadre of environmentally concerned opponents of factory farming are seeking to bring us back to the old days by waxing rhetorically about recovering the lost human-animal bond. What they miss, I think, is that their purported power of observation is compromised by an unavoidable fact:  we don’t need the animals under their observation. The result is that “humane” farmers do not get the “animalness” of their animals. To the contrary, to raise an animal to kill when it is not necessary to do so means that the animal is not an animal, but an object, a commodity.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

8 Responses to The Politics of Sight: Observing Farm Animals, Then and Now

  1. Morna Crites-Moore says:

    I propose that we stop using the phrase “factory farm.” The fact that the word “farm” is in there, softens the blow. We need to start using phrases like chicken factory, pig factory, cow factory, egg factory, meat factory, etc. I’m not sure about “food factory” because “food” is far too benign a word.

    Thank you for your thoughtful column. I have just recently found it.

  2. CQ says:

    How true: “They’re a band of hobbyists whose work is as close to pre-industrial farming as a Renaissance festival is to the medieval era.”

    The pre-industrial American farmers’ observations of and dependence on animals reminds me of the ancient days, when there were “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). Students of the Bible are enamored with the Shepherd-sheep metaphor, with Christ Jesus being the Lamb of God. But they never project beyond the verdant pastures to the ultimate fate of these sweet animals then or now. Nor do they confront the modern-day reality that, as you say, “plant-based agriculture has advanced to the point that it produces enough plants to feed 7 billion people….”

    Welcome, Morna. I would add to your proposal: not only should the word “farm” be dropped from the factories, but it should also not be accorded to the small enterprises which “grow” animals. A friend of mine says it’s more accurate to call animal farmers “harmers.” I agree.

  3. Morna Crites-Moore says:

    Since much of this stuff we call “food” is hideous, pumped up with growth hormones and antibiotics, lacking in real nutrition, tainted with the horror of the living creature who gave her/his life, often dangerously diseased … let’s call it pseudfood.

    Thanks for the welcome, CQ.

    • CQ says:

      Hey, you’re welcome for the welcome, Morna! 🙂 Question: They really “gave” their lives? I know you didn’t mean that word literally. I never asked their permission when I ate them. I stole from them. I feel forgiven only because I was truly ignorant, and because I’ve ceased doing them harm.

      James, whenever I look at an artist’s beautifully rendered scene from the good old days, the “old” me tries to assert itseIf and feel a little wistful. But then I remember that I do *not* long for a return to “innocence.” No, indeed. The animals have taught me to only look forward, to the day when they will no longer be commodified — and prettified in a pasture or a serene-looking stable or a shrink-wrapped package.

  4. Provoked says:

    Hello – I too am often tempted to romanticize over the old images… Viewing a “farm” book for children can transport me to another world. Thankfully I’m able to see the images now for what they really represent.

    It’s true that the time of observing “food animals” has been reduced down to nearly nothing. Livestock growers have an endless source of technology that automatically feed and water them… Machines that tend to the waste… And well, if the animals are confined – What else is there besides the occasional administering of a drug? The fact is – They don’t “care” for the animals – They care for the equipment that monitors them: http://www.automatedproduction.com/

    And that might be what “factory farms” should be called… They call themselves this all the time “production operators”… Me? I call them flesh-peddlers – not to be vulgar… But simply because it’s the most accurate phrase I can think of.

    It’s true though that these hobbyists who intend to eventually kill don’t get the animalness at all – Because that always includes the animals love of it’s own life. No one who really looks and SEES could violate that reality… They just couldn’t.

  5. James, whenever I look at an artist’s beautifully rendered scene from the good old days, the “old” me tries to assert itseIf and feel a little wistful. But then I remember that I do *not* long for a return to “innocence.” No, indeed. The animals have taught me to only look forward, to the day when they will no longer be commodified — and prettified in a pasture or a serene-looking stable or a shrink-wrapped package.

    • CQ says:

      Those words sound familiar. I wonder who wrote them? I’m *not* going to open your link to see who you are, Mr./Ms. Dittohead! 🙂

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