Farm Sanctuary and the changing face of food

One sunny Saturday in June, crowds of vegans, along with the veg-curious and their loved ones, gathered at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y., to share a plant-based feast and learn more about where their food comes from.

Attendees at the event, dubbed a Pignic, dined on burgers, hot dogs, brownies and ice cream, all of it made without any animal products. Welcome to a place where “vegan is normal and animals are friends, not food,” says co-founder and President Gene Baur.

After lunch, guests strolled up the path to pastures and barns where they met and interacted with the lucky turkeys, sheep, cows and other animals that had been destined for the slaughterhouse and, one way or another, had landed in this safe place instead. At the sanctuary nestled in a rural swathe of New York’s Finger Lakes region, the animals live out their lives in peace while also acting as ambassadors helping to change the way the world views farmed animals.

The message is growing louder as consumers increasingly think about where their food comes from and how food production affects health, the environment and the lives of the animals, Baur says.

“When we started in 1986, there were no other sanctuaries. Today, there are hundreds around the world and there’s significant and growing recognition that the animals deserve our consideration, that they’re living, breathing creatures and not just commodities,” says Baur, who wrote about the creation of Farm Sanctuary in the books Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food, and Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day.

“Many people have told us it’s changed their life, changed their perspective,” he says. “Being in a place where they see people interacting with animals in a positive way. In many instances, people who come are already open to the idea, emotionally and spiritually, of being in a place where animals have been healed and their lives have been transformed. It’s like a pilgrimage and they often come back and bring others.”

In addition to the Watkins Glen property, Farm Sanctuary operates two properties in California and employs a staff of about 85, along with hundreds of volunteers who care for the animals and help educate visitors. The non-profit organization has a roster of celebrity supporters including Alec Baldwin, Ellen DeGeneres, Natalie Portman, and Ryan Gosling.

The roots of Farm Sanctuary

Baur grew up as a meat-eating animal lover in Southern California, became vegan after learning that we don’t need to eat animal products to be healthy and started Farm Sanctuary with fellow activist Lorri Houston after spending time documenting conditions at stockyards, slaughterhouses and farms.

Social media didn’t exist yet in those days. Today, people use the new channels to share information about factory farming and footage of undercover investigations, using it to raise awareness about the realities of factory farming, he says.

Documentaries from “Forks Over Knives” to “Earthlings” to “What the Health?” are also easily available through Netflix and other streaming services, further raising awareness about the environmental, health and humane reasons to shift to a plant-based diet.

“People are shifting away from animal foods to eat more plant foods and there’s enormous capital going into startup companies that are disrupting the industry,” he says.

In the early days of Farm Sanctuary, eating plant-based meant beans, grains, fruits and vegetables and a handful of early versions of veggie burgers and hot dogs. Today, a growing array of vegan options to replace meat, cheese and milk are available and often winning investments from mainstream food companies.

There’s also a plethora of vegan restaurants in cities and towns of all sizes, and many more eateries that are increasingly focused on making veggies the star of the plate.

“I’m a fan of vegan integration rather than vegan segregation,” he says. 

The future of food?

Startup food producers including Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek are making a big splash with consumers and with investors, who have put millions into plant-based companies in the past few years. In addition, Baur says, some investors are starting to recognize the risks associated with investments in animal agriculture.

Meat grown in the lab from animal cells, sometimes called “clean meat,” is also coming closer to reality.

“If it replaces meat from slaughtered animals, clean meat, which in broad term refers to cellular meat as well as plant-based meat, shows an advancing sophistication of our movement, and calling it clean meat is a smart way to sell it,” Baur says.

While vegans enjoy a wider array of tasty choices today than ever before, Baur finds himself drawn more towards the beans, vegetables and other whole foods that can form the basis of a healthy plant-based diet. Farm Sanctuary is exploring the idea of growing food on a significant scale, inspired by urban gardeners such as Metropolis founder Jack Griffin who’s on a mission to create a vertical farming hub in Philadelphia to guerrilla gardener Ron Finley who’s planting urban gardeners in public spaces around Los Angeles.

He’s also partnering with Jon and Tracey Stewart as they gear up to create a New Jersey farm that will be part animal sanctuary and part agricultural educational facility that will grow food.

“There’s an urban farming movement and a lot of it is plant-forward. Having animals in a slaughterhouse in the city is not as easy as planting a rooftop garden. There’s a lot of positive movement toward supporting a plant-based lifestyle.”

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