The Stepping Stones to Real Cow Protection
Separating the Rhetoric from the Reality
An Interview with Tapahpunjah Dasa of The Small Farm Training Center
as reported by Bhakta Chris Fici
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.”
Stay tuned Friday for Part 2!