By Sigrid Bjarnason
First appeared in the May 20th edition of the Flying Shingle
Iceland in the late 1800s was inhabited by hearty farm folk who, by all accounts, were content to raise their families in the land of the midnight sun.
That was before the volcano. When spring crops withered and died under ash-darkened skies, starvation took animals and humans alike. Among the people to buy, borrow, or beg passage to Canada and a pioneer life on the Prairies were the four men and four women who would become my great grandparents.
In 2008, my sister and I returned to Iceland to find out more about our ancestors and their remote island home. After tours of volcanoes, glaciers, and geysers we found ourselves at a modern dairy farm.
The friendly couple who owned the dairy operation led our tour group up onto a gangway in their huge metal barn. As my eyes travelled along the long line of black and white backs at the feeding trough, I spied a small pen in the corner. Several listless doe-eyed calves, all knees and elbows, were lying there, separated from the others by the walls of their pen. I wanted to ask about those calves, but I let the question slip away. One of our fellow travellers did ask when the cows got to go outside. The answer was never.
These days I often drive by a cow with her calf grazing in a green field on my way to the Village. In spite of what we might like to believe, the oceans of dairy products on our grocery store shelves do not spring from such idyllic scenes.
Back in Iceland, I didn’t know what was going to happen to those sad little calves in that corner pen. Now I do. Calves in dairy operations are taken away from their mothers often within hours of birth so they don’t drink too much of the milk we humans feel entitled to. The boys are either slaughtered for junk beef – pet food or beef jerky – or chained into tiny metal crates for a few months then sold as veal.
Sad as the boys’ fate is, the girls have a longer, rougher road. Female calves are raised to replace their mothers in the endless misery of annual artificial insemination – perpetual lactation and pregnancy. Their babies are taken away just after birth and the cycle begins again.
Like many women, I lost a baby a few months into my pregnancy. That was many years ago now, but I can still remember the depth of my sorrow for the baby I never knew. I can’t imagine how devastating it would be to lose baby after baby.
On Mother’s Day I firmly renewed my pledge to never ingest another cup of milk, hunk of cheese, or spoonful of yogurt.
Happily, our local Village Foods has all kinds of culinary calcium alternatives – but that’s next month’s article.