Review: Cows and the Earth

cowsRanchor Prime, Cows and the Earth: A Story of Dairy Farming. London: Fitzrovia, 2009.

Reviewed by Tadiya Dasi

A while ago, I saw a cookbook called The Kind Diet. The title caught my eye, but upon discovering it was a vegan cookbook with an emphasis on ecological concerns, my heart sank a little. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with being vegan or ecologically informed, but because the book made it seem like the only way to eat a “kind diet” was to be vegan.

The thought that my eating habits, although vegetarian, might be supporting less-than-kind treatment of animals and the earth disturbed me. In fact I had been thinking about becoming a vegan for some time before I encountered The Kind Diet and also before I encountered another book called Cows and the Earth: A Story of Dairy Farming by Ranchor Prime, an artist, teacher, and leader in yoga communities. Prime has also been a project director for World Wide Fund for Nature, and an advisor to Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

I had been growing more and more uneasy with the thought that by buying milk I was supporting an industry that was harmful to cows, the earth, and the ecosystem as a whole. As Patrick Holden, an organic farmer and director of the Soil Association in England, writes in the foreword to Cows and the Earth, “Everytime we eat we enter an intimate relationship with the natural world…Even if we are vegetarian it is an inconvenient truth that modern farming methods routinely involve a form of violence to the natural world, through the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides that destroy soil life, wild flowers, insects, and all the million life forms which are able to coexist with truly sustainable farming.” So, the big question in my mind was and is: Is there a way to include milk products in a “kind diet”? Or is such a diet only possible for a vegan?

Ranchor Prime’s book offers an answer, as well as a simple (though not always easy to implement) solution to my dilemma. The book is divided into three parts: “Forgotten Stories” discusses cow farming of the past; “A Story of Today,” explains how cow farming is done in today’s world; and the final section, “Lessons for the Future,” describes the environmental effects of modern dairy practices and offers alternatives for the future improvement of humanity’s relationship with cows and the earth. In addition to Patrick Holden’s foreword, the book is prefaced by vegetarian musician Chrissie Hynde.

In Cows and the Earth, the England’s Bhaktivedanta Manor’s cow protection model of dairy farming is showcased and explained. Cow protection was essential to Prabhupada’s Gandhian ideas of self-sufficiency and his ideal, in the words of Wordsworth, of “plain living and high thinking,” and the Bhaktivedanta Manor was one of the first communities to develop a cow protection program in the West. I especially like that the Manor functions according to what have been identified as the “four principles of cowherding,” as presented in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and Srila Prabhupada’s books. The principles are (1) cows are never killed, (2) they are milked by hand, (3) calves suckle directly from their mothers, and (4) bulls are given meaningful work. Throughout the book, Prime gives compelling reasons why the Manor’s model should be implemented everywhere.

Many would agree that the Bhaktivedanta Manor’s program is wonderful; the only problem is that these programs are few and most are far away from the reach of people. Cruelty-free milk is also, inevitably, more expensive than regular commercial milk and even more costly than organic milk, both of which save money by slaughtering cows that are not cost-effective to maintain. Despite this, milk is considerably economical as a foodstuff, and dairy herds, especially in organic and oxen-powered farms, are not as taxing to the environment as, in comparison, beef herds are. Thus, buying organic dairy, and ideally, cruelty-free dairy, is a better choice for the earth, too.

According to Prime, at the core of the looming environmental disaster and mistreatment of cows lies the condition he calls “bahirmukha” (a term borrowed from Sri Caitanya-caritamrta and used in a novel way), the tendency of humans to turn away and look elsewhere when they are confronted with the suffering of another living being. Prime offers another Indian term as a solution: “ahimsa,” or non-violence. Prime argues that we should treat the earth and the cows well not only because we have to (in order to avert an environmental catastrophe) but because we can, and we are obligated to choose the kind way when it’s within our ability to do so.

This—choosing the kind way—is what makes us truly civilized human beings, because as Ranchor Prime writes in Cows and the Earth, humans and cows share a joined history and our co-existence goes back a long way. It can actually be argued that it was the cows that civilized the humans, not the other way around. So, one could say we owe it to cows to treat them with the same level of selflessness and friendliness they have always shown to us.

Overall, Cows and the Earth is a comprehensive yet easy-to-read overview of the subject, and it is relatively short (129 pages). The layout is clear and the book is made complete by the beautiful photography of Astrid Shulz.

