I didn’t think this kind of thing happened anymore.
I got the first phone call two weeks ago from a local reader of my blog. She told me there was a pasture-based farmer like me in the next county over who was being brought up on misdemeanor charges for animal abuse.
I thought it was a hoax.
Then I got another email, and then a text message, a few FaceBook messages, and then a few more emails and phone calls.
That’s when I became more acquainted with Joshua Rockwood’s family farm, West Wind Acres.
I began investigating and researching further, and learned that Mr. Rockwood was being brought up on scads of charges that just about any small family farmer could have faced in any given winter, including:
Water buckets that had frozen over between chore times –he was accused of not providing them water, even though his animals passed hydration tests
Pigs that were out in the open air -He was accused of not having them confined in housing in winter, because the free-ranging pastured pigs had chosen to be outside their shelters on the day the authorities visited, and one of them had a touch of frost bite on one ear
The dogs and sheep were confined together in an unheated barn – Ummm…seriously? They were merimma GUARD dogs, bred for that job. They have thick coats, and they are typically raised with sheep. And who has a heated barn and as for the sheep…what about WOOL?
There were feces in the sheep’s water – Yes, they do that from time to time. That’s why we dump out the buckets between feedings.
Animals didn’t have food – The authorities showed up between chore times and the animals had hay and were in good condition
An aging horse, adopted from a neighbor who was no longer able to care for it, that was under weight –A common condition of pituitary deficiency in old horses renders it nearly impossible to keep weight on them
– And pony and draft horses with chipped hooves in March – As my friend Dr. Cynthia Shelley, animal science professor at SUNY Cobleskill observed after visiting the farm, “NO ONE who owns draft horses, especially those that live barefoot, has good looking feet in March. It’s like March before bikini season!”
– There had been attempts at fining him for his manure compost, but none had successfully been filed yet.
Joshua Rockwood’s crimes are simply a farmer’s daily travails in winter.
When I first began researching agricultural sustainability as a graduate student in the late nineties, I would hear stories like this, about farmers who were working on the suburban and urban fringe who would be erroneously accused of mistreating livestock by well-meaning citizens with no roots in farming. But I hadn’t heard of any cases like this in years. I thought the broader public finally understood what real, sustainable farms look like when animals were given the opportunity to express their true nature. I thought this problem was behind us.
The more I looked into matters, the more concerned I became. These charges were not based on a sound understanding of agriculture. They were predicated on ignorance of the simple realities of farming. If Mr. Rockwood could be brought to court on those charges, so could thousands upon thousands of other farmers across the country who have joined the movement for sustainable farming.
I called my friend Troy Bishopp, a farmer and grazing expert who lives out in Madison County. I wrangled my dad, another animal scientist. We needed to go to that pre-trial hearing. The judge needed to see the whites of our eyes, I felt, to understand that not only were these charges deeply misguided, but that his decision on Mr. Rockwood’s case had broad implications. It impacted all of us who farm. It impacted the entire local food movement. It impacted our food sovereignty, our right to nutritious food produced using ecologically responsible practices.
Saoirse wanted to come with me. I used to make her stay home when I went out to raise my voice in protest. I wanted her to choose her causes freely when she felt ready. But she was ready for this one. “They can’t do this to us,” she explained to me, justifying her choice to accompany me. “They can’t do this to Joshua. Or to his family.” So she came along, too.
The car was full with four of us who simply wanted to stand with Joshua Rockwood and his family. I wondered if there would be more of us.
As we drove out, my mind fluttered with memories of my early graduate school research. We farmers have a history of organizing and helping each other out dating from the Revolutionary War and the Anti-Rent Wars here in New York. But we lost that part of our culture after World War II, once agriculture became more industrialized.
Farmers in the 1990s faced troubles such as these in isolation. I remembered my initial findings – that morale in farming communities had deteriorated so much in the wake of industrialization, followed by the farm crisis of the 1980s, that farmers didn’t work together any longer. In my interviews and focus groups, they cut each other down, denigrated one another’s practices, or refused to even speak to each other. “We’re just a bunch of vultures waiting for the next one to die so we can feast on his carion,” one farmer confessed to me. I recalled stories of the non-farming communities offering little support, drivers flipping the bird at farmers holding up road traffic with tractors, official complaints being filed for nuisance noise and manure smells. In those days, a farmer was alone with his troubles. Depression, divorce and suicide were all main stage players.
The accusations being leveled at West Wind Acres are outdated, reminiscent of the agricultural illiteracy that was rampant in this country 15 or 20 years ago that led to so many troubles. But the response to those accusations was totally modern.
We pulled into the courthouse parking lot and had trouble finding a place to leave the car. There were three television stations, several reporters, and about 250 farmers, neighbors and local food advocates standing in line, waiting to go through the metal detectors to witness the hearing. They were cornering the media with their concerns, flying flags, talking about their own frozen water buckets, their own happy pastured pigs, their foundering horses, their own ongoing efforts to keep up with the health and welfare of their livestock. They were talking about their right to local food, the importance of grassfed and pastured meats for their families, the ecological and humanitarian significance of small pasture-based farms. Online, farmers and local foodies across the nation have been contributing to West Wind Acres’ GoFundMe campaign to help cover their legal expenses and incidental costs.
I was angry at the charges being leveled in the court. But my heart welled with joy at what I witnessed outside. Unlike the farmers of the 1980s and 1990s, the Rockwood family is not alone. They are surrounded by neighbors, by community, by peers, and by a nation of farmers and local food advocates. We have remembered our past. We are once again standing together.
These misunderstandings and skirmishes still happen. But the power of small farmers has deepened. We are no longer willing to hide from the public eye. We know that what we do matters. We know we have to look out for each other. And now, thanks to the local food movement, we have customers rooted in our communities who value our work as well, who will fiercely defend our right to care for our animals and grow their food.
The battle is far from over. Joshua Rockwood’s trial is set for April 21st. We will be there for him. Our future depends on it.