The Stepping Stones to Real Cow Protection
Posted January 29, 2009
An Interview with Tapahpunjah Dasa of The Small Farm Training Center
Editor's note: The Small Farm Training Center is a land based non-profit educational organization which organically farms and conducts farm tours on temple owned land in the heart of New Vrindaban Community. For information about apprenticeship opportunities, or general farm related information email Tapahpunjah dasa at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.farmeducation.org.
Q: Give us a nutshell version of what you mean by "real " cow protection and "the stepping stones" to achieve it.
A: Cow protection conveys an image within North American ISKCON of being a timeless truth which weaves together animal husbandry, food production, homesteading skills and vigorous preaching. Unfortunately, cow protection has morphed into a nostalgic maintenance burden in isolation from our day-to-day lives as rural Vaisnavas. What I'm suggesting is an approach to cow protection that first teaches the skills-practical and social-that gradually integrate cows and bulls into the fabric of rural Krishna conscious life.
Q: Are you suggesting that our attempt at cow protection is a failed paradigm?
A: Let's call it a sleeping paradigm. Cows are to devotees what Toyota Priuses are to yuppies-something you wish we could have, but can't figure out how it fits into your economic reality. The real question to ask is how to make cow care a relevant factor in shaping our rural communities. My reference point is what I saw happen in New Vrindaban when we leap-froged from hand-milking a few cows to maintaining more than 400 animals. The social, economic and spiritual ramifications are still being felt today, not just in New Vrindaban, but in other ISKCON rural communities where that pattern was copied.
Q: New Vrindaban's present herd size has steadily decreased to about 90 aging cows and bulls. There seems to be ample pasturing grounds and hay fields so why make a fuss about decisions made years ago?
A: The impact of those decisions are still prevalent thirty years later. Cow husbandry has virtually dominated decisions about land policy and land usage. It has monopolized the use of farm equipment, over-shadowed food production and even set the tone and tenure of our preaching. As Prabhupada's disciples expire or voluntarily retire from management, the next generation of Vaisnavas will hopefully avoid our mistakes.
Q: Srila Prabhupada often held up New Vrindaban as a model community for cow protection. Has the community lived up to those expectations?
A: Thanks to the determination of some extraordinary devotees and due to the generosity of the greater Indian community, goraksha-seva marches on. Our challenge has been to adjust the theory of cow protection to the reality of cow protection as we experience it in the cold Northern climates. You can't imitate an Indian model. An Indian family keeps a cow or ox team behind their residence; a neighborhood cow herder takes everyone's cows to government owned grazing lands and then returns in the evening in time for milking. Pasturing land is available all year long, and there are no snow blizzards.
Q: Given the difficulties inherent with sheltering and feeding cows through six months of cold weather, someone could easily question the practicality of keeping cows at all. Can the case be made that the kind of cow protection Srila Prabhupada sought is only applicable to places like India?
A: In a traditional village setting-East or West-cows and bulls are the ecological cornerstone of society. No one is questioning either their functional or spiritual significance. What is being questioned is cow protection based on sentimentality, cow protection based on a business plan to sell milk products, cow protection whose principle aim is Hindu fund raising and cow protection lacking a social and cultural support network.
Q: In Hare Krishna Dasi's Srila Prabhupada on Varnashram and Farm Community Development, Prabhupada stated that a rural community's first priority is "to solve the food problem"... Elsewhere, Prabhupada said that the purpose of our farm communities was "to grow food." Most ISKCON rural communities only grow a small portion of what they eat, opting to buy bhoga from outside sources. How did food production become so divorced from cow protection?
A: Where do I start? Once you start down the road of over breeding, you're locked into a maintenance merry-go-round that won't stop for the 15-20 years lifespan of the animal. In a large herd, for every 1 cow copiously giving milk, there are 12 cows standing dry or idle, 50% of whom are bulls. Who's going to work the oxen? Who's going to shovel the manure? Who can fix the flat on the manure spreader? This is just the math and mechanical side of the equation. Then there's the social dynamic percolating within managerially challenged ISKCON. In retrospect, the devotee farm leaders who could have shaped ISKCON's first farming communities into beacons of food and energy independence, were also expected to raise families, perform sadhana bhakti, adjust to the challenges of living in a community and be subject to the dictates of absentee managers who held the purse strings. That's quite a brew...not exactly your typical American family farm.
Q: What's the lesson learned?
