by Phil Vogelzang
When she first purchased her 10 acres of Beaver Valley in 2001, Jennie Watkins of Ananda Hills Farm wrote a mission statement. Her goal was to “live a life that connects me intimately with the earth, food and animals”. A vegetarian at the time, she probably didn’t fully appreciate just how intimately she would become with her animals. But she certainly was intimately connected when I visited her recently to help butcher three of her beloved ram lambs. It was clearly not an easy process for her. As Jennie says, “killing should never be easy”. But it was one with which she was at peace. And she related to me the interesting journey she’s traveled to get here.
Born and raised in Ohio, Jennie came out west to Seattle as a young woman to pursue graduate studies in nursing at the University of Washington. She had become a vegetarian early in life having been influenced by Frances Lappe’s “Diet for a Small Planet” and others, citing health, ethics and planetary sustainability as her motivations. Although she did eat fish, eggs and diary, Jennie was quite satisfied with her dietary decisions and felt she was doing her part to honor and support her commitment to the environment.
After graduate school, Jennie began working as a public health nurse in Seattle, but was slowly drawn to a more agrarian lifestyle, first living on Bainbridge Island and later Kitsap peninsula. She fell in love with textiles and knitting in particular. She ultimately wanted to become a shepherd and produce her own fiber. The idea was simple. Raise sheep for their wool and live closer and more connected to the land. As she became more involved with local wool production she noticed that most knitters were getting their wool from places like New Zealand and Australia. Although unaware of it at the time, Jennie was part of a larger grassroots movement to develop more local sources of sustainable wool and other textiles. In 2001, Jennie decided to fully embrace this work. She bought her farm on Embody Road and began raising sheep. The breed she chose was the Shetland. Known for their warm soft wool, Shetlands were previously considered a rare breed, but now recovered thanks to efforts by farmers like her.
Naturally she also looked for other complementary activities she could incorporate into her shepherding and decided on pasture raised chickens. As with most things, Jennie was willing to try a variety of options with her chickens – mainly heritage breeds, having experimented with a meat bird called Freedom Rangers, as well as laying hens like the Delaware and the Maran. All of these breeds thrived on pasture and insects, and required less purchased grain for their diet. Although egg production wasn’t as high as most hybrids, Jennie found these varieties ability to forage more of their own feed worked well for her and her farm.
Her sheep wool and egg business was a good fit with her part time public health nursing work that helped pay the bills. But as her agrarian sights expanded, a few wrinkles arose, primarily as a result of her long standing vegetarian diet. First she developed a few health problems, primarily a vague but troublesome lack of stamina. Her acupuncturist was the first to suggest that she try a small amount of meat in her diet. “Use meat like medicine” was his advice. Secondly, as anyone who raises chickens knows, there are the occasional troublesome birds (usually roosters) who do not fit in on the farm and need to be killed. Although it was difficult to let go of her vegetarian past, she began to realize that she was more of an omnivore than she originally understood and needed to embrace the role meat plays in a multi-faceted farm operation. Jennie cites a memorable meal prepared by a friend from Bainbridge who helped her slaughter and butcher those first troublesome roosters. Prepared with local asparagus and wine from Bainbridge Island, it was an early step in re-incorporating meat into her diet and world view.
In 2005 she purchased 2 rams and became a legitimate breeder of Shetlands. More understanding came with actual breeding of the animals as she realized that not all animals born would be appropriate breeding stock. What to do with these animals concerned her. The farm was growing and was hosting a number of farm interns and workers on her farm and into her home. Sharing meals together, Jennie found that many of these folks were carnivores and she respected their dietary choices and wanted to support them. And like most farm workers, they ate a lot! She was also meeting many customers who were interested in purchasing grass fed lamb from her. These were people who respected Jennie and how she raised her animals. She in turn, had a great deal of respect for and was influenced by their attitudes and approach to locally sourced meat.
The morning I found Jennie, she had come full circle and was preparing for a task that 10 years ago would have been hard to imagine. Killing one of her beloved lambs. On this particular morning, her three customers had come over to purchase their animals and help with the killing and butchering. These people all wanted to have direct and intimate knowledge of and participation in the meat they were eating and feeding their friends and families. And Jennie had committed to working with her customers to humanely kill their animals. Prior to the first killing, she took a moment to recite Kahlil Gibran’s prayer for her animals:
When you kill a beast, say to him in your heart:
By the same power that slays you, I too am slain and I too shall be consumed.
For the law that delivers you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier hand.
Your blood and my blood is not but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven
After the recitation, Jennie calmly brought out her first ram. There was no stress. No anxiety. The animal was relaxed and at peace. The actual event was over in no time. Jennies friend used a simple captive bolt device resulting in instant brain death, followed by complete bleeding. It was peaceful, controlled and respectful. The group then brought the animal to a nearby farm where they skinned and gutted the carcass, followed by rapid overnight cooling. The next day, the same group gathered in a local kitchen and with each others help – cut, wrapped and ground their own lamb. Each customer left with over 20 pounds of humanely raised, humanely slaughtered local lamb and an experience few people ever have.
This obviously wasn’t easy for Jennie, but she was at peace. It wasn’t something she could have predicted when she started on this long agrarian journey. But for this Beaver Valley shepherd and grass farmer, it was a rich and rewarding one.