Bon Appetit Story

The Vegan Ranch in the Heart of Texan Cattle Country

Renee King-Sonnen and Tommy Sonnen don’t seem too different from other ranchers in Waelder, Texas, except for one big thing: They and their ranch have gone vegan.

By Ali Francis, October 12, 2023

Living in rural Texas on a 147-acre ranch that’s home to 70 cattle, Renee King-Sonnen and Tommy Sonnen don’t seem too different from the ranchers that I hung out with growing up on a 16,000-cattle farm in Australia.

They’re just as concerned about the weather as any farmer I’ve ever known; rain dictates just about everything else. “It’s not so beautiful right now,” says Renee, 65, describing her ranch. “I mean, we’re in a drought.” She laughs constantly while we talk, her accent drawling in a viscous, honey-like way. Tommy, her 66-year-old husband, is tall with soft eyes and a thick handlebar mustache.

But there is one major difference between the couple and ranchers I’ve known: Their ranch is vegan. The organic vegetables they grow for local markets and themselves are produced without any animal inputs. And while the place is milling with cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs—many ex-farm animals—not one of them will end up in the slaughterhouse.

It was a tumultuous transition, particularly for the cattleman Tommy, who has ranching in his blood. They’ve lost business partners, alienated friends, and nearly divorced for the second time, but now the couple hope they can encourage other ranchers to stop raising animals for food, beginning in their own backyard, which just happens to be in the heart of Texan cattle country.

Angleton is 45 miles south of Houston. It’s home to just under 20,000 people, many of whom work in its bustling petrochemical or farming industries, which produce everything from rice to beef. Angleton also hosts the Brazoria County Fair, one of the state’s largest annual agricultural fairs.

In 2002, Tommy bought 96 acres of wooded pasture and around three dozen cattle, give or take, to start what’s known as a cow-calf operation: Cows gave birth, and when their calves were old enough, they were weaned from their mothers and sent to auction, where other farmers would buy them to breed, or fatten and slaughter.

Ranching wasn’t just a livelihood for Tommy; it connected him to his family and community. His ancestors have been cattle ranchers since they emigrated to Texas from Germany in the 1800s, while many of his neighbors were part of the Brazoria County Cattlemen’s Association. “My best friend and I had a hay business and we ran cows together,” he says, “I was kind of well-known around there.”

Tommy and Renee got married in 2010. “We are kind of soulmate types,” says Renee. At the time, “we didn’t think anything would split us up.”

After Renee, who was a country music festival organizer, moved in, Tommy wanted her to get more involved on the farm. That year they purchased an orphaned two-month-old black calf with a white tuft on her forehead, and Renee decided to raise the infant herself. “She was a very rambunctious girl who leaped and frolicked to come get her bottle,” she says. “I said, ‘Well aren’t you a rowdy girl,’ and that stuck.”

As Renee bonded with Rowdy Girl—“she became my reason for getting up in the morning”— life on the cattle ranch became emotionally turbulent for Renee. The sound of cattle bawling for days after their calves were driven to the sale barn suddenly took on a harrowing timbre. She began to see raising cattle for food as “highly unethical.”

“But when you’re married to a cattle rancher, you don’t just decide one day, I think I’ll go vegan and eff my husband’s life up,” Renee says.

By 2014, however, Renee reached a breaking point. She had stopped eating meat—a fraught beef stew dinner at her mother-in-law’s was the moment she went vegan—and wanted to turn their land into a sanctuary that would rescue agriculture animals from slaughter. “I would holler and scream and throw fits,” she says. “I was trying to figure out how to save my cows.”

Tommy felt like the thing that defined him was under threat. “I just wanted to save my ranch,” he says. Raising cattle was a family legacy and his connection to the Brazoria County community. He began to feel like his only option was divorce. “Suddenly she’s going vegan,” he says. “In this part of the world, going vegan feels equivalent to being a traitor.”

“It was a real-life Texas showdown,” Renee says.