A: No subsidy, no farm. It's hard enough to find people who have the physical stamina and mental discipline required for farming. Farm communities can't develop if the farming is under funded and the farmers are pauperized. In North America, the farming aspect of our rural communities is an amusing sideshow to the main event which is elaborate city temple Deity worship amidst a backdrop of gentrified country living. Management's focus is cash flow, resolving personality conflicts and who's dressing the Deites....never mind mobilizing anyone for planting, harvesting, weeding etc. The result is no farmers, no vision for the cow program , no development of farm based skills, no real food production beyond hobby gardening and utter dependence on Hindu fundraising. The rural environ is really the city temple environ transplanted to the countryside and characterized by the same urban attitudes and tastes. Devotee families live on the land but not really with the land. None of their occupations are land based. They reside within walking distance of the cow barn and organic garden but buy their milk and veggies in town. By way of example, New Vrindaban has spent roughly $800,000 on bhoga in the past 14 years. While it's fair to note that New Vrindaban hosts thousands of hungry guests, it's also accurate to say that almost nothing has been invested to create a farming infrastructure to stabilize and secure a home grown food supply. That's an embarrassment. Imagine standing before Srila Prabhupada and explaining that uncomfortable fact of life.
Q: You're basically saying that agriculture requires temple subsidy to survive?
A: Subsidy sounds like a give away. Let's call it investment in authentic land based culture. As devotees, we have to become natives to our place. How do you stabilize a community food supply when there are no granaries, silos or root cellars dotting the farm landscape? Our conditioning is to think of land as a commodity. We think first of its ownership before we consider it's use in Krishna's service. We don't acquire land by inheriting it and assuming the duties of farm stewardship. Devotees acquire land through purchase and sale. Land is a quantifiable measurable entity. Our only personal responsibility is to ourselves (what's my bank balance?) by protecting the resale value of the land. Land means equity and equity means money and money means travel and the ability to buy exotic things from faraway places. This mentality is a far cry from the honor extolled on farming as given by Srila Prabhupada. He called farming and cow protection "the gifted professions" and "the most noble occupations."
Q: What about privatization of the food supply? Why can't householders who own their own farmland grow and sell to the temple?
A: Privatization sounds great on paper but if it's that simple, why hasn't some enterprising household couple launched it? As a farmer, I know why.... the vagaries of weather, the short growing season, the costs of labor, the costs of mechanization (if you can't hire labor), the unpredictability of good help, the deer problem, crop failures. etc.
The only entity who can rebound from these vulnerabilities is the temple. I can name four land owning families in New Vrindaban who courageously attempted to keep a family cow and failed because it made no economic sense. Had they been subsidized they may have succeeded. The subsidy I'm referring to is not a welfare handout. It's a compact of trust between the temple management and those devotees inspired to work and live on the land. It's a subsidy for supporting young devotees who require land and encouragement to get started.
Q: It seems that you're painting a picture that incorporates both decentralization and guided centralized control. Can the two strategies function simultaneously?
A: Yes, both systems must co-exist. On one hand, we're energizing the family unit by creating "farmetts." "We'll give you a cow, the feed, the bales of hay for winter and you keep the milk to drink and the manure for your garden." On the other hand, the temple is functioning like a ksatriya landlord, safeguarding the interest of the institution. This is what's meant by "the stepping stones to real cow protection." Without the temple acting as a loving, empowering parent, self-sufficient culture will not evolve. Our strategy should be to teach the value of cow protection by first coaching a family in fundamental life support skills, e.g. organic gardening, that culminates in a natural yearning to keep animals..
Q: If subsidized land and living arrangements succeeded as a working model, what would be the positive effects on a rural devotee community?
A: It would have an immediate short term effect of opening up settlement for younger devotees. What a morale booster that would be! Imagine if we could legitimately say that the bhoga used in our college food programs, vegetarian cooking classes, Sunday feasts and offering to the Deities was all grown by devotee hands on devotee worked lands. Right now our reputation as environmentally conscientious people who "walk-their-talk is tarnished by the abuse of the yukta-vairagya principle. .
Q: The yukta-vairagya principle was often cited by Srila Prabhupada to explain his use of modern amenities like airplanes and Dictaphones. How is this concept being abused within ISKCON?
A: Yukta-vairagya has become like a magical wand-just wave it and poof!!.. you're immunized from anyone questioning environmentally unfriendly management decisions. The philosophical principle of seeing everything as potentially useful in Krishna's service is beyond reproach. It's the application that has disgraced us as it applies to self-sufficient living. Besides derailing our preaching, its misuse numbs us to the order of the spiritual master.
