My Journey from ‘Humane’ Dairy Farmer to Vegan Cheese Maker
My life has been a tapestry of contrasting and at times contradictory threads.
As a youngster, I binge read books like Little House on the Prairie and My Side of the Mountain. I loved the idea of self-sufficiency and homesteading. I made acorn pancakes with my best friend Krista (we ground up acorns with a brick and added water; they were delicious! Just kidding, they were awful, like eating bitter sand). I once tried to whittle a log into a bust of a famous president with a jackknife knicked from my dad’s wardrobe. I was jealous of my cousins in the country who fished and hunted.
And so, many years later, when I saw the ad requesting help on a “humane dairy” goat farm in Oregon, I jumped at the chance to get my country girl on.
It’s relevant to note that ten years before that, I had tried to go vegan. I was working at PetSmart and it was there that I met Pinkie, a tiny black and white spotted puppy with blue eyes. I fell in love with her and adopted her. But alas, her kidneys weren’t formed correctly and as she grew larger and larger, topping the scales at 80 pounds, her kidneys began to fail. She only lived for two years, but in those two years I learned what it meant to love a dog. I was crushed when she died.
After that time, I couldn’t bring myself to eat animals any more. I just couldn’t see the difference between my beloved dog and the animals on my plate. I began to watch videos on animal welfare, and donated money to animal activism groups. I tried to go vegan altogether, but didn’t pull it off for a myriad of reasons, mainly willpower and lack of education. I was a vegetarian for years.
Then when I moved to Oregon, I began to hear the phrase “humanely raised” used in reference to meat and dairy products, and it piqued my interest. In Michigan, nobody had ever talked about humanely raised animals, because they weren’t much thinking about meat as animals— it was just meat, which is meant for eating. How the meat got that way only a few knew and fewer than that cared. In Oregon it seemed that more people were aware of what happens in commercial meat production, and they knew it was wrong.
In retrospect, having been fooled by the allure of humanely slaughtered meat, I see the great irony of this labeling ploy. Marketers have to work harder to desensitize people who are more aware of the truth. Consumers who have some understanding of the injustice of slaughtering animals but choose to pay for it anyway have to work harder to remove themselves from the reality of their own choices. The irony is that the people who are choosing to spend the extra money buying “compassionately harvested” animal products are actually more complicit in the violence and premature death of living beings than those to whom it has never occurred that their burgers were once feeling individuals who wanted to live.
And so, in Oregon, I began to buy the lie that one can humanely kill an animal to sate one’s palate preference. The contradictory impulses in me— one not wanting to hurt any living being (down to tiny bugs drowning in puddles), and the other hungry for the foods of my youth and longing for a country life— began to argue.
Of course, the softer voice of compassion is often harder to hear. I took the job at the goat farm. I ate my first “humanely killed” burger. I began to buy organic chicken breasts and steaks. I paid extra for “certified humane” bacon.
It’s amazing what you can block out when you really put yourself into it. I, who had ten years earlier been reduced to tears watching undercover videos of how farmed animals were treated— punched, tased, stabbed, beaten bloody, electrocuted, throats cut—was now working on a dairy farm where tiny newborn goats were taken away from their mothers immediately, their cries of distress ignored. The baby does were kept in a separate pen, and the bereaved mother goats would grievingly call to them and they would call back.
I didn’t think about it much. I couldn’t actively block the little voice and think about the situation at the same time. But there were a few times that a distressing understanding of what we were doing snuck through my wall.
I knew that the goats at the farm I worked on had their horns removed for our safety. Only once did I ever see how it happened. Baby goats were caught and held down. Their horn buds were burned off with a red-hot poker as they screamed and kicked and tried to escape. Once released, they stumbled around shaking their heads violently, confused and in pain. Some of them would never again permit a person to come near to them without severe distress.
Another time, I came into work and discovered that one of my favorite goats had been shot because she had an abscess and mastitis. The abscess was possibly contagious, and she wasn’t producing well. I tried not to think about the fact that she was a funny, playful goat who made me laugh all the time and that her life expectancy was nowhere near met when she died. At least she’d lived a happy life while she was alive, I told myself. It’s “just a part of what happens” when you have a large herd, even on a happy goat farm.
Another time, a pregnant goat who was well overdue on her delivery date was lying on her side with her eyes closed. I though at first she was sleeping, but realized quickly that something was wrong. I ran to the house and got the people who knew what they were doing. The goat was dead. They unzipped her side with a razor blade and out spilled three pale baby goats. They were injected with epinephrine. Guts up to my ankles, I held a tiny goat upside down by its hooves and swung it back and forth to try to remove gunk from its nose. It was like a long slimy sock, and I could feel its stimulated heart beating so fast under my hand. They all died. The woman was crying and shaking her head, moaning, “Oh, my best milker. My prize doe.”
I wish I could say that it was these situations that made me try veganism again, but it wasn’t. It was a dog again. This time it was Dingo, a rescue Chihuahua. He is one of those animals who break your heart with sweetness. He barks at the mailman, tinkles on the floor, and chews on socks. But my partner fell deeply in love with him and then I followed, more slowly but just as surely. She texted me from work one day and said “I am going to need to become a vegan. I can’t eat animals or animal products any more.” The wall I’d built must have been very shoddy indeed because that was really all it took for me. We both became vegans that day and started a new path forward.
Cheese was tricky for me to give up. I was addicted to it, plowing through a five pound block of cheddar every week or so. I’d tried a few vegan cheeses and they were good, but I decided I wanted to try my hand at coming up with a different recipe using simple ingredients and processes. Being in Oregon was a blessing, because of the amazing hazelnuts that grow in every alleyway and yard. The resulting cheeses were so delicious we decided to scale up and make a business of it. We loved the Latin word for hazelnut, Avellana, and so Avellana Creamery was born.
The new irony is that I don’t milk goats anymore, I milk hazelnuts. We have a machine that grinds the hazelnuts and water into milk and another that separates the fiber from the liquid. I do a last filter on the milk through a nut milk bag and sometimes I’m struck at the physical similarities between squeezing the milk out of the udder of a goat and squeezing the hazelnut milk through the cloth of the nut milk bag. I find that my hands often even use the same motions to coax the milk though.
When I was around 10 or 11 my aunt and her family invested in a cow milking operation. We went to see it one night, on a visit. I remember the machinery gleamed with chrome. They pulled a cow out and hooked her up to the tubes and turned it on. She was fairly serene, but I remember a feeling of sadness at her predicament. It seemed wrong to me to make her go up there and give away her milk. Though she didn’t seem visibly hurt in that moment, it made me feel sad on a deep level. I didn’t make the connection with the milk in my cereal until much later.
Avellana Creamery’s kitchen and machines are clean and gleam with chrome as well, but the feeling is so much different. Hazelnuts thrive under care from humans. Their varieties multiply and they become stronger, more resistant as science and experience reveal new and better ways to help the trees reproduce. We only use organic and locally grown hazelnuts, which also ensures care for the workers and the environment.
In our culture, we have made a habit of turning away from things that bring us pain. I’m learning that turning away doesn’t fix anything. Turning toward what distresses us gives us the opportunity to change what hurts into something beautiful. Going without dairy or meat is not hard for me anymore. What’s hard is seeing people stuck in a mindset where their daily decisions are fundamentally, violently at odds with their most basic values. We can and should do better.