Sky Full of Bacon


Come See My Kids Being Traumatized by 4-H This Weekend!


Myles and his first lamb, Triskaidekaphobia, in 2008.

I was talking to the restaurant publicist Ellen Malloy the other night at the debut of Chuck Sudo’s Goose Island beer, and of course the Lollapalooza kerfuffle came up (I mention this in part to get out of the way the fact that I will have a guest column at RIA Unplugged about that today). And one thing I said was that part of what I like about food as a journalistic subject is… you don’t have to take it so seriously. It’s just food, not politics or something.

But, of course, food isn’t just food, and sometimes it actually is politics. And sometimes those politics strike close to the heart of a parent with two sons doing 4-H. I wouldn’t have thought that that would be one of the more controversial aspects of my life, the fact that my kids go do farm chores a couple of times a week up at Wagner Farm in Glenview, but that’s exactly what it proved to be twice during the last week.

The first thing was an article I saw a link to, about how colleges allegedly discriminate against lower-income whites, Asians, etc. Frankly the article was kind of rightwing-screedy and not entirely convincing, but the interesting nugget in it was a reference to a study that seemed much more solid, and a few days later Ross Douthat wrote about that in a more credible fashion at the New York Times:

Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities…

…cultural biases seem to be at work as well. Nieli highlights one of the study’s more remarkable findings: while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or “Red America.”

It will be grimly ironic indeed if my kids, raised on a street where lesbian moms come close to outnumbering two-heterosexual-parent households and no Prius is complete without its Obama sticker, who go to the hippie school and have a stay-at-home Dad who lives in his own weirdly erudite world of obscure silent movies and ethnic food, can’t get into Snootmore because they mistake us for 1950s Mormons.

I’m not going to touch the more partisan political implications of all this red state-vs.-blue state anger and paranoia, but let’s just say that nothing I’ve learned about food over the last several years makes me the least bit surprised that 2010’s movers and shakers get freaked out by the thought of actually having farmers’ kids walking among them, even as they ooh and goosh over the produce at their farmer’s market every Saturday morning. As Mark Mendez says in my latest video, people are so disconnected from where our food comes from, from the whole culture that produces food. Go back four generations in almost anyone’s family and you’ll hit a farmer, but we who buy denuded squares of meat in yellow styrofoam trays and expect to be able to buy cherries and asparagus for Christmas dinner are pretty much completely alienated from anything resembling natural reality. We can tolerate a lot, but raising animals to feed people— that’s the one alternative lifestyle that’s just too, too strange.

And that alienation has to have some effect on us as a society; politicians who grow up believing that you can just order anything to happen are going to look at the world differently from those who grow up acutely aware that whatever Man plants, Nature will do what She pleases about it. I’m not saying a few years of planting tomatoes only to see the squirrels ravage them would have turned Rod Blagojevich into Thomas Jefferson, but it might have taught him at least a few valuable lessons about the limits of human vanity.

So from an early age I’ve tried to get my kids involved with the natural world. And they themselves chose to do 4-H; Myles, my 11-year-old, is now in his third year of raising a lamb, and my 8-year-old, Liam, has joined him at it. I’ve never done a full video project about that experience, because it’s just too hard to do that and be a parent of a kid in the program at the same time, but you can get something of the flavor of their experience from two videos I made the first year, the one at the top and this one:

I feel they’re learning important things about responsibility, about leadership, about presentation skills, about caring for animals, about the natural world, about working with others collaboratively, about all kinds of things that you’d think would be valuable at Snootmore and in life. And if Old Snootie doesn’t want that, well, I don’t consider that a damning comment on my children’s values, let’s put it that way.

* * *

But then I learned that I wasn’t making the Jeffersons of tomorrow, oh no. I was cruelly breeding heartless psychopaths!