In December 2014, Renee hatched a plan to buy her husband’s cattle. She had secretly started a Facebook page called VEGAN Journal of a RANCHERS WIFE. Early posts included peaceful photos of her animals grazing and anxious messages about her animal welfare concerns. Within months, the page amassed thousands of followers.

One of them was filmmaker Kip Andersen, the producer of cult documentaries Cowspiracy and Seaspiracy. “I was really inspired by her story and reached out immediately to see what I could do to help,” he says. Andersen encouraged Renee to set up an Indiegogo page to capture donations. She formed a nonprofit organization in February 2015, named Rowdy Girl Sanctuary after its raucous muse.

Renee began trying to intercept every trailer load of calves Tommy sent out to market. Unable to turn a profit on the cows that he was still paying to feed and shelter, he felt that the cleanest way to split up was to get out of the business altogether.

So one day out in the pasture Renee tried her luck. “I said, ‘If you’re going to sell all these cows anyway, then why don’t you just sell them to me?’” she says. Tommy didn’t believe she could come up with the money, but by May 2015, her Indiegogo campaign had raised more than $36,000. He agreed to sell the cows to Renee, and to help her run the sanctuary. Their first rescues were the couple’s very own cattle.

Something had also shifted in Tommy over roughly the six months prior that made his decision easier. He had watched the 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives, which claims that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and more, and begun to see veganism in a new light. “Since my father died of a heart attack at barely 62 years of age, I took that quite seriously,” he says.

Reunited in their new purpose, the couple were at peace again. But Tommy paid a price: He lost his business partner, with whom he had grown hay for years. More than that, he says he lost a friend—he was “like my brother”—when his former partner virtually disowned him for going vegan. “We split up our operation and went in different directions,” Tommy says. (The two made up shortly before his friend died.)

Since opening in 2015, Rowdy Girl Sanctuary has been home to approximately 225 rescued cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, donkeys, goats, and sheep. In 2019, after three different floods hit the Angleton farm—the nearby river breached its banks—the couple decided to move inland. The current operation is 135 miles northwest on a 147-acre ranch in Waelder, Texas.

On the outside, the sanctuary looks much like any other farm. Tommy does “the dirt work,” which includes patching up fences, feeding the animals, and making sure they have appropriate veterinary care until the animals naturally reach the end of their lives. (“We have one cow here right now who’s 25 years old,” says Renee. Cows can naturally live up to 20 years or so, but both dairy and beef cows generally go to slaughter long before then.)

About now, Tommy is also preparing the fall vegetable garden. He grows organic vegetables without any animal inputs for themselves and to sell locally. (Many store-bought organic fertilizers contain ingredients such as bone meal, blood meal, and chicken feather meal.) There’s a drought happening in Waelder, but his onions, cabbage, peas, and perennial asparagus crop are all “going well,” Tommy says. He’ll also be harvesting pecans in the next couple of weeks.

Renee’s in charge of fundraising via monthly memberships, which pay for the sanctuary’s operational costs. Right now there are 630 members, though Renee is hoping to reach 800 to cope with the current drought. The various suggested tiers start at $8, which buys “2 bags of apples each month,” according to the Rowdy Girl website, and gets donors invitations to all events and film screenings that happen on the ranch. The most expensive tier is $200 per month—money that goes toward infrastructure updates around the farm and gives donors the opportunity to host a gathering at the sanctuary.

The most common source of new animals to the sanctuary are “farmers surrendering animals that they have gotten close to,” Renee says. Sonny Allen, the 61-year-old rancher and real estate broker who helped sell the Waelder land to the couple, gave Renee a calf that was abandoned by its mother. His name was Buster because he’d constantly bonk his head into Allen’s crotch while looking for milk. “He would just kind of cuddle,” says Allen. “I was like, ‘I can’t eat Buster.’”

