By Jessi Geist
As the Brave New Life project is becoming more and more popular, I realized that this story needed to be told. How did Brave New Life start? Where did this idea come from?
Brave New Life is the "radical" idea that we can stop fighting each other about the current oppressive system and instead start building the new compassionate system. Of course this idea is not new, many social movements have had successes with this perspective because it creates hope. Buckminster Fuller once said,
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
The idea fully came to me as I was living on an animal farm in Longmont, with my two Great Dane companions. Miraculously I connected with a hired hand who allowed us to live on the farm, after learning that we had been on a 4 month houseless stint. It's tough to find a landlord who allows you to have one big dog let alone two, so when this opportunity came our way I was extremely relieved. Growing up in a small town, I knew that most people were generous and very helpful in the rural communities so I wasn't surprised. The farm offered me land to stay on but I was required to bring my own shelter, so I started looking for a camper to live in right way. Winters in Colorado can be harsh.
I met the owners of the farm, an 80+ year old couple who had been in the landscaping and raised goats and sheep, most of their lives. They were extremely quirky, but charming enough. They both had a rough around the edges vibe, I can survive anything attitudes, and smelled like the 10 cats that were living with them in their house. They were open and honest, but unable to take care of the land and the animals anymore. So their son took on the sheep business and the hired hand took on goat care, and other things around the farm. There were also smaller renters who raised pigs and chickens and a few other renters planted corn and alfalfa. So the farm was fully operational with a community of helping individually operating it.
As a young woman, who grew up experiencing the ins and outs of a rural community and living closely to animals, I was excited to live there but also a bit nervous. I had learned about unhealthy practices and methods of using the land and animals, so I was freshly aware of what was going on in this world. I saw this move, onto a traditional farm as a true learning experience. I agreed to help out, and in addition I was expected to haul water from town to my camper, and cook on a propane stove everyday. I was trying out more and more plant based meals and enjoying the new strength from the foods I was eating. I honestly thought I was ready but boy that first year was an eye opener.
I had the opportunity to see what really happened on a farm, through multiple perspectives, because the "farm renters" used different techniques. I learned about some interesting dynamics between farming families, such as 4H, marketing struggles, random strangers coming on the property (mostly hunters), the seasonal transitioning of a farm, and the power struggles that go along with the passing of farm owners. While all of this was happening I continued to have this internal struggle: these people were ultimately caring, protective, and knowledgeable about what animals needed. But they also sent them to their death, and were less concerned about their quality of life if it exceeded a certain amount of money. I was so confused about how these things could go together...
I began to realize that this wasn't their fault, they were also taught these conflicting ideas. I saw this clearly one day when the stroll by the pig pen turned out to be extremely different than usual...
The pigs were not in the pen that day, they were outside of it. A young teenage girl was hitting them on the side of their head with a metal pole, she was clearly upset. She yelling at them to wait while the pen was opened and yelling at her brother to open the pen. I couldn't stop myself I yelled at her to "Stop!" and a few other questions like what do you think your doing? She explained angrily, 'the pigs don't really feel the rod anyway and you have to hit them this hard because their skin was thick, or else they wouldn't feel it. You must be stupid not to know that.'
As a social worker I was trained to see these conflicting perspectives and to analyze behaviors and patterns. At the time I was working with teenage boys who had been committed of sexual offenses and were getting treatment. Because of what I was seeing at work I definitely saw this young woman's response differently. The pigs were squealing and trying to get away from her but confused as where to go, she saw this as defiance and felt the need to punish them for it. Her justification for her behavior, that pigs don't really feel pain.. how does she know? It was disheartening but I was thankful to hear that her family was not liked by farm owners. Which continued to show me that agriculture has changed drastically in the last hundred years.
Due to the injustices I continued to see on the farm I began to seek an outlet for the frustration that was building up inside me. I wanted to see thick fertile soil being created, not sprayed chemicals blowing on my camper. I wanted to allow all the animals to walk around more freely, not just the horses and a small portion of the sheep. (They also had goats, pigs, and chickens.) Although their fenced area was adequate their unattended hooves and behaviors said to me 'lets run,' and it hurt because I knew we didn't need to do this to them for our benefit anymore.
