27 March 2015

Visit To West Wind Acres, Part One: Joshua Rockwood’s Big Secret

Seeing For Myself

Seeing For Myself

Here is the secret at the heart of Joshua Rockwood's increasingly infamous arrest for animal abuse.  It took perhaps three minutes to discover it.

One bitterly cold winter day – it reached temperatures of minus -27 degrees in parts of upstate New York that day – Joshua took his son to see his grandmother. He spends Wednesdays doing things with his two children. He may or may not have been late chopping a hole in his frozen stream for the cows to drink and replacing the frozen water bowls for the dogs.

When he returned, the police were waiting at his home. They wanted to go see his farm. One of the secret informers of the animal rights movement had reported him to the animal police. Wishing to be co-operative, and not for one second imagining himself as an abuser of animals, he said yes.

Had Joshua demanded that the police go and get a warrant, like lawyers tell people to do, he could easily have provided fresh water, as he had been doing all during that cold winter, and he would not be facing the destruction of his livelihood, reputation and farm. And I would not know him or be writing this. (You can follow his very transparent blog here.)

If he had replaced the water bowls earlier, as he normally did during that awful winter,  he wouldn't be spending his Spring in court and in meetings with lawyers. And his horses and dog would not have been stolen from him. The fact that all of his animals were healthy, and that two veterinarians certified they were healthy, did not matter at all. The water was frozen, so was any sense of justice or empathy or rationality in the justice system.

It is definitely worth mentioning that on February 27, the sewer pipes leading to the Glenville Municipal Center froze, and the toilets back up. There were no arrests.

There were some other issues, for sure, but this is the only one that is not what my farrier Ken Norman called a "Bullshit Misdemeanor." Joshua Rockwood's other big secret: his farm, is, well, a farm.

It is a typical mess in many ways, as real farms are. Rockwood's animals are fat, alert, healthy looking and active. There is no sign of abuse, starvation, or dehydration. One after another, every farmer I know has been telling me, messaging me, e-mailing me the same comment: it could have been me.  And judging from my e-mail, it  often is. A farmer up the road from me is afraid to let his cows out in the snow, somebody usually calls the police. Every farmer dreads his water freezing. Now, on top of figuring out how to get water to the animals, they are vulnerable to arrest and prosecution.

This winter, it could have been me, too, and almost every other real farmer in the world who is not rich or superhuman.  Water pipes burst and froze everywhere. The secret of this story is this: most Americans live on the coasts and they and their politicians have rarely, if ever, seen a farm. They only know as animals as pets.

They have lost any sense of perspective or reality about what a real farm is like, and can no longer understand the difference between a furbaby and a cow or pig. They have no remote understanding of what it means to have water systems freeze in unprecedented and record-breaking cold on a farm when enormous animals are often far away. Nor is there any coherent understanding of what "shelter" means, or what kinds of shelters animals need and want, or what kind of "feed" is necessary to keep them healthy.

The confrontation in Glenville may well turn out to be historic. The arrest of Joshua Rockwood has awakened the agricultural community,  aroused farmers and animal lovers all over the country. Like the struggle over the New York Carriage Horses, it has brought considerable attention to the disconnection between people and food, people and agriculture, people and animals, people and the environment.

It has highlighted again the great confusion about animal rights and animal welfare, and what appears to be the trampling of human rights in the name of loving animals.

What becomes clearer by the day is that people who speak for the rights of animals and the people charged with enforcing the new rights of animals know as little about them as they do about farmers. We are strangers to the very animals that sustain us, and to the people who have always fed us. And we appear to be gripped by a cultural civil war – a great misunderstanding – between people who have pets and people who raise animals. Small wonder the earth itself is bleeding.

Joshua Rockwood ought to be an inspiration and a role model for all of the younger people in the world who wish to create a better and healthier place, and for those of us who wish they would.  What, really, do we want our children to be doing, if not what he is doing? He does not belong in jail, he belongs on a farm with good fences and a frost-free water pump. And a society that helps people care for animals and not only prosecutes them.


It is always a good thing to see things for myself.  Nothing I had heard, read, or seen about this story seemed right to me. Wednesday, I went to Glenville, N.Y. to meet with Joshua Rockwood and see West Wind Acres. It is on the western edge of his town, a community split by farming and development. There is a big barn, and 90 acres of pasture and a sea of busy foraging pigs. On one side of the farm is a big hill, almost out of sight, where the cows live.

I reminded Joshua that I am not a farmer or reporter, but a writer with a farm, and a photographer who takes photos of farms.  I have lived on a farm for more than a decade, and love it, but I have always wanted to be a writer, and cannot imagine being a farmer.

