Ranchers in Transition
My name is Jennifer Barrett. I live on a farm in Southwest Arkansas where my husband, Rodney, and I have raised cattle and chickens for 18 years. My family and I moved to this farm when I was in high school (1987). I got married in ’91, moved away for 8 years, and then my husband and I moved back to the farm with our small children and took over the operation in late 1999.
Both Rodney and I had grandparents with farms and shared a deep love for country life, agriculture and farm animals. We were thrilled to have an opportunity to earn a living doing anything in agriculture so, we were thrilled to leave behind our 9-to-5ers and jumped at the chance to take over my parents’ chicken operation. I knew what it took and that it was a hard job but, we were willing to do whatever to allow us to be on the farm. We were drawn to be here on this land like a goose is drawn to fly south for the winter.
We raised chickens in my parents chicken houses from late ’99 until 2006 when we could no longer compete with the newer industry standards so, we decided to borrow money (a cool million) and build four new chicken houses. We were proud of our investment and of our farm. Rodney had grown up around auto mechanics and had been a working mechanic for nearly a decade before I even met him. His skills and work ethic were invaluable and he dedicated himself to being an excellent farmer.
We were so proud to be raising our children in a way that would teach them a work ethic and give them skills and a respect for where their food came from. They raised show animals for FFA and we all cried at the end of every season when the animals went away. I cried every time we sold a batch of chickens even though it was something that was seen as weakness. I thought I was giving my children some sort of gift by toughening them up or desensitizing them to the reality of farming at an early age. I was in high school when we raised our first batch of chickens and I was traumatized the first time I saw them all being caught and hauled away in trucks to be killed. My kids had been around it from the time they were born and I really believed that it was beneficial to start them little to know the reality of food production. The chickens, cows, pigs, and goats were a commodity. Any sentimentality was accepted as a cute novelty but, we all knew not to get too attached or to show too much emotion.
Then, in 2011, Rodney got sick. He began having horrible symptoms that were affecting every aspect of his life and it was beginning to put strain on the farming operation. We had never had health insurance because, well, I don’t know how any farmer affords those sorts of things so, we managed to scrape up enough money to pay for a colonoscopy. The news came back as ulcerative colitis and, it wasn’t good. The doctor told us that there was no cure and prescribed some very expensive drugs to combat the symptoms. The thought of my beautiful, strong husband living the rest of his life with this thing—with this terrible, awful thing—was such a feeling of hopelessness. But, my stubborn will kicked in almost immediately and I determined in my mind that there had to be a better way. This couldn’t be the final say.
I began my research immediately. At first, things looked pretty grim. He started on the drugs and we tweaked a few things in our diet but, life pretty much remained the same for a while. He only took the drugs for a few months because the side effects were worse than the symptoms. We tried to manage stress the best we could because it seemed to be a big trigger for a flare up.
Throughout all of this evolution of just trying to survive the thing, I started to try and get healthier myself. I was suffering from painful arthritis, depression, hypertension, obesity and my own brand of IBS. I had started wondering just how long we would even be able to keep up with the farm since we seemed to be declining so quickly. Then, in 2013, I started working out and really cleaning up my diet. By default, the whole family started to eat better. There was less junk food in the house, I was cooking more meals at home and adding in more and more veggies. I started to feel so much better just from cutting out processed food and sugar and, Rodney’s UC was in remission most of the time.
Then, in May of 2016, we did a 3-week plant-based program. We only had a small amount of animal protein in the first week and then the second two weeks were fully vegan. When that program was complete, I felt like a whole new person. My mind was so sharp and clear. I was sleeping like a baby. I had so much vitality and energy and JOY. We both did. It was revolutionary…but, it raised a million questions.
I’ve heard that the soul is covered by a thousand veils and this revelation tore down many of them. Lightbulbs started to come on in regards to our farming operation. It was like my cognitive thinking had been adulterated my whole life with animal protein and, once that was gone, I could see clearly. It was this revelation of “if I feel this good by NOT eating what I’m raising, then…why?? Why is any of this happening?”
Just after that first 21 days of plant based eating, I remember standing in one of our chicken houses the day before they went to slaughter and feeling so heavy with grief that they were all going to die…and for what?
My job up until then had been one of those badges of honor, a “dirty” job, a good old American way to make a living. And it was hard!! So hard on us in every way. But we did it with pride because we were providing a product and we were serving the greater good and it was, at the very least, allowing us to live on our beloved farm.
