To All The Bobbies Out There
Karoliina Kase’s project To All The Bobbies Out There looks at the dairy industry through her experiences of an Australian dairy farm where she worked during her time as a backpacker there. I talked to Karoliina to find out more about her project, and why working on the farm put her off the industry for good.
How did your expectations of what you would find at a dairy farm align with the reality of it and how quickly did they change once you arrived?
I didn’t have any expectations about the industry before working on a farm. I used to consume a lot of dairy products, but like most people, the process of milk production or animal welfare never crossed my mind. I was a vegetarian due to ethical reasons, but I believed that animals weren’t killed or treated badly in dairy farming.
However, after getting the job on the farm and before arriving on the property, I started to think about the subject and became concerned. I asked my new boss whether animals were treated well on the property and she assured me that they looked after their herds. I considered doing an internet search about dairy farming, but I subconsciously knew I would find unpleasant realities, so I ended up not educating myself about the industry before arriving at the farm.
My perception of the dairy industry was shattered during my first shift. Nothing awful happened that day, but seeing how we treated these majestic and gentle animals as milk machines shocked me. Automated machinery sucked the last bit of milk out of the apathetic mothers, whose calves were taken away and whose body autonomy was continuously violated. I had an immediate recognition that what we did to the animals was wrong.
Once you realised the brutal reality of the way the farm worked, how soon did you feel it could become a photographic project, and how did you manage your personal feelings about it in order to stay and continue photographing?
I realised I could document the realities of the dairy industry during my first week on the job, even though I desperately wanted to leave.
I had struggled with eco-anxiety in the past and my attempts to alleviate my hopelessness led me to Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. The idea of having a strong sense of purpose in life resonated with me and this philosophy has helped me through difficult times. On the job, I found meaning in reducing the suffering of the animals and documenting this experience was a way to share awareness with the outside world.
Even though I had my coping mechanisms, I ended up depressed. My low moods lasted for another year after leaving the farm when Australia started burning and I got to witness more devastation.
Did the owners and managers of the farm you worked on know about your project at the time, and do you know if they’ve seen it since it’s been published?
I asked the manager for permission to photograph on the farm, given I don’t reveal the location or the name of the property. I didn’t specify the nature of the images, but I was granted permission to take photos. I am not sure if they’ve seen the images, but I speculate that they probably have not.
Cow farming has been a big topic of discussion in relation to ecological sustainability, do you feel there was any awareness of environmental concerns on the farm and is there anything you feel they could’ve done more sustainably without greatly impacting their income?
There were no environmental concerns on the farm. Water or electricity conservation was only an occasional monetary concern.
Installing new technologies might have conserved some water, but that means expensive initial investments. Unfortunately, dairy farming is an inherently resource exhaustive industry, a lactating cow can drink 200 litres of water and eat 20kg of dry matter in a day. Cleaning up after thousands of animals and keeping the paddocks green in a country like Australia is water exhaustive as well. Hence, I don’t think meaningful resource conservation is possible within the industry.
Did you form connections with any of the animals during your time on the farm?
Working with about 1200 cows each shift makes it difficult to form connections with the animals. Milking had to be done as fast as possible, so there was no downtime with the cows during work. This is also one of the reasons why animals are depersonalised to the workers within the industry. In addition, most of the animals were afraid and mistrustful of people.
Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time around the animals while taking photos for this project. I had most contact with calves, sick and pregnant cows. Unfortunately, bonding with some of these animals like 1802, whose portrait is part of the series, or male calves, who were regularly trucked off to the slaughterhouse became a painful experience as I saw them suffering.
Why wasn’t there more help for injured cows, surely it would have been in the farm managers interest to keep them producing?
Working as a farm hand is hard and the job doesn’t pay much. It’s also a job most wouldn’t want to do, with repetitive tasks, constant contact with faeces, and having to witness animal suffering. Hence, there was little motivation to stay around after the shift ended. Also most of the workers, including long term workers, had no knowledge about cattle.
Besides the massive farms and niche producers, the dairy industry is struggling in many countries. Healing and rehabilitating an individual animal becomes costly, when farms are already struggling to pay wages to their workers. No investments were made towards regular veterinary health check ups either.
In conclusion, healthier and happier animals would have higher milk yields indeed, but rehabilitating severely injured animals would result in little or no economic benefit to the company.
What would you suggest to people to live more sustainably in terms of dairy consumption and try to reduce the kind of abuse shown in your work?
My impression is that people often expect the solution to be supporting local or family owned farms. The farm where I worked at was family owned, so unfortunately that term doesn’t mean much. Some family owned and local small farms can be better, but they can also be worse. As modern consumers, we are completely separated from the production process so we cannot really know how the animals are treated. In terms of animal rights, there is no right way to do the wrong thing.
Ditching dairy products would be ideal, but even reduction is good. Some people are able to cut out dairy overnight, for others I would recommend a gradual approach and ditch a different dairy product each week. Focus replacing dairy with whole plant based foods.
If eliminating dairy products is too far of a goal at the moment, then I recommend watching documentaries such as Earthlings and Dominion. There are also many animal rights advocates on social media, who create educational content or share vegan recipes. Volunteering at a farm animal sanctuary is another way to connect with the animals and like-minded people. Finally, if we slip along the way, we should forgive ourselves and not give up.
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Sustainability permeates every aspect of our lives and is now a necessity, not a choice. Human innovation, determination and persistence is more important than ever and will ultimately decide the fate of our planet. In this issue, through photography and writing we explore insect-based protein, space colonisation, childfree people, the importance of payphones, the world’s largest blanket bog, support for artists, sustainable photobooks and Universal Basic Income.
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