I began looking for people who cared about animals, without the conflicting ideologies and found a group (among many) who did a specific action, which caught my attention. They held vigils at slaughterhouses, and they held a more compassionate and understanding perspective of the workers who made the slaughterhouses run. They taught me a lot about nonviolence practices and some interesting things about past social movements.
I began to see that it wasn't just farmers, it was also the workers who held these unhealthy contradicting beliefs. It broke my heart to all see that some people do make the connection, but were not having the ability to escape it due to poverty and other barriers in life. I realized that they also weren't being served by this system, it gave very little to no health care or other benefits, along with high rates of injury. One worker bravely reported to an activist that he had quit because of his mental health, but decided to work there again because he knew at least he could, "treat the lambs nicely before they died." Which tells me that he wanted to set a better example for the other workers on the floor.
The mental dilemma continued to wage in my head as the months past. I couldn't help but feel compassion for both farmers and slaughterhouse workers while also grieving the
70 trillion animals killed every year on this planet.
This is a disclaimer. I tried to not get attached to the goats and sheep. I remember one of the first days I was there with the hired hand who is very friendly. He asked me to clean out the water bowls for the sheep in a specific pen. He told me not to get attached. I want to say I really did try, I jumped in and started thinking 'I am going to do what I can to make their lives the best they can be at least...' as he began to tell me, "..this is the kill pen that's why you gotta be careful. These are the older males who like to butt heads and they will mess you up if your not watching them." My heart sank, and I felt it. I remember finishing that thought with, 'I am going to do what I can to make their lives the best they can be even though their going to die.' I looked at them I saw how far away they wanted to stay but how curious they were. Some did butt their heads on the fence, and I saw how they behaved when you got close and realized he was right, but it seemed to me out of self defense. That day I vowed to not get attached to anyone of them.
As time went on one little sheep who was bottle fed kept sneaking through the fence and following me around. I thought he was going to head butt me, however he seemed more interested in my hair. Maybe he thought it was hay, I don't know but at that time I was 24, with hair down to my belly button. He loved it! He was one of the few who had a name, Peanut. He was so charming that he was able to get everyone attached to him, even the farm owners son, who would never admit it.
However once I became attached to Peanut, I couldn't help to get attached to everyone else. I think it's the same qualities in me that pushed me to become a social worker. I just can't help but root for the "underdog" to rise up and 'get away' or 'win'. I thought that day of victory had come when the wife passed way. She was the first of the two farm owners to die. She really did care about the goats that she sold, she even sent out Christmas cards with her favorite picture that she had taken that year. In her will she left enough money to take care of the goats for the rest of their lives and asked that the hired hand would look after them and not sell them. I was so shocked and excited for them! It felt like it was the best of both worlds.
The last straw finally came for me, and many others, was when the state veterinarians realized all of the goats had Scrapies.
But then Scrapies resurfaced and it knocked all of this positive energy out the door. It would seem that there would be no win for the goats. The farm did have a history of harboring the disease and having a breakout in the past, which is why the state was scheduled to come out and test. They also ordered that the sheep leave the property too because they could easily catch it, although they weren't showing signs yet. I do remember one sheep falling extremely ill at the beginning of the year and the son talking about shooting him. Instead, they suggested giving the sheep this, over the counter medicine, which did help the sheep recover. But it pains me to know that one sheep along with almost a hundred others ended up going to slaughter so we will never know whether scrapies infected them or not.
There were many days that were hard for everyone after that. The son wasn't able to have sheep or goats on the property but couldn't sell the land because it was locked in the will for several years. The grieving farm hand had a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders all of a sudden and had some health issues flair up because of the stress. I struggled to walk around an empty farm that used to be so full of life and excitement. Somethings really could have been avoided and it kept eating away at me. There were still two sheep left..
That is probably why I felt the strong urge to get Peanut and Wally to a sanctuary rather than allowing them to sell him to another farm for breeding. The son said he couldn't send him to slaughter because his girlfriend, who was really