Coming from a family of vegetable enthusiasts, meat has never been a center point in terms of meal planning or meeting nutritional needs. When I do eat meat, however, I try to buy organic, humanely treated, local meat whenever possible. That way my carbon footprint and moral conscience can be somewhat eased. I was always aware that farming and ranching require a tremendous amount of determination and effort, and was therefore appreciative of high quality, healthy food. Several days ago, I had my first hands-on livestock experience on a Navajo reservation, taking care of sheep and goats by administering vitamins and shearing their winter coats. Now, I’m realizing there is a lot more to meat consumption than deciding what meat is the most ethically pleasing to purchase. This culture shock opened my eyes to the fact that no matter how aware we are of meat production, there is still that element of disconnection between raising livestock and pleasing our primal meat cravings.
It was a dry, dusty afternoon when we pulled up to the open lands of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Our group of twelve was getting adjusted to the new landscape of blinding white Aspens, towering pine trees, and abundance of ground cover against the rich orange soil. Going from over a month spent in the canyon land back country, to the bustling town of Moab (which was coincidentally hosting the annual car show), to an unfamiliar reservation was a lot to adjust to in several days. Not knowing what to expect, we were greeted by Navajo tribal member, Robert, who gave us a brief history of the Navajo culture and then asked if we were ready to help with daily tasks. Figuring we would be feeding sheep, watering plants, or preparing food, my stomach sank as Robert uttered words I hoped to never hear, “okay, we’re going to go vaccinate sheep.” Officially out of my comfort zone and seeing spots as my squeamish ways began to surface, I set out with our group of 12 up the hill and to the sheep pen.
For everyone’s sake, I figured it would be best to take on the least invasive job possible: wrangling. Running around half trying to grab a hind leg, half hoping I would fail, I couldn’t help but laugh at how pathetic I must look to the Navajo residents. A fourth grader, Nakota, was sitting on a nearby fence pointing out which sheep he would aim for and telling me when to lunge in hopes of helping me catch at least one sheep. After much jumping, lunging, tripping, and squealing, I finally managed to grab a hind leg with both hands as the sheep tried with all its might to break away from my grasp. Kicking and screaming, I dragged the confused sheep out of the corral to then be injected with vitamins, have its ears cleaned, and then be sent on its way once again. With a sigh of encouragement, I repeated this process with others several more times until every sheep was checked off as healthy. Stunned, but relieved, we patted ourselves on the back as a job well done as we cleaned up and gathered around Robert for our debrief. Apparently please with our hard work, we were then invited back at nine in the morning to help sheer the four goats. At this point, a traditional sweat was much needed and appreciated to prepare my muscles to once again be placed out of their comfort zone and handle the livestock.
The morning was warm, food plentiful, and silence peaceful. We then packed up the trailer and began our walk, once again, over to the corral full of woolly livestock and one camouflaged sheep dog named Justice. Unlike sheep that can be sheared quickly with electric blades, goats required the traditional, two-bladed, hand-held sheers which requires a much greater deal of concentration and technique to complete. The process of sheering a goat is lengthy, and entails wrangling (but not dragging) one by one, tying three legs together, flipping them on their back, supporting their thrashing mass with your body, and then sheering in a straight line as close to the skin as possible. In all honesty, I was terrified as I stepped back and watched people go up one by one to attempt to please Robert’s brother, Richard, by doing a clean and efficient job. As flashbacks from the day before kept surfacing in my mind, I was searching for ways to help with the process but not get involved with any physical livestock handling. After three volunteers happily left the corral to help prepare a hearty breakfast of fry bread and blue cornmeal and lamb stew, I was left watching group members switch out one by one, until I was the only one left who hadn’t experienced the process of traditional goat sheering. With nowhere else to run, I pushed past the mental block of forcefully handling livestock and made a few snips myself. Thanks to reassuring nods and encouraging words to try something new, the goats made it out of our trial run unharmed, and looking better than ever.
Farming and gardening has always been a huge part of my life. It gets you outside, clears the mind, keeps you active, and makes you truly appreciate a homegrown meal of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. It is also extremely rewarding to see what hard work and time can produce. As we drove away from the reservation, I kept thinking about the experience and what it meant to me in terms of feeling connected to the food choices I make. Raising livestock is a long and difficult process, and requires being able to be forceful with these animals in order to make sure they are happy and healthy. The Navajo reservation livestock have a pretty lavish lifestyle, complete with free ranging and a supply of food and supplements. Only once and a while they need to be collected, wrangled, and cared for. The fact that this process made me want to physically run away and never turn back made me realize how disconnected I was from the process of raising livestock for meat.
If there is anything I took away from this experience, it is that purchasing meat requires much more thinking than what labels are printed on the packaging. Just as we need to be conscious where and how our fruits and vegetables are grown, we need to remember where and how our meat is raised. Putting in hard days of work to grow a garden and appreciate a freshly picked meal is one of my favorite feelings in the world. If I had to properly raise a sheep and put in as much effort as growing a garden, I would not feel the same rewarding feeling. That being said, this experience on the Navajo reservation created a shift in my thinking. The next bite of food you take, remember how much effort it took to make the meal possible. Ask yourself if you’re willing to wrangle your dinner first.