• U.S.

FOOD: Blood on the Range

3 minute read

In a windswept cornfield near the aptly named Minnesota farming community of Pillager last week, a farmer placed the barrel of a 22-cal. pistol against the head of a three-month-old calf and pulled the trigger, felling the animal instantly. Another farmer then slit the calf’s jugular vein. Its carcass was dragged to a freshly dug trench and kicked in. Another calf was shot and disposed of in the same manner, then another and another, until by midafternoon almost 300 head had been destroyed and piled in the pit. The day’s last kill was a sackful of ten-day-old piglets; they were shot and dumped into the grave.

Cattlemen’s Plight. Planned for a month by a group of disgruntled farmers, each of whom contributed three or four animals, the slaughter was dutifully recorded by television cameras and flashed into millions of American homes on network newscasts that evening. The point of the staged massacre was to draw White House attention to the cattlemen’s plight. Caught between soaring feed-grain prices and depressed wholesale prices for their beef, farmers claim that they are losing money and in some cases facing bankruptcy. (Consumers have hardly noticed much drop in meat prices, but farmers suspect middlemen of raising their profit margins unjustifiably.) The farmers want relief in the form of emergency loans or reduced meat imports to kick up prices further. Some even call for the resignation of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, who they feel does not support their interests.

Voicing similar demands, other groups of farmers have staged their own slaughters in recent weeks, with photographers and reporters nearly outnumbering cattlemen. Near Utica, N.Y., dairy farmers herded 100 calves into a packing plant, killed them, and distributed the meat to local Mennonites. In Texas, a mass slaughter of 3,000 calves was halted last month, but only after a meeting was scheduled between farmers and Agriculture Department officials.

Slaughter is a barnacled publicity-getting gimmick used frequently by farmers in bad times. During the Depression, cattlemen killed entire herds because beef prices could not cover costs of livestock shipments. But with the slaughters occurring as they do in the midst of a growing awareness of the world food crisis, the farmers seem to have hurt their cause rather than helped it. President Ford called one Wisconsin slaughter “shocking and wasteful,” saying it did nothing to solve the farmers’ problem. The Humane Society of the U.S. condemned “the needless killing of any living creature … for publicity purposes.” Some of the criticism sank in, leading to hopes that the carnage might give way to a humane alternative. In Louisville last week, members of the National Farmers Organization gave away more than 200 calves to people who promised to maintain them for six months. But the slaughter is likely to continue with far less fanfare until the farmers squeeze up the prices that they collect.

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