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Saying Goodbye to Bill and Lou, Green Mountain College’s Beloved Oxen

Our relationship to animals is complex. We love them, admire their beauty, their companionship, and what they can teach us about ourselves and nature.

But we also use them for our own purposes. We eat them, milk them, collect their eggs, use their fur, wool, and feathers for clothing, and sometimes put them to work for us in our fields and around our homes. As farmers know all too well, an intentional way of life that includes animals can present complex, and at times conflicting, choices. Case in point: Livestock animals are not pets, and when they cease being productive members of the team, they are usually slaughtered.

Green Mountain College, a Vermont school widely praised for its sustainable mission and its on-campus farm, is coming to terms with this reality. The College’s farm goes so far in its effort to reclaim traditional practices and those that avoid the need for fossil fuels that they work the soil with a team of oxen, Bill and Lou. The big steers are local celebrities, and much loved by the entire community. But earlier this year, Lou suffered a leg injury, and despite the best efforts of his veterinarians, has not recovered. Since oxen are trained from calfhood to work as a team, it’s unlikely that Bill can be retrained to work with another animal — and so the College has made the decision to send the team to slaughter, and serve the meat on-campus.

Chelsea Green author and GMC professor Philip Ackerman-Leist is the leader of the on-campus farm initiative, and himself a small farmer who works with oxen. He knows firsthand, and from years of experience, that choosing to send a cherished animal to “freezer camp” is not easy. But as an educational institution dedicated to teaching students about the reality of sustainable living, Ackerman-Leist insists that sending Bill and Lou to slaughter is the right choice.

How can we work toward a future in which animals are treated with the care and respect they deserve if we remain trapped in a polarizing debate?

In a recent story on National Public Radio, Ackerman-Leist weighed in.

“We have been very clear from the beginning that this is not a petting zoo, says Phillip Ackerman-Leist. “It was going to be a sustainable farm operation.”

Ackerman-Leist heads Green Mountain College’s Farm and Food project.  He says 70 percent of students at the school eat meat.  Twelve years ago, when the college began developing its sustainable farm program, vegetarian students specifically asked that livestock be included to confront the realities of eating meat.

He says this debate goes way beyond Bill and Lou to explore how most meat is currently being raised for consumption.  He says faculty and students have spent a lot of time discussing it.  “It’s something I think about a lot,” he says.  “I actually have 50 head of cattle at home, most of them have names and I interact with them on a daily basis.   It’s never an easy decision for a farmer to say it’s time for an animal to go to slaughter.”

Listen to the full story here and weigh in on the debate.

The Green Mountain College community thought long and hard about the fate of their beloved team of oxen and they do not take their decision lightly. But outside groups that promote animal welfare seem to be ignoring this matter of food sovereignty — the idea that a community should be able to make these kinds of choices on its own. Ackerman-Leist is the author of a forthcoming book that addresses food sovereignty and other issues that are integral to developing sustainable food systems, Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems. The book will be the next installment in our Community Resilience Guide series, a partnership with the Post Carbon Institute.

Rebuilding the Foodshed will provide a roadmap for taking the food movement to the next level. Rebuilding our regional food systems allows us the change to eliminate the destructive aspects of industrial agriculture, keep more of our dollars in the local economy, meet food needs affordably and sustainably, and make our food systems more resilient.

Books like this, and communities like Green Mountain College that strive to act with care and intention — even when the answer isn’t the easiest or happiest imaginable — are what our culture desperately needs if we are to reclaim and restore the health of our  local foodsheds.

Photo: Nina Keck, Vermont Public Radio


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