“Well Tara,” said Chris, her voice slow and Southern—from somewhere in Texas—“We’ve looked over your application, and after all your paperwork, interviews, and inspections were reviewed by the board, I’m real pleased to tell you you’ve been approved. Welcome to our family.”
I can’t begin to tell you how those words made me feel.
I’d found A Greener World—the organization that granted our Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification—quite by accident. At the time, I wasn’t looking for an animal welfare program, I was looking for a regenerative agriculture program.
Unfortunately, the regenerative agriculture program was still in development, but the AWA was good to go, and so, without giving it much more thought than it took to click the link, I started to fill in the paperwork.
It started with a deep desire to build a foundation of credibility. I wanted something I could show my community, something that was quantifiable, backed by knowledgeable people and from an organization with integrity. I wasn’t interested in a showy rubber stamp; I was interested in some qualifications. I wanted something that was rigorous, official, and comprehensive for the farm. I wanted to be able to speak knowledgably and have some credibility. I wanted ongoing support. I wanted to be held to account.
In a very real way, my eight-month Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification odyssey was my attempt to draw a box around my feet—a box that said “Start.” For many Canadians, farming—especially fibre farming—is an unknown quantity. And if my recent participation in the Agricultural Census is any indication, it’s an unknown even for many in my sector. I wanted to make sure I had a way to start this critical conversation about animal welfare. I wanted to prompt a specific question, to put the choice right there in front of people. It was important—so very important—that the breathing animal I tended and loved, with her own personality and habits and preferences, was present in the fibre held in the hands of someone who might never have a chance to meet her. I wanted Claire or Truvy or Bronte or Clancy to be known and appreciated and, above all else, I wanted our community to know they were respected. They were never ever just a means to an end. On the contrary, they were the beginning and I wanted to begin.
To say the process was thorough would be an understatement. Terms like “emergency preparedness” had me opening Google Earth for a satellite view of our property. I was looking up feed analyses, writing a letter to my vet, answering emailed requests for clarifications, talking on the phone with a nice man named Frank from somewhere in Maryland for over an hour. Poor Frank. Frank had the patience of Job as he waded through my fifty pages of intake forms and assessments, every question answered with more words than I needed but far fewer than I could spare.
I had to dig out every bit of history I could on every single sheep on our farm: Birth dates, farm-of-origin, when were they vaccinated and with what? When were their feet trimmed? What tracking systems did we use? When did they get sheared? Had they ever been bred? Had they ever been sick? What medications had we used? How did they get from point A to point B? How did we quarantine? Did we have a plan in place for evacuation if it was necessary? Before I knew it, five months had slipped away in a flurry of paper, emails and phone calls.
And then one day, there was a new name in my inbox.
“Hi Tara. My name is Daniel and I’ll be doing your on-farm audit.”
Up until this point, everything had been done remotely, on paper or over the phone. It’s not that I was worried necessarily—we work really hard to keep the farm in great shape—it was just that someone I had never met before was going to be walking around our pens and sheds, probably with a clipboard, definitely with a critical look, making little ticks in little boxes with his (probably) judge-y little pen. As much as I believed in what I was doing, I was nervous. This was a whole new ballgame.
By the time Daniel-from-Georgia showed up on my Alberta doorstep, I was humming at a pitch only bats can hear. I plied him with tea (not sweet) and biscuits (Georgia) and answered his questions as best I could, given that I had to choose between breathing and talking because I seemed incapable of synchronizing them in the usual way. He did indeed have a pen and a thick book where he noted my answers—some of them totally acceptable, others needing an explanation and one or two more that he wrote down with reservations.
But after more explanations and a review by the decision board, we finally got the news: our AWA had been approved!
The thrill of knowing where I stand is immeasurable. I am now ready to tell you about our journey and our sheep. I am hopeful that the AWA process will be the “Start” box for all of us: a place we can all meet—whether fibre producer or fibre consumer—to discuss, advocate for, and work to safeguard all of our incredible fibre-producing animals. I know that like me, our community cares deeply about animal welfare, and I am so pleased to begin.
So. Let’s begin.
All images by Tara Klager.