It is fair season across the country. County fair was always the highlight of my summer – I finally got to see all the hard work I’d put into my horses, pigs or other projects come to fruition. I looked forward to the ribbons, competition and friends. Sometimes I even made some money.
But every fair also ended on a bittersweet note. The final day of county fair was also the day of the livestock sale, and that meant saying goodbye to an animal I’d grown to love. I cried each time I walked my hog into the sold pen or loaded them onto the truck bound for market.
“A lot of kids cry when they have to sell their animals,” you might think. “It’s a tough thing at the age of ten.”
I was 21 and still crying. I really did love those damn pigs.
Recently, a friend shared this article on Facebook, and I thought it was a pretty good read. Saying goodbye: How parents teach their children to part with market animal projects
But why, friends and family would often ask, would you ever raise an animal if you’re just going to send it to its death at the end of the summer?
Raising an animal is a learning experience in and of itself. I learned tangible skills like creating a budget, applying for a loan and how to reinvest profits into my project. But I also gained a heap of character through responsibility, pride of ownership and dedication. I developed humility and grace, because the outcomes were not always what I thought I deserved. And I flat worked hard at tasks cleaning stalls, walking pigs, stacking hay and hauling buckets.
Selling my animal and knowing it was bound for slaughter also provided me some opportunities for emotional growth. Life is not all lollipops and sunshine. An animal must die so that we have meat. It is as simple as that. Being part of that cycle of life and death made me accountable for my actions as a meat eater. It is easy to order a hamburger from a menu or buy processed chicken at the grocery store and wash your hands of your complicity in its death. It is another thing entirely to actually get your hands bloody, so to speak, and be accountable to the process.
My heart hurt ached each time I had to say goodbye. Those pigs and cattle had become part of my life. I had tamed them with Cool Ranch Doritos, scratched their ears, kissed their faces, fed them grain, doctored their wounds and loved them with all my heart. So saying goodbye was always hard and always emotional. As my pig walked out the gate and into the sold pen, my eyes would well up and boil over. The tears would fall off and on for the next few hours as I cleaned out pens and loaded tack. The first year I raised pigs, I couldn’t eat pork for three months.
But I would do it again in a heartbeat. I will encourage my daughter to do it, too, though ultimately the decision is up to her. I would love for her to learn all those life skills like money management, communication and responsibility. But she’ll get lessons in honesty, grit and toughness as well.
In my mind, raising market animals is not teaching our children to “betray their animal friends” as some animal rights organizations would have you believe. Rather, we are teaching them the value of the life of an animal. My daughter will learn that her actions have consequences for her AND her animal, both good and bad. She will learn to own those actions, just like I did. As my dad used to tell me, our actions become our character and our character becomes our future. Own your actions, build your future.
In much the same way, my husband and I are honest about his work raising fish and now pheasants. We own our actions as they pertain to the death of the birds he raises. Some of these animals will supplement wild bird populations. But most are raised and released for hunting opportunities. Last year I took my daughter to the hunting check station on the opening day of pheasant season. We watched as the hunters came back with their birds and cleaned their carcasses. We talked about how the pheasants she helped Daddy care for will now feed other families. And we talked about how those hunters pay money that helps take care of all the wildlife and land that we love. We even ate some of the pheasants that died before they were released. Because that is all part of the process. I’m not trying to be cruel to my daughter. But I am being honest and growing her heart.
I hurt at the end of every county fair. I hurt from each of those goodbyes, but I also grew from them. I am better for all the lessons I learned from each pig and cow. I grew in confidence because I could take care of and provide for a life other than my own. I learned that it is okay to be vulnerable. I learned that I can survive the sad moments. I learned that no matter how much it hurt, I still had the capacity to love.
So to all those kiddos out there saying those hard goodbyes, you have my empathy. My heart breaks just a little for you because I know all too well how much it hurts. But you also have my respect and admiration because you had the courage to put your heart on the line, the honesty to own your actions and the toughness to see it all through. That’s called grit and it is a trait that will serve you and our world for years to come.