Joshua said I was welcome to go anywhere, see anything, take photos of anything I wanted. We spent nearly four hours trekking around his leased 90 acre farm, walking through the pig pasture, through the barn, up to the cows on the hill, down the boundary road, past the streams and springs.

My community – near Cambridge, N.Y. – is a heavily agricultural community, I am friends with many farmers and have been taking and selling and showing pictures of them for years. My specialty is struggling dairy farms. I just wrote a play about dairy farmers that was debuted at the Hubbard Hall Arts Center in January, "The Last Day At Mapleview Farm."

I see a lot of farms as well as live on one, I have been to many of the farms in the area. I love to walk through big old barns and take photos of them.

When I first moved to upstate New York, my vision of farms was shaped by all of those Vermont calendars and paintings I had seen. Bright red barns, neat wooden fences, sparkling white farmhouses, shade trees and bushes. When I started taking photos of real farms in upstate New York, the reality of farming stunned me. Scraggly fences, rusting tractors, rusting silos, mud, ice, manure, collapsing barns, piles of junk, old hay, new hay, pipes and wires and gates, worn pasture, tubs filled with muddy water (dirt on the animals) rooms filled with bottles, tubes, tools.

No real farmer ever buys anything new, or throws out anything at all. Most real farms look as if they had just been strafed by the Air Force.

Joshua has a real farm. Like most farmers, he does not have the money for the best fences, and he uses streams and running water for grazing animals like cows. There are very few feasible ways to get water lines a half-mile through the pastures and woods, especially on top of a hill. And if you have streams, you don't need to. Unless the streams freeze over, which moving water almost never does. Except when it is one of the coldest winter spells in the recorded history of weather. Then, you have to chop a hole in the ice, or let the animals eat snow for a few hours, even a day.

New York State law requires that animals get fresh water twice a day, it doesn't say when or how.

But the water was frozen when the police came.

Joshua, a 36-year-old former construction worker, was arrested and charged with 13 counts of animal neglect and abuse. He was cited for failure to provide adequate water, feed and shelter. Three of his horses were seized and brought to an animal rescue farm. One dog was taken also.  In addition to his legal fees, he will have to pay thousands of dollars to the rescue farm to get his horses back. The police said they might come back for his pigs, they have an open-ended warrant, they can return any time.

Although none of his animals were seriously ill or injured, prosecutors sought bail and considered him a flight risk. They were not deterred by the fact that he has two children, a wife and more than 100 animals on his farm. The bail request was denied, he was allowed to go home. At a preliminary hearing for Joshua held this week in Glenville Town Court, nearly 300 people, mostly farmers from the area and much of the Northeast, showed up to support him. In seven days, Joshua has raised more than $49,000 through a gofundme project for legal fees and bond money to pay for getting his horses back.

Joshua has appointed an independent administrator to make certain the money is disbursed properly and for the reasons he stated.

In a number of years of writing about farms and farmers, I have never seen farmers as disturbed and aroused as they are about Joshua's arrest and charges. I believe it is a significant turning point in the deepening and disturbing conflict between the animal rights movement and farmers and people who love and live with animals. At the heart of Joshua's legal issues is this question of frozen water. The charge of failing to provide water, which he obviously had done all winter, is curious. If he had not been providing water every day, the the animals would all be dead or dehydrated. Two veterinarians said they were not dehydrated or unhealthy. On a number of days this winter, the streams and water bowls on Joshua's farm froze in the bitter cold wave that hit the Northeast in February,  when temperatures were below zero for weeks.

In many parts of the Northeast, the frost line deepened to five feet, two or three feet lower than normal, bursting even municipal water delivery systems.

You will not find very few farmers with a different story than Joshua's. They had a hard time.

Frozen Stream

Frozen Stream

The photo above is the frozen stream that was one of the factors leading to Rockwood's arrest. Many farms use running streams as a water source for livestock, it is cheaper and handier than water lines and quite healthy for animals. Moving streams almost never freeze, especially those running down mountains and hills. When they do, animals like cows and horses use their hooves and paws to break holes in the ice, which doesn't have time to get thick. The farmer can do it too.

When the temperature drops well below zero, as it did in Grenville this winter, and stays there, even moving streams freeze and the ice gets thicker. Then, the farmer has to chop a hole in the ice, as farmers do and as Joshua Rockwood did. A water line would have frozen, and it was far too great a distance in install one. On the day he was arrested, this stream had iced over. On my farm, unheated water bowls froze in minutes.