The only concern I have is if this book will find its way into the hands of the public, not just devotees. Will people in general think of cow protection programs as only something that is important to the cow-worshiping Hindus and Hare Krishnas? Will they be able to relate to the Bhaktivedanta Manor’s program as a potentially viable business, or will they only see it as an insignificant, volunteer-run experiment?

Despite being a devotee and a somewhat ecologically aware person, I have always felt hesitant to speak about cow protection as a solution to the “milk problem” because I know so little about cows and farming that it would seem preposterous and arrogant to be more vocal about it. After all, I have never milked a cow and I don’t spend my free time herding cows. In my opinion, Prime’s book is a good resource for those interested to learn more about the reality of dairy-farming, and it is a valuable addition to the ongoing discussion about the significance of one’s diet with regard to protecting the earth.

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5 Responses to Review: Cows and the Earth

  1. In ancient times, people could keep cows rather conveniently. In our modern world you need a lot of money and land in order to practice dairy farming. Our whole modern capitalist system actually makes keeping cows and dairy farming very difficult unless one has considerable land, workers and resources. Things like zoning laws help to stifle cow protection and prohibit many otherwise willing people from keeping some cows.
    All this discussion however just seems a little irrelevant at this time as the Earth approaches the Galactic equator and a planetary alignment that threatens to reverse the global polarity and plunge the Earth into cataclysm as happens about every 12,000 years.
    It seems more feasible that people should be more concerned with the end of modern civilization than with issues that presume that the world is not about to experience global cataclysm that will cleanse the Earth of all this modern exploitation of the environment and satellite communications.
    There really is little chance to survive this cataclysm by running for the hills and hunkering down in a bunker or keeping some cows for dairy foods. The only really viable strategy at this point in time is to simply prepares oneself spiritually for death and forget about making plans based on the structure of our modern capitalist system or any other system of society and the current polarity of Earth.
    As the Earth prepares to shift on it’s axis and shift polarity, I personally am not making any plans for keeping cows or anything else that presumes that the Earth is not about to experience cataclysm within the next few years.
    It’s time for major global cataclysm. Cow protection is only an issue for people that are oblivious to the impending demise of modern human civilization as we know it. There will be many less cows and many less people on Earth in the not so distant future.

  2. Conventional Small Dairy Economics

    Thirty cows in a confinement situation. Fed high-protein feed to push milk production. Cows produce 190 hundredweight per year. Farmer receives $10/hundredweight (same price as dairy farmers got before WWII). Gross income is $57,000. No government subsidies (only big farms get those). Costs are high:
    Feed (grain, supplements, etc.) Vet bills (cows are always sick) Replacement cows (cows live only 42 months) Artificial breeding (hard to get cows pregnant) Interest on debt (capital to purchase expensive equipment). Small dairy farmers cannot make a living on this model, which is why in 2002, dairy farms in the US went out of business at the rate of 16 per day.

    Cow-Share Economics

    Thirty cows on 100 acres of pasture. Lower production but healthier cows. Cows produce 100 hundredweight per year. Farmer sells milk for at least $8 per gallon, equivalent to about $100/hundredweight. Provides butter, cream and cheese for a price equivalent to about $100/hundredweight. Gross income for milk & milk products is $300,000. Costs are low: Feed cost minimal (sunlight is free!) Vet bills are low (cows are healthy) No replacement-cow costs (Cows breed easily, replace themselves, live 12-15 years) Interest on debt much lower (not as many capital costs).

  3. Maharaja, I have 20 acres of decent pasture land here in Prabhupada Village. There is more pasture land nearby. I have been trying for a long time to get somebody interested in a small dairy operation. I just don’t have the time for it, but I can provide the infrastructure (land, fences, barn). The market is here, so are the means of production. You and your disciples have a lot of experience in this area, as well as the required enthusiasm. It would be a nice place for such a project. Please think about it! 🙂

    • I will think about this. Any flat land? Barn?

      • Glad to hear that you may consider it… 🙂
        About 8 acres of my land are flat, 2 are tillable now, prime bottom land. I have my garden there.
        I have been thinning the woods to open them up for pasture. No real cow barn now (just an old tobacco barn) but I would be willing to put one up as needed. Around here cows are grazing outside year round. If you are here again I will give you a detailed tour.

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