I thought for a while that I could live with the hypocrisy of it. I thought I could be a vegan that just so happened to raise chickens for a living. But it got dark for me. It was so horrible to know that all of this suffering and death and decay, this holocaust situation, was so unnecessary. I started to see the chickens differently. I’d never really looked at them as individuals before but, my heart started to break when I would see their terror and their suffering. They were no longer a product. They were birds!! They hatched from an egg…that miraculous thing that happens when a baby bird hatches from an egg…and we’ve mass produced it, and put them on an assembly line, and sentenced them to a life of misery, then slit their throats and for what? To clog our arteries and destroy our health? To spend a few minutes mindlessly munching on their flesh? It became more than I could bear.
The debt on the farm was so huge, there really was no way out. I started to feel like a prisoner. The hard labor began to carry this deep shame with it. I started to feel trapped in it. The chains around us were tight. It started to become clearer to me just how twisted and sickening the whole affair really was. Not only were we raising hundreds of thousands of birds in the most deplorable conditions but, we were helpless to do anything about it. The debt on the farm kept us with our noses down and our mouths shut. Indentured servitude. What had been the promise of independence was now the very thing that was keeping us imprisoned, right here on our own farm.
I continued to research and became voracious for information to back up my revelation experience with actual facts. And, boy, did I ever find some facts. The more I started to dig, the more it became apparent that a whole-food plant-based diet was the answer to every problem. Not only was it THE way for humans to be eating to thrive but, it was kind and compassionate. I liked being kind and compassionate. I started to learn about the environmental degradation that occurs with factory farming. And, with every new bit of knowledge, the noose tightened.
Finally, in December of 2017, I was at the bottom. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t send calves to the sale barn. Working in the chicken houses became nightmarish. The sorrow I felt for their condition, the pain I felt when they all were sent to slaughter was no longer something I could transcend. I couldn’t un-know what I knew. I couldn’t un-see what I’d seen. I couldn’t deny what I was experiencing in a body that was thriving from discontinuing to consume these animals. Everything in me wanted to embrace the truth but I was living in the middle of this horrible, incredible lie.
One very cold and dark day, I sat down with all my brokenness, confusion, and desperation and wrote a letter to the universe asking for help. There was an intrinsic knowing that we would never be able to dig out of this alone. And, it turns out, there are lots of people out there who were willing to help us out of our situation.
This brings me to when I met Renee from Rowdy Girl Sanctuary. The story is long and winding but, it ultimately led us to exactly the right people at exactly the right time. Renee came into our lives at a time of great distress. We took a leap of faith in September of 2018 and cancelled our contract with the company for whom we were raising chickens and, we stopped breeding and selling cattle. This left us with zero income and no way to take care of the existing herd except with what we already had. Hay started to run out quickly and we had no way of buying more.
When I contacted Renee to tell her about our situation, she was at my farm the very next day organizing and executing a fund raiser to get us hay. The next 24 hours were a whirlwind of generosity and we met our fundraising goal, bought hay, and had money left over to buy diesel. The logistics of how this all played out still baffles me but, she made it all happen.
Since this initial meeting with Renee, we have a clear plan formulating to transition our farm into growing mushrooms and hemp. The Rancher’s Advocacy Program has been our saving grace. Not only did she get the money we needed to stop the bleed and feed our cattle but, she empowered us with love and understanding. She’s been where we are. She knows the depth of pain that this realization causes to the hearts of people and, she is equipped to blaze a path for us and other farmers to create new lives.
Not only has she worked tirelessly to insure our success, she is armed with the experts and means to do exactly that. She has also become a trusted friend. One that calls me just to check on my heart. She knows. She knows the pain of it and, therefore, knows the freedom that comes with truth. She is pure love wrapped up in dynamite. I’m honored to know her and even more honored to join her in this amazing and incredible movement of peace.
I honestly don’t know where we would be without her and others who’ve worked to help us transition out of our current situation. And, even though we are still in the beginning stages of this transformation, I believe the biggest step has already been taken, the step of faith to say, “no more”. It occurs to me that we don’t have to always know exactly where we are going as much as we need to know where we don’t want to be any longer. Whatever is coming will be accomplished with kindness and compassion and love. These are things we can’t mess up.
I am grateful for the hope of a new life. Gratitude permeates everything in my life now. I’m grateful for my farm in a way I’ve never quite felt before. I’m hopeful for things to come. I’m no longer ashamed of my occupation and my heart is becoming more free with each passing day. Our hope is to be a light for others who are suffering in the same way we were. The goal is not just for our survival but for the survival of us all. There can be no greater work in this world and I’m humbled to be even a small part of the miracle that is happening right here on this little farm in Arkansas.