Q: As a spokesperson for The Small Farm Training Center, you attend agricultural conferences, speak at universities and host students visiting New Vrindaban. How do they perceive the movement?
A: They see us as quaint ...but irrelevant . Instead of being guardians of the mode of goodness, we're perceived as philosophical chauvinists. I recently spoke at a Quaker high school in Ohio.The students visited New Vrindaban on three occasions last winter and participated in a series of min-workshop presentations ranging from yoga to Deity worship. On their final visit the teacher phoned ahead and asked me if it would be o.k. for the kids to bring their own plates because they objected to eating off of Styrofoam. Trying to change the subject, I asked her what the students thought about subjects like reincarnation and karma. She replied, " I don't know, they can't get past the fact that you serve prasadam on Styrofoam plates...that's all they talk about." In the minds of those teenagers, we're hypocrites.
Q: One unique feature which distinguishes us as more than just secular vegetarians or animal rights activists is the message of cow protection. Are we effectively getting that message across?
A: Cow protection resonates with our Hindu constituency but rings a little hollow with Western people. To use a crude analogy from the card game poker, "it's not our lead card." Vegetarianism-and more specifically, vegetarianism guided by spiritual motives-is our lead card. According to the U.S. government's estimates, 1 out of every 200 adolescents in a America are actively vegetarian. (Center for Disease Control study). That statistic should send ecstatic shivers down the spines of every ISKCON North American temple president. To be honest, we're a little cow myopic. We need to gradually introduce the value of mother cow rather than philosophically thunking people over the head. For example, connecting a person's personal health concerns to the environmental health of the Earth's life support systems is comprehensible compared to evangelically insisting that cows are God's favorite animal. Preaching directly about cows smacks of elitism because people suspect that your real agenda is converting them into cow loving Hindus. In our rural communities, we make a similar mistake by telling entry level homesteaders to get a milk cow and an ox team. Introducing new people to sustainability by encouraging them to "get a cow" is like introducing a three year old child to bicycle riding by sitting them on a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Q: I've sometimes heard you use the phrase, "No spirituality, No sustainability!" when talking to visiting colleges classes. What do you mean by that?
A: The transcendent fact is that there is no such thing as "sustainability" in the material world. Everything is subject to the devastating time factor. The only true sustainability is our relationship with guru and Gauranga. Without a spiritual motivation, however, even the best secular plans reinforce the illusion that the material world is fixable. Our Krishna conscious gift to the worldwide debate on sustainability is the message of transcendence.
Q: You mentioned connecting the dots between spirituality and sustainability. What advise do you have for devotees eager to spread Krishna consciousness through the medium of ecological activism?
A: Be humble and learn to speak the language of environmental kinship. Last February, I conducted a workshop at Penn State University before 100 participants entitled, Bad Karma Is Not Sustainable: Farming As If Your Next Life Depended on It. Many of the attendees were organic meat producers. I started the talk by apologizing. I assured them that my purpose was not to sit in judgment of them. I begged permission to share an ancient secret of sustainability that would have a great impact on their personal destinies. For the next 90 minutes they sat in rapt attention hearing about the soul, the nature of embodiment, karma, and varnashram. I even dared to recite the seven co-conspirators in the killing of an innocent animal. You could hear a pin drop. I felt Srila Prabhupada speaking through me. The point is this: People of all persuasions are saying the same thing: THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM IS SPIRITUAL. Devotees are uniquely qualified by the grace of Srila Prabhupada to define the cause and effect interplay between lost spirituality and world scale environmental degradation. Devotees are uniquely positioned to explain why spirituality should be the motivating force behind care of God's creation. Because of the clarity and authoritative nature of Srila Prabhupada's books, we-and only we-can articulate how the laws of karma govern. No one else has that information. What's missing is a working model.
Q: I'm sure you're aware that many ISKCON leaders have expressed a renewed interest in farm communities and self sufficiency. At this year's GBC meetings in Mayapur it will be a key agenda item. What are your thoughts about that?
A: I'm encouraged. Radhanath Swami and Devamrita Swami have been very supportive of how I'm trying to develop The Small Farm Training Center. My hope is that their good intentions translate into inspired capital investment in self-sufficient infrastructure such as greenhouses, root cellars, grain silos and the like. Last summer we began construction on a combination workshop pavilion and wood fired baking oven. Winter wheat is planted and we're balancing our vegetable production with the growing of grains. New Vrindaban is Srila Prabhupada's first farm. We have land, labor, management and plenty of vision. What's missing is capital. Capital is the lubricant which makes it all flow like nectar towards Lord Krishna's lotus feet.