One day, when he has his own farm,  Joshua may have a well dug, and he can move the cows to a lower pasture.

I wondered why no one offered to help.


Ken Norman has a farm in Vermont. He is a farrier and a long-time rescuer of abused horses, he sent Joshua this message. It was typical of the hundreds, if not thousands, of messages Rockwood has been receiving: "I support you ! This could be anyone of us.  I think and stated to Jon that they are " Bullshit Misdemeanors " I know many farmers who were pitted against Mother Nature and lost the fight keeping open fresh water to their stock! No farmer wants any of his animals to suffer any kind of harm , especially someone who is investing money into those animals to be good producing food animals.  That would be throwing money away.  I kept two water lines flowing from my barn to fields where several horses, ponies and donkeys lived out with run-in sheds. It was a crazy winter. Keep going strong!"

I came to West Wind Acres to see what the farm looked like, and to see his shelter, water system and to look at his animals.

Joshua has a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture – farm. This is the growing choice of a new generation of young farmers who are creating a new economic model for farming, one in which the local community shares in the profit and produce and risks of the farm.

CSA members or subscribers pay the farmer at the beginning of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest. When the harvesting begins, customers receive shares of the produce – in Joshua's case, pasture fed pork, beef, and chicken. CSA services vary from farm to farm, some offer honey, eggs,  and dairy products in lieu of or along with meat. The CSA model offers young and new farmers a way to enter the market and connect their food and meat to the community, something many farmers have long struggled to do in the era of corporate farming and the supermarket industry's control of regulation and distribution.

CSA farmers also tend to be environmentally-conscious, joining the movement to support local businesses that consider the environment in their work. Like Joshua, they  feed their animals on grass-fed pasture, not on processed or chemically altered foods. You can see his food program here. I asked Joshua what his ambition was as a farmer. He said it was to sell healthy food to people.

I saw what I needed to see at West Wind Acres. I was glad I went. Understanding a story like this is just like peeling an onion, you keep going until you get to the heart of it. West Wind Acres  is more or less what every farm I have ever seen or photographed or visited looks like, it is not a pretty or neat place. It does not look like a Vermont farm. There is snow, mud, plans, ice, manure, bare ground everywhere, makeshift shelters, cheap fences. It is not a grim farm, it is not a farm in crisis. It is a farm. The farmers are correct when they say it could have been anyone of them.

Farming is an essential business, but it is not a pretty or simple business. If Joshua's business takes off, he can do what young farmers end up doing, he can fix the farm up bit by bit, or go buy his own farm and build the infra-structure any farmer wants but few can readily afford. That is the reality of it. Maybe our society will awaken one day to the idea that we can help people like Joshua do this, that is, if he has any of his left-over gofundme money from legal fees and buying back his own animals at a cost of many thousands of dollars.

Joshua's farm does not, as he readily admits, have a strong infra-structure – tall fences, modern and frost-free water systems, storage space for hay, modern, custom-built shelters. That is not a crime. Arrests like this seek to criminalize the real lives of real farmers. Joshua  does not yet have a lot of experience putting a farm together. He has earned a lot of respect, admiration and affection from people in his community, and from his customers. Like many farms, and especially  many new farms, he has a hodge-podge system of huts, lean-tos and trailers.

I have never seen a working farm that was not also a junkyard.

It works, there is nothing particularly unusual or alarming or dangerous about it. Every animal I saw (there was a sick cow being treated) looked fat and happy. Two of the pigs had gray spots on their ears, sometimes a sign of frostbite (this is one of the charges against him), which can occur anywhere on a farm in sub-zero weather. Animals go outside to eat, drink and eliminate, they can also get frostbitten ears sleeping in a barn if it's cold enough.

Ken Norman, who knows much about farms, is correct when he says no farmer wants to see his animals suffer, especially one whose livelihood depends on their being healthy and well cared for. The world seems inverted to me when concern for animals leads to the loss of basic human rights for farmers and for many animal lovers.

Farmers are poor lobbyists and advocates for themselves. They spend little time on Facebook, do not have the publicists,  marketers, volunteers and fund-raisers of the animal rights movement. But social media seems to have finally given them a way to communicate with one another and to help other farmers. I believe that will change the dynamic of the Rockwood case, as it is changing the narrative in the New York Carriage Horse controversy.

As I watched hundreds of farmers pile into the Glenville Town Court on behalf of Joshua Rockwood, I thought this is an amazing thing to see. They have had enough.

Tomorrow, Part Two: The shelters  on West Wind Acres. You can support Joshua Rockwood's gofundme project here. He is only $700 away from his goal.

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