Watkins Glen was one of those towns I’d drive through often to get somewhere else. And every time I did, I’d think “What a nice little town. I should explore it.” Over the past couple of months, this smallish Finger Lakes destination kept coming up in conversation, from its native beers to its fabulous gorge and rolling farmland surroundings. It’s also the home of a unique animal welfare project called Farm Sanctuary, which provides a home to abused, neglected and abandoned farm animals, while also (not so subtly) pushing conscientious food choices. As a bit of a former activist, and as a former vegan, I had known about this place for a while and had always wanted to see it. And when we found out you could meet and interact with the animals, it was decided. Good beer + beautiful environments + meeting animals = a potentially awesome weekend.
My dear lady’s birthday provided the perfect excuse. She, myself, and a friend of ours made it a Saturday day-trip, starting with the Sanctuary, followed by an intermission of downtown strolling, and ending at the Roosterfish brew pub for dinner and however many drinks the night demanded. Roosterfish, by the way, is pretty awesome. They craft several tasty brews, from a dark nut to a Belgian style tripel and even a black IPA! And you can do a flight of as few as three beers for a very reasonable price. The food was mostly great. I loved the spicy ketchup that our sweet potato fries came with, and my catfish po-boy was good (though I’d have preferred grilled fish to fried). Avoid the onion rings – too bland. My lady had a very excellent veggie penne.
Anyway, on to the main event. The Farm Sanctuary is in a beautiful spot, about twenty minutes west of Watkins Glen proper, tucked back along a rutted dirt road. When arriving from the east, you’ll be tempted to park in the first lot you see, which is actually for the animal hospital. Ignore this lot and continue down the road to the main parking area, where the gift shop / welcome center is. They do tours of the sanctuary every hour, so time accordingly. Our guide was cheerful and laid back, happy to answer our questions, and most importantly, keeping safety a priority. After all, a cow bred for beef can get as heavy as half a ton, and you don’t want that stepping on your foot. It was neat to really get to know these animals, who were surprisingly sociable. The goats acted a lot like dogs, enjoying our petting and following us around the pasture. The pigs would roll their 600 pound weight over if you rubbed their bellies enough. Even the turkeys seemed to like the attention, though some more than others. Our guide helpfully pointed out some of the less-friendly birds. At the end of the tour, we were invited to walk around the area on our own, and to stop by the gift-shop for some free vegan treats. Coconut-milk ice-cream sandwich = win.
If I have one complaint about the experience, it would be the proselytizing. It wasn’t pushy or preachy per se, but there was a running theme during this tour of the seemingly infallible virtues of veganism. There were many explanations on the horrors behind factory farmed animal products, and why a “vegan lifestyle” was necessary to alleviate this suffering. This is all good, since most people would find this information new and hopefully compelling. Western consumers are disturbingly disconnected from their food sources, and the more we know, the better. So I definitely applaud the effort, and I absolutely recommend a visit to this lovely and fun place.
But I must contend the basic narrative, that veganism is the “solution” to issues of food politics. Like I said, I was an activist in the past (still somewhat am) and also a vegan. For a long time too – about nine years. It was a decision born of my environmental and ethical concerns towards the industrial food industry – concerns which, in the past decade, have become much more common knowledge. This is a wonderful thing, and has prompted a lot of industry changes. I can remember being a young man trying to explain the horrors of factory farming to anyone who would listen, and the listener would usually be completely shocked (or refuse to even think about it. Which is perhaps the same thing). Nowadays, food politics have become much more ubiquitous. Farmers markets have become hugely popular, food sources an increasing concern for all consumers, not just the hippies and enviro-yuppies of the past. Everyone (who can afford it) wants organic, free-range, no preservative, non-GMO. non-fucked-around-with food. The ethics of animal welfare have become a common component of our discourse. Consumers are changing their habits accordingly – shopping local, reading labels, discussing the environmental and health implications of our ridiculously global food industry. And, more than ever, they are becoming vegan or vegetarian as a way of curbing these dietary “sins”.
If I sound dismissive about that choice, I don’t mean to. I have total respect for vegetarianism and veganism, because I know that the decision always comes from a good place. People make this choice because they learn that their consumption has consequences; awful and nauseating and really quite destructive consequences. They want to feel better about their role in this process. They care about animal welfare, personal health, and the deteriorating environment. And, true to human nature, that choice becomes a rallying point, an identity, a “cause” – quickly spiraling into ideology. That’s where it gets sticky. As I’ve often said, I don’t like ideologies on the whole. They tend to inhibit wider growth and understanding, no matter how noble their roots. A “cause” turns into a prickly absolute, and Change – the truest reality of life – becomes difficult.
My own “fall” from strict veganism came slowly, as I came to understand the wider implications of my choice. I was emotionally free from the nightmare of factory-farmed animal products, yes. But I had instead thrown my dollars and support behind a different nightmare – monoculture farming. I realized that buying tons of soy products was not in reality a whole lot better for the environment and for animal welfare than eating meat. Giant agribusiness forces like Monsanto were doing as much damage to the world, if not more, and I was still part of it. Developing countries were being pillaged for their fertile land, and none of the food or profits went to the people living there. It dawned on me that some “redneck” who hunts and eats a deer is actually being more politically and environmentally responsible than I am when I buy soy-protein “chicken” nuggets and bananas shipped from Central America.
So this ideology I had clung to, veganism, was not the end-all solution to food issues that I had believed it was. I was also never really one who thought eating animals was an inherently wrong act, which is where I differed from many vegans/vegetarians. As a species which is basically equivalent to chimpanzees, I believe we are naturally omnivorous. Thus, as I learned more, I let myself change. I gradually incorporated local eggs back into my diet – they’re cheap, they’re healthful, and they come from humane sources that I can see for myself. I started eating sustainably caught fish, for that good fat and protein. Not that the politics of fishing aren’t also screwy of course, but I try to consume responsibly. And I guess that’s the point. As a consumer in a civilization of massive environmental exploitation, it is basically impossible to have a diet completely free of bad juju. If I had my way, I’d grow all my own food, catch all my own fish, hatch all my own eggs, maybe even hunt my own meat. Unfortunately this is a lifestyle that will take some time to build up to, and it would have to start with me buying land and not living in an apartment. Until then, we just keep learning, keep growing, and doing the best we can.