For Allen, who raises organic cattle on 1,800 acres of land, Renee is easy to connect with. “Most people I meet that have those different philosophies, they’re somewhat hostile,” he tells me. “She’s always been someone who I can talk to about the things that we disagree on.”

Though Tommy did initially lose a friend in Angleton, the pair say they get along just fine with their Waelder neighbors. “We were cattle ranchers and we still talk and act the same,” Renee says. “We can connect with rural people in a way that flaming vegans can’t.”

Her strategy is show, not tell. Every Fourth of July, the sanctuary hosts a fundraising event with vegan versions of “comfort foods,” like hot dogs, potato salads, and chicken-fried steak smothered in gravy. “It’s important for Texans to realize they can be vegan without giving up anything; I do everything I can to make anyone feel like they can participate.” It’s the same when her rancher friends and neighbors come for dinner. “They think vegans only eat tofu and lettuce,” says Renee. “So we feed them hamburgers and vegan chicken wings.”

Christine Shaw, whose 85-acre ranch, Sandy Fork Pastures, is about 16 miles from Rowdy Girl, says that when she first heard about the sanctuary, “My first reaction was, ‘Good for them.’” The homesteader, who’s in her 50s but asked not to share her exact age, raises chickens, bees, and Texas Longhorns. At the end of the day, Shaw sees both herself and Renee as caretakers of farm animals, only “they’ve found a niche that’s appealing to customers who want to save them,” Shaw says.

Alongside running the sanctuary, Renee’s mission hopes to inspire ranchers to make a similar shift away from animal agriculture—efforts that were featured in a recent documentary, directed by Jason Goldman and executive produced by vegan musician Moby. Instead of raising animals, she wants farmers to have the resources to grow crops, mushrooms, and grains.

When one of 67-year-old rancher Richard Traylor’s cows, Honey, hurt her leg in 2019, the plan was to take her to market, where she’d be sold for meat. But Honey was his wife Cindy’s favorite cow. In a frantic search to save her, Cindy found Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, about a 150-mile drive away. After Renee took in Honey, the Traylors transported their remaining cattle to the sanctuary over the next six months. But it was after their first meeting with Renee and Tommy that they decided to go vegan themselves. “She wears you down,” says Cindy, a 74-year-old counselor.

Online, however, Rowdy Girl Sanctuary has attracted plenty of critics over the years. One Facebook page, called The Real Rowdy Girl Revealed, has posted claims that the sanctuary is a “scam” and a “pyramid scheme,” and raised questions about its standard of care. Renee says that the claims are bogus.

“The pain and suffering it caused us cannot possibly be described in this article,” she says, citing the “toxic” page. “The fact that I’ve defied the odds and have been able to do what most people thought was impossible and could never be done just comes with its fair share of intense heat and pressure—and it hurts.”

Though they’ve never been able to find out who’s behind it, Tommy and Renee filed a defamation lawsuit against its creators. In 2017, they lost the case and the court determined the pair had to pay $159,000 in attorney fees, costs, and sanctions.

Right now, Renee is focused on writing a memoir about her life story and sits on the Agriculture Fairness Alliance’s board of directors. The organization is currently lobbying for government subsidies to help farmers transition from raising animals to growing plant-based foods. She’s also hoping to raise money later this year to build a veterinary treatment center that specializes in treating older cattle. (Most cattle are slaughtered young, so Renee says that most vets don’t know how to treat “aging bovine.”)

Renee and Rowdy Girl, who is thriving, remain bonded. “I don’t know where she ends and I begin; that’s just our energy,” she says. As for her and Tommy, the biggest issue the couple disagrees on now is when to retire. “I sometimes feel bad because he wants to relax more,” Renee tells me. “Tommy knows I would take a bullet in the street for this cause, so his loyalty is sometimes at the expense of his need for more recreation.”

She’s even turned his reluctant journey into merch: a gray baseball T-shirt with red sleeves and an illustrated likeness of Tommy on the back. It reads, “I had veganism shoved down my throat, I chewed it up, and I liked it.”

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