A Fair Trade Book
Review: Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm
Author: C. David Coats
Illustrations: black-and-white photos and photocopies
Anyone who lives, or wants to live, on a farm should read Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm. It describes how “modern factory farming” techniques, although they may seem more immediately profitable, actually hurt the farmer, the animals, and the people who consume milk, eggs, or meat.
You may believe, as I do, that God planned for land to be owned by families, who are encouraged to breed animals selectively but forbidden to tamper with genes, who are meant to eat the flesh of the inferior male animals, and who are meant to live on their land until the time comes to hand it down to a younger relative, because this is the best way for the people, the animals, and the land. You may believe, as I do, that attempts to “nationalize” property will inevitably lead to the same kinds of abuses of humans that Coats documents factory farms inflicting on animals; that although rich countries like and can afford some “social programs,” a socialist government is inherently incompatible with peace, justice, or prosperity.
Coats, being a product of his time and background, does not clearly express these beliefs. It’s possible that, while writing this book, he honestly believed that we’d be better off worshipping a totalitarian state and practicing a vaguely Buddhist ethic, like the Chinese. By now we all know how well that outlook has served China. However, despite some murky rhetoric, Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm is a book of facts that can be useful regardless of religious, political, or philosophical differences.
Coats provides a list of non-food animal products you can boycott if you want to express disapproval of factory farming by going totally vegan. (If you live in a city apartment and can’t do anything else by way of opposition to factory farming, this idea may seem attractive as you read this book.) How sustainable a personal vegan commitment will be depends on your ability to afford alternatives, stick to a commitment, and digest grain, and in my part of the world there is a much more sustainable and helpful alternative, but to each his or her own.
The helpful alternative is of course to have an organic, non-factory farm. It’s true that many farmers choose unsustainable, high-density, anti-ecological farming practices in order to make money faster. It is not necessary that they do. Few Americans can now sustain the American standard of living by operating “modern” farms anyway, so why not simplify your life, reduce spending, keep a part-time job, and raise a few crops and animals for the joy of it?
I think of the dairy cows we boarded when I was growing up. My brother and I used to go out and milk these cows. They weren’t confined in the barn; they were out in a field, fertilizing next summer’s hay or next winter’s apples depending on the season. They followed us into the barn because they did indeed want to be milked, and they also got a bowlful of sweetened grain to eat while being milked. They were not stanchioned. We prevented them from soiling or knocking over the bucket by petting them; one child would shoo the flies while the other milked. Yes, this method does work…even for children, if they’re willing to take the time. There is no reason why cows should spend their days shackled in stalls or penned in a filthy, muddy lot, except greed.
Chickens, likewise. Unlike many birds, hens and geese usually lay more eggs than they intend to raise. Our hens knew who robbed their nests every day. They didn’t mind. Once a year, a laying hen was likely to become “broody.” She would take over one of the nest boxes we’d provided, usually discourage other hens from using it, and complain if we tried to move those eggs. Some of our hens were better “layers” and some were better “setters,” but on average they might have tried to hatch as many as ten percent of the eggs they laid in a year.
We had one hyperestrogenemic hen who laid eight eggs a week in spring, although she was never kept indoors or exposed to artificial light. This speeded-up production took its toll on her body. She began laying defective eggs—and eating them. Factory farmers deliberately, systematically set out to do to all hens what we recognized as a disease process in our hen.
The feeling we absorbed, growing up around these animals, was that it’s stupid to feed an animal if it’s not going to be your friend and partner. Many male animals are not friendly. They are not going to enjoy collegial relationships, either with farmers, or with more lovable males in their own families. In natural conditions, farm animals do not live in wholesome monogamous families. Males fight—and females reward the males who kill or sterilize the others. When a male calf makes his first threat display against the humans who’ve brought him up, he’s telling the world “I am an aggressive male who intends to kill or be killed,” and it’s more humane to have him made into steaks and hamburgers than to let him and his relatives mutilate each other—or some human, or horse or other farm resident. Female animals usually are friendly, and worth keeping as much for companionship as for milk, eggs, pest control, fertilizer, and edible offspring.
If this is the way you’ve learned, not just from picture books but from life experience, that humans relate to domestic animals, then you certainly won’t get any pleasure out of reading about the foul things factory farmers are doing to animals to make money off them faster. As a child I knew that a cow is supposed to live, give milk, and have calves for about twenty years; a hen stops laying all those surplus eggs after two or three years, but can live five or ten years (laying only enough eggs for one brood, which she may or may not bother trying to rear). On a factory farm, Coats says, hens will be “spent” after one year, cows after two to five. Their meat will be as stringy and unappealing as if they had grown old naturally, and these days they won’t even wind up in a stew pot; they’ll be used as “by-products,” including feed for other animals, some of whom aren’t natural carnivores and may develop diseases from eating animal by-products.
Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm is not intended to be nibbled at, like chocolates. It is intended to be choked down, like pills. You don’t really want to know these facts, but you need to know them so that you can begin to choose to relate to animals in a more humane way.
Should anybody not read this book? I’d recommend caution for vegans who read it. Vegans in North America tend to be hassled by the carnivorous majority, so they are likely to feel vindicated by books like Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm and tempted to go around shoving these not-much-fun facts in their friends’ faces. That won’t help either your friends or the animals. Be gentle. This book is one great big long gross-out and emotional trigger. Use it with discretion. Don’t discuss or display it at the dinner table.
Why not? Not just to be polite. To be effective. Consider how long Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm has been out there. Then consider the latest evidence that factory farms haven’t improved much:
Why has Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm not had more impact? It’s powerful research and writing. Coats can’t be accused of pulling punches, barring holds, or giving quarter. Is it possible that people have discounted the effect his facts had on them because his writing was too powerful, without offering any alternative people cared to think about? Is it possible that the message that factory farms are horrible would have done more to help animals, and the humans who eat them, if it had been balanced by the message that family farms are not horrible? Is it possible that people who reject the idea that they need to become full-time permanent vegans would accept the idea that they don’t have to eat meat taken from sick animals?
Those horrible, half-grown, half-dead chickens in the video were meant to look like this (image courtesy of Caroleeclark at Morguefile: https://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/914010 ).
Somebody is using the name ” +C. David Coats ” on Google +, but has managed to set up a private Google + page. Without seeing this person’s posts I can’t be sure that it’s the same C. David Coats. I think, hope, it is; therefore I believe Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm can be offered as a Fair Trade Book. Send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, for a total of $10, and I’ll try to locate Coats and send $1 per book to him or a charity of his choice. If you want four copies, send me $25 and I’ll send Coats or his charity $4.