Two articles about the 4-H activities at Wagner Farm in Glenview, and the Lake County Fair next weekend (where they’ll show their animals and then auction them off) appeared in an online citizens-media offshoot of the Tribune, Trib Local. One is my friend Cathy Lambrecht’s real-world account. The other, which appears to have since been deleted (possibly because it related to a specific protest Saturday morning— um, that’s really fostering citizen media there Trib Local, deleting active, popular stories), reported on/advocated for efforts by some animal rights organization to get/force Wagner Farm and the Glenview Clovers 4-H club to free the livestock and turn them over to some supposed “animal sanctuary.” Despite differing starting points, both pieces were quickly overrun by comments of the same vegetarian/stop-the-cruelty bent. The latter piece was simply riddled with misconceptions and sensationalized falsehoods:

“The children and their families think that the Wagner Farm animals live out their entire lives on the farm,” said Garrett. “We doubt that the 4H children, let alone the Glenview community, have any knowledge of [their animals being slaughtered].”

Of course, asking a parent in the program would have immediately exposed the absurdity of this claim. The program is about raising livestock, and with many rural kids in the program, no kid is in doubt about what that means. For my part, before we let Myles enter the program, we had a long talk about what would happen to his animal at the end, and he understood and accepted that. Here he is last year, talking about it:

I think that’s a kid who has thought seriously about the issues, and still is. There’s nothing blind, deluded, or unthinking about his involvement in the program.

In true internet fashion, teh real crazy comes out in the comments. Really, by allowing my kids to learn where their food comes from, I’m doing something that proves I’m an unfit parent:

4-H teaches kids to harden their hearts, to overcome their natural empathy toward animals, to become inured to inflicting violence and death on the innocent. What a terrible thing to do to chilldren, and to animals.

This does not make “enlightened” kids – It makes hardened, numb kids that grow up to be hardened, numb adults, that continue the sad and vicious cycle on their own kids as well

Where does this sort of behavior lead us?

Killing, wars, and violence toward other, that’s where!

It’s only possible to view ordinary farming— actually, rather better than ordinary farming on any measure of humane treatment and ethics toward animals and the planet— as such an alien, violently atavistic practice if you’re already completely alienated from any reality that has to do with where your food comes from and who makes it for you.

So I invite you to do what my kids have done: become less alienated from your food. Meet the 4-H kids for yourself, talk to them about their experiences, have a good old-fashioned time at the Lake County Fair. The fair’s website is here; the auction will be Saturday at 1, but the animals should still be at the fairgrounds till Sunday evening, I believe. There are rides and corndogs and all kinds of old-timey fun.

Oh, and if you want to follow Michelle Hays’ advice:

the poster on the vegetarian article is asking people to write to the Glenview Park District to remove the program from Wagner Farm and to take the animals to a “sanctuary.” I followed the link and did the opposite.

Here’s where you can weigh in.

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3 Responses to “Come See My Kids Being Traumatized by 4-H This Weekend!”

  1. David Kindler Says:

    Thanks for taking this on. I spent all my summers working on my uncle’s farm and helped my cousins prepare for the Fair. And, I have eaten animals that had names. I always considered it an honest assessment of the origins of my food. The animals were never pets, but that did not mean they were treated cruelly.

    It is disheartening to see someone attacking 4-H kids who probably now know a lot more about caring for animals than the knee-jerk animal rights activists waging a campaign against them. Obviously this is solely about promoting an anti-meat agenda, so why not stick to that and leave these kids and the Park District out of it. “Saving” a few fair cattle by sending them to a “sanctuary” couldn’t be more superficial and inconsequential. It’s all about the drama and publicity. Maybe she could do that on somebody else’s back without having to stand on the shoulders of these kids and their families as her stage.

  2. Heather Leszczewicz Says:

    Hi Michael,
    The second story, that included information about the rally, was removed from TribLocal not because it was about a protest, the content or the discussion.

    The post was removed because the author identified himself/herself as a Tribune staffer by stating in the text that they were Special to the Tribune. However, they are not on our staff and we tried to reach the author multiple times regarding this matter and they were unresponsive.

    TribLocal values community involvement and our entire product centers around the readers weighing in on what is important to them.

  3. Michael Gebert Says:

    Thanks, David for the kind words.

    Thanks, Heather, for the insight (and the responsiveness), though I still think it’s too bad that a lively discussion and issue with multiple respondents gets deep-sixed in its entirety because the originator of it was pulling a fast one. At that point, they’re only one of the many voices involved.