The Hard Life
Issue 68 May 2010
Those of you who followed my “Good Life Express” in the gardening section of emel will know that I keep chickens. When Ginger and Omlet arrived in my garden, it was the fulfilment of a 30-year wish. Two chickens quickly turned to four. Then a fox killed them all, so I started again with six new chickens, which quickly grew to 10. Two have died, so we now have eight. The chickens roam alongside our vegetable patch where I attempt to grow my own veg.
There are many things my chickens and my vegetable patch have taught me: to despair at the battery hen industry; to have a greater appreciation of the farmers’ arguments regarding fox hunting. But most of all, keeping chickens has shown me that I could never, ever be a farmer myself. I couldn’t even keep a small holding. It is terribly hard work! The feeding, the watering, the tending to every ill-health, the cleaning-out! Ten chickens have produced enormous amounts of waste and whilst I have an easy-clean chicken house, it still takes time and effort.
My respect for farmers has grown exponentially since I’ve had chickens. And yet, as city-dwellers, how much do we consider the issues of the countryside? Do we know the wages farmers get? Do we consider the problems of foxes and other pests? Do we think about the slaughter of male calves to meet the greater demand of the milk industry? Do we care about hens roasting in their battery house? Do we even think about where our food comes from?
Our meat comes neatly packaged in plastic; so do our vegetables. Eggs come in boxes; milk in plastic cartons. Our cereal comes packaged in brightly coloured packs. None of this induces us to contemplate the effort taken to rear animals, grow vegetables, fruits and grains?
We stand in our supermarkets and buy on price. We jump at the buy-one-get-one free deals. We’ll express indignation at how terrible the supermarkets are; how they make ridiculous profits at the expense of farmers. But if the price of food began to rise, we would be up in arms!
Just look at any buffet service, and see how people over-fill their plates. We eat more than our body needs – “sufficient food for the child of Adam,” advised the Prophet, “is enough to keep his back straight” – and then suffer from ill health as a result of our gluttony. We waste food without a second thought. I watched with horror as a young woman nibbled at her chicken leg before throwing it in the bin. Did she not realise an animal died to give her that meat? My only happiness was that my own children were equally horrified. Through our small efforts in the garden they are hopefully learning the value of food, and the enormous work it takes to bring it to the table.
I find Muslims some of the most price-conscious shoppers, but penny pinching on food has repercussions for the quality of what we eat. We worry about whether something is “halal” – meaning how did the animal die? Yet, there are very few concerns about how the animal lived! To buy a good quality animal, reared on wholesome grain and hand slaughtered will cost at least double a scrawny, scrag-end animal raised on GM grain. Will we decrease the meat we consume to buy quality instead? Will we pay more to make sure farmers receive a living wage and invest in their livestock?
The food industry has become anonymous to us, distanced by the supermarkets and their sterile packaging. We are removed from the sweat and the toil of the farmers. We are removed from the sacrifice of the animals.
Keeping chickens and growing vegetables has taught me that this is a hard job. Harder work than I could possibly bear. It makes me prepared to pay for good quality vegetables and well reared animals – even if that means consuming less. It makes me conscious of where my food comes from. It makes me conscious of the value of food.
The countryside is hard work, yet without it we would not have the food on our table. The countryside is not something to be idealised with pretty picture postcards. It is to be respected and protected.