Book Review: On the Farm by Aliza Eliazarov

by Crystal Sands

I didn’t even have to open this book to know I would love it. The sheep on the cover spoke to me in such a way that I was both excited and nervous to delve into this masterpiece–nervous wondering if I would feel envious as a writer and farmer that I had not created something so beautiful. I have almost forgotten what envy feels like, as it is an emotion I worked to rid my life of some years ago, but in the face of such a masterpiece, would it return?

There was no opportunity for any envy to return, as joy and awe overtook me after reading just the first few pages. After that, every page was a treat, a wonder, something interesting, something powerful.

And the photographs are breathtaking.

Somehow (and I am not sure how, but I am convinced it is a combination of talent, artistry, deep respect for the animals, and a little bit of magic), Eliazarov captures the emotion and expressions of the animals she photographs. This is not easy. I have rarely seen the mood of a chicken captured on camera as Eliazarov was able to.

Those of us who work and live in partnership with animals know how expressive they are, but it was my belief that it took time and study to see what it’s like when a chicken is happy or worried or when a goat is curious or feeling serene. I am happily wrong in this matter because the photographs in this wonder of a book will help educate readers, help them see the same things farmers see, and we need this more than anything.

Since my husband and I began farmsteading about eight years ago, we started eating less meat in our diets. This has been a gradual process, as we both grew up in very meat-focused cultures, but when I saw Elizarov’s photograph of the smiling pig, Princess Peppermint, I vowed to completely stop eating pork.

Of course, the purpose of this book is not to turn everyone into a vegetarian. Meat is medically necessary for some people. To me, the purpose of this book is to help build respect for these magnificent farm animals and to educate about the importance of genetic diversity.

And with the respect and education, this reader has to hope that a book like this can help bring about real change in our country–or, at the very least, be a part of the process of change. In addition to the very serious issue related to the lack of genetic diversity in modern industrial agriculture, these magnificent animals are forced to live and die in conditions that are horrific and completely unnecessary. It is a myth that farming needs to be this way to feed the world. There are many farmers and an abundance of research that prove otherwise.

Eliazarov tells stories with both her words and pictures. These stories are the stories that change hearts, that change minds. She weaves the most current research available on a wide variety of farm animals–goats, pigs, chickens, sheep, horses, llamas, geese, and more–with the personal stories that engage the reader and reveal the complexity of thought and emotion from the animals she writes about. She explains the history of rare and heritage breeds in a way that emphasizes what a treasure these animals are to our lives in a variety of ways.

It was nearly impossible for me to pick a favorite part of this book. I love the research Alizarov shares related to the importance of biodiversity. I love the photographs, some so hauntingly beautiful I couldn’t look away for minutes upon minutes. But I think I most love the story about Princess Peppermint.

Princess Peppermint is a rare Guinea hog who lives on a farm in Vermont. According to Eliazarov, Princess Peppermint often visits the farmhouse but, one day, came up onto the back porch of the farmhouse. When her owner came out to see Princess Peppermint, they had a good greeting and visit, but when it was time to go, Princess Peppermint was too afraid to go back down the stairs she had come up to get onto the porch. Unsure about what to do at first, Princess Peppermint’s owner whipped up two mojitos, and the two sat together for awhile on the porch “drinking mojitos and taking in the wonders of the farm.”

The powerful story reminded me of a story my husband told me some years ago. He had gone into a partnership with a neighbor farmer to raise some pigs for food. My husband would handle most of the care-taking in exchange for housing the pigs in our neighbor’s barn.

One evening, my husband came home with a story. He had discovered the pigs really liked Rice Krispies Treats, so he would take the pigs a special treat on occasion. On that particular evening, it had been raining, and my husband said he sat with the pigs for a while, looking out at the rain, enjoying the treats. One pig in particular sat the longest, watched the rain, enjoyed his treat, and then audibly sighed. My husband said he was overcome with a feeling that the pig was wondering, “Is there more to this?”

I believe On the Farm by Aliza Eliazarov answers this question. There is more to this. We are all connected and dependent upon each other in a myriad of ways that humans are maybe just beginning to understand–or re-understand.

Buy this book as a gift for yourself, for others, or for the children in your life to help spread beauty and knowledge in the world. On the Farm is available from 10 Speed Press in gorgeous hardcover for $30.