By Pam Ruch, gardener at Glasbern Inn
“Did you know there’s an animal in this trap?” asked a guest at the Glasbern Inn, a very concerned look on her face. Yes, I did know that. I had noticed that Sue, the owner’s Chesapeake Bay retriever was in a terrible quandary: should she stand guard just in case the trap door should suddenly snap open, releasing the groundhog for her hunting amusement, or should she follow the nice woman who, at some point, might be cajoled into feeding her something even more tasty? Besides, I grow vegetables at the inn. Setting the trap to catch the varmint had been my doing. The fine art of catching groundhogs—positioning a trap just so, oiling the mechanism, blocking exit avenues—has become one of my specialties.
“Will you take it somewhere?” the woman asked. The short answer, the answer I gave, was “Yes.” But this was not the whole answer. The more complete answer would have been: yes, but first we will kill it. Fortunately, the short answer was enough. I quickly changed the subject. “Please feel free to sample the heirloom tomatoes,” I said cheerfully with a bright smile.
Agritourism is a tricky business. You want to give “guests” (how the hospitality industry refers to paying customers) an authentic experience, but not so authentic that it turns them off. Killing groundhogs can be justified in a dozen different ways: the Pennsylvania Game Commission forbids their relocation because they may carry rabies; they are nearly impossible to fence out of a big garden; they wreak havoc on a brassica bed; they dig holes in livestock pastures that swallow the wheels of farm vehicles; etc. etc. But this is not a suitable debate for a romantic getaway weekend. And romantic getaway weekends are the bread and butter of the bucolic Glasbern Inn.
The bigger questions involve how much credit hosts of agritourism operations should give their guests. Are we doing them a disservice by shielding them from less-than-appetizing farm facts? Should we allow for the possibility that people may be patronizing this type of business precisely because they are willing or even eager to confront what a recent study referred to as the “meat paradox,” that is, the conflict between their culinary behavior and their love for animals. The fact is that most people enjoy eating meat. Yet they also like animals, and are disturbed by harm done to them.
At the Glasbern farm we raise—in addition to vegetables—pigs, chickens, turkeys, and lambs. The inn prides itself on its authentic farm-to-table restaurant. Guests roam the property and take feel-good pictures of the livestock. They “like” the baby animal photos on Facebook. But you can always count on certain sorts of comments lurking below the cute piglet photos. Two recent examples: “Death awaits them,” and, more concisely, “Yummy.” There is no way of knowing whether the comments come from a meat lover, an animal rights activist or a flippant wisecracker.
So we walk the line. We pride ourselves on treating animals humanely. We allow ruminants to feed on grass, which reduces the need to treat them with antibiotics, and results in a product with a high percentage of good fats—Omega 3s and CLA. And we move the broilers every day, giving them access to fresh grass and a good supply of bugs. We certainly don’t hide the fact that when pigs are carried away in the trailer, they come back skinned, eviscerated, and refrigerated, but we don’t flaunt it either.
The assumption we make, right or wrong, is that most people would rather live in pleasant denial of slaughterhouse realities. Why do we make this assumption? Because we don’t want to risk the possibility of unpleasant thoughts deterring future visits. We are, after all, a profit-making business. But … if one were to embark on a mission to tell the whole truth, to let people in on some of the harsher details of what it means to be a human eater enmeshed in the web of life, perhaps admitting to killing certain marauding animals in order to grow certain vegetables would be a logical place to start. A hungry groundhog can turn the gentlest of gardeners’ hearts hard. Ruthless even.
Pam Ruch has tended the ornamental gardens at the Glasbern Inn, a 130-acre luxury inn and farm in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania, for the past 19 years. She has maintained the greenhouses and vegetable beds for the past 3 years. You can read more about her gardening adventures at www.helpinggardenersgrow.com.