Contemplative examination of contemporary dairy farming and the hidden support systems for our carnivorous habits.
Journalist and professional mediator Lovenheim purchased three dairy calves and observed their lives from birth onward. He got the idea after watching his children play with cow-shaped Beanie Babies while cheerfully eating grilled beef in their McDonald’s Happy Meals, and this sort of picaresque irony pervades his project as he examines the disconnect in American culture about where food comes from and his own assumptions about the dairy industry. Lovenheim acquired the calves from Lawnel Farms in the Genessee River valley town of York, home to a large concentration of New York State’s dairy farms, and boarded them with a nearby farmer, Peter Vongolis. Closely watching Lawnel’s 500-cow dairy operation and Vongolis’s animal husbandry, Lovenheim achieves a detailed understanding of contemporary dairy farming, demystifying for the reader everything from the artificial insemination of cows with genetically desirable semen to high-tech approaches towards feed and milk production. He ultimately discerns less cruelty and dark ambiguity than he’d initially feared. The narrative’s most successful passages are its strong, nuanced portraits of the York farming community and the people raising his calves. Lovenheim develops paternal feelings and curiosity about the animals, which clouds his resolve to not interfere; he overplays this angle with constant meditation on his project’s ramifications, leading to some repetitious and spacey prose on the order of, say, “If my calf is thinking, what is he thinking on this cold day?” That said, this is a thorough, evenhanded view of a maligned industry. Lovenheim offsets the grim realities of the slaughterhouse with the technical achievement, skill, and effort of dairy farmers and other workers in the enormous infrastructure that feeds America. He offers a restrained endorsement of dairy farming’s current state, yet donates his own calves to an animal sanctuary.
So fair-minded it might actually appeal to both sides in the contentious meat-eating debate.