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An Affront to the Idea of Family

1846375599_cec42383dd I'm not one of those people who thinks family is composed of only humans or humans who are biologically related. That's one of the reasons adopting wasn't a stretch for me at all mentally.

The idea of family is currently being used by the dairy industry in a series of commercials with the tag line: "99% of dairy farms are family owned." You see midwestern folk in overalls with tired faces. There are children. Girls. They are proud to be dairy farmers.

Of course, you're supposed to hop onto the following train of thought: These are good people. Good Americans, just trying to keep their families together and eke out a living in these tough times. Buying dairy products supports them.

It doesn't matter to me, but let's for a moment examine the 99%. Ninety-nine percent of dairy farms are family owned. That doesn't mean that 99% of dairy products are from family farms, as the average number of cows on each family farm is just over 100. It's not necessarily the case that buying dairy likely supports one of the families that comprise the 99%.

What you're supposed to be buying into is the idea that if a family owns a farm it is somehow qualitatively different (and of course, better) than a farm that isn't family owned. Families, so the commercials go, don't engage in untoward aspects of animal husbandry that might hurt the cows. The cows are walking around green fields, similar to those in the criminally misleading California cows commercials. The cows' tails swing in the breeze. The family isn't wealthy and they're not sophisticated, but they're proud of what they do. And they certainly wouldn't hurt anybody; that's what those big factory farms do that aren't owned by families.

There's an assumption that a unit known as a family is better to deal with than, say, a person who is merely a member of a family and who wears a suit and drives a fancy car rather than a tractor. When it's put that way, doesn't it sound silly? Families are just as capable of horrendous policies toward animals as anyone else. Their goal is to make a profit from the breeding and slaughter of animals. Period. Just ask former cattle rancher Howard Lyman, who is now a vegan and animal rights activist.

My daughter has given me an extra layer of sensitivity regarding the treatment of female animals. As a woman, I always found it offensive that females are forcibly bred, have their children taken away from them and are milked within an inch of their lives. But now I think about all of that being done to my daughter and I must say the disgust I experience at the notion that a family farm is somehow a wholesome place is a bit overwhelming.

One of the most important things about Deb's blog, Invisible Voices, is that many of the fortunate animals who end up at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, where she volunteers, came from family farms.

Yes, factory farms are the stuff of nightmares for nonhuman animals. But so are family farms. I don't care about scale. If someone owns me, forcibly breeds me, takes my kids and ends my life, it's a living hell for me.

–Photo from publicenergy's Flickr photostream.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mary, this is one of my favorite posts of yours. I hope it's ok (if not, please let me know) but I have shared it and linked back to your site on

    Thank you for engaging your readers in such an important discussion about families, women and the myth of the happy "family farm."

    August 11, 2010
  2. Beth #

    This one made me think. I remember a friend I used to have, a fine christian woman from a fine christian family, who owned a family dairy. One day she told me her husband carried a hammer in his side pocket. I assumed it was for barn repairs but then she mentioned he used it on the "crabby cows." Turns out that when a cow complained during the milking process, he pulled out the hammer and hit the creature soundly between the eyes.

    Once a cow stepped on his hand and he beat the animal senseless with it.

    I never looked at him the same again.

    Karma's a bitch, though. Because they keep a "cow handy in the freezer" they eat steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner." He's completely impotent, she has gout, they have high blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.

    But that doesn't help the cows, though.

    Just my thoughts as I read.

    August 11, 2010
  3. Olivia #

    I agree with Jo that this is an insightful blog, Mary. It's interesting that these "family farmers" are so keen on religion, family, country, and apple pie a la mode, yet they make mincemeat of their Master's message of compassion to all, rip apart loving families of *other* species and ruin their fair earth with all the un-"green" byproducts of their business.

    Last year my sister told me about a friend's dairy whose barn roof collapsed under snow, killing all the cows. She thought of it as a devastating loss to a "good Christian family." It saddened me that she simply could not comprehend that the cows' lives had any value to THE COWS themselves. I didn't have the heart to sour our walk; she wasn't ready to comprehend a wider concept of family and loss. I haven't given up hope, though.

    August 11, 2010
  4. Olivia #

    Forgot to add "and Beth" when I said I agreed with Jo….

    Beth, how that "christian" man treated those sweet cows was very hard to read. It's not much of a consolation to me, but I know for sure that my Christian sister and her dairy-farm friend's Christian family would never commit those kind of cruel acts. But the more accepted forms of cruelty — well, that escapes their notice, so blinded are they by convention.

    August 11, 2010
  5. Brian #

    I understand your concern for those cows that were beat by that man and the unfortunate death of all the cows that died in the snow storm. As a dairy farmer I even had a hard time reading that. I love my cows and I don't anyone touch them in that manner. I am always working for the best environment and the most comfortable situation for my cows, who I consider part of my family. You say that "Family Farms do not exist and that they don't care about their animals." That is not true. I work with my mom and dad twenty other caring individuals to provide the best, most comfortable place for my family members, all 2000 of them. Please talk to us before you start to accuse us of not taking care of our cows, and making what one farmer who is not right the truth of everyone else.

    August 12, 2010
  6. Hi Brian, I'm glad you agree that the man w/the hammer was wrong, and I'm glad that you feel it's important for the cows to be comfortable.

    Now, I don't see the sentence you quoted anywhere, about family farms not existing and not caring about their animals. Also, I've talked to or emailed many, many dairy farmers. A lot of animal rights advocates have done the same. We're not just listening to Peta or something like that. That would not be responsible.

    Finally, I find it strange that you would kill most members of your "family." Or that you would sell them so that they could be killed. Isn't that what happens to the cows in your "family"?

    August 13, 2010
  7. Brian,
    I responded to your comment in a subsequent post:

    Thanks for reading and writing.

    August 15, 2010
  8. A close friend grew up on a rural "family farm". According to him, in comparison to today's giant industrial ones his was just a bunch of poor croppers. Still, they raised animals and he ate meat most of his life. But so ingrained is his desire to see the idyllic "happy" family farm that to this day he doesn't recall any of the cows or pigs ever being killed.

    When you question his childhood memories he only recalls that the cattle and hogs all died of "old age". His brother however is a "realist" and remembers that all the animals were well cared for up until the time they went "peacefully" by the point of a butcher's knife.

    I think this just proves the point that people will always believe exactly what their moral dissonance will allow. Some can handle more "truth" than others. Family farm or "factory farm" the myths are all the same – just to different degrees. They all entail confining and controlling beings who'd rather be free. And they all take the lives of those who'd rather live – all in the name of "profit".

    Reminds me of the joke about a woman who was propositioned for the payment of $200 which she gladly said yes to. Next the man said would you "do it" for $20? She was enraged and insulted – And demanded to know what kind of woman the man thought she was. He simply said we've already established what kind of woman you are… We're just dickering about price now. And I think the same holds true for "family farms"… If they had the backing I'm very certain they'd all like to be in the game with "the big guys" as well. It's all about the "bottom line".

    August 17, 2010

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