For those who refer to it as “turkey day”, the feast of Thanksgiving would leave little to be thankful for without a roasted bird, plump and aromatic, in the center of the table. But this year at an unusual farm just west of Watkins Glen, NY there will be an extraordinary gathering, at which people will feed, rather than feed upon, domesticated turkeys. While there they may also take a moment to pet the pigs, visit with the sheep and goats and observe the cows grazing peacefully in the fields. This peaceable kingdom is the Farm Sanctuary, a safe haven for animals who might otherwise be confined to pens or headed to the abattoir and the market. In fact, many of them were rescued from slaughter or destruction following injury and a few were once given up for dead.
The life of most animals raised for food is brief, confined and purposefully productive. This has resulted in abundant meat, eggs and dairy products, and in the United States a lower percentage of income spent for food than in other industrialized nations. The food chain and the supermarket chain are now efficiently linked. But the methods of “factory farms” have their critics, none as active and prominent as Gene Baur, founder of the Farm Sanctuary.
There are two Farm Sanctuary locations, in Watkins Glen and in Orland, California. Their big red barns and sheds are occupied by animals that would have been someone’s dinner but are now able to live out a full and natural life. Life is not always easy for pigs, cows, chickens and other denizens of the barnyard since the breed has often been biologically altered for maximum growth and individuals cannot move easily. For example, nearly all the turkeys packaged for human consumption were conceived through artificial insemination since their girth – designed for maximum breast meat – makes it difficult for them to mate naturally.
Gene Baur has now told the story of his rescue missions, political action and a real return to nature in a book entitled “Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food”. It is part autobiography, part documentation of many battles against factory farming practices (once at a slaughterhouse he was assaulted with an electric cattle prod) and partly a description of the nature of domesticated animals when they are allowed to simply survive and be themselves.
“Cattle move with the earth’s rhythms in a way that’s hard to describe. At times, I’ve heard them breathe sympathetically with people who are in a state of heightened emotion. Like us, they enjoy pleasant weather, and I’ve seen cattle in a state of bliss as they graze on sweet clover or grasses at certain times of the year. After a long winter in Watkins Glen, when they’ve spent the better part of the last few months inside the barn eating hay, the cattle relish the spring days. They kick up their feet, run, and jump. At the peak of the summer heat they hang out under the trees enjoying the shade. I often wonder what the world would be like if we did more of this ourselves.”
–from Farm Sanctuary
Baur’s book also contains biographical sketches of some of the animals at Farm Sanctuary, including Cinci Freedom, a white Charolais who made national headlines in 2002 when she escaped from a slaughterhouse and roamed around Cincinnati’s Mount Storm Park for two weeks.
“Farm Sanctuary” deplores the industrialization of agriculture that yields greater productivity but has eclipsed the institution of the family farm. For many people it will be sufficient to do away with the worst abuses of the food industry. Voters in California recently passed Proposition 2 – with the active backing of California native Gene Baur – a public initiative outlawing many of the enclosures that restrict the movement of farm animals. The organic farming practices of farmers like Shannon Hayes, author of “The Farmer and the Grill” (a guest on OFF THE PAGE in June, 2008) promise both respectful care and humane slaughter of animals and a tastier, though perhaps less abundant, product.
Gene Baur would prefer that everyone adopt a vegan diet, but he writes,
“When you talk about food and farming with anyone, you may step into a cultural, political, familial, religious, and emotional battleground. We have very intense feelings about food, founded on myths and identities influenced by where and how we grew up, our agrarian roots, and an assumption that humans are different from other animals.
I recognize the strength of these beliefs. That is why, over the course of my activist life, I’ve always tried to be mindful of other perspectives and through this to seek common ground.”
–from Farm Sanctuary
Gene Baur joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about Farm Sanctuary, the place and the book, to answer questions and respond to listeners’ comments, especially concerning attitudes toward animals and the role of animal products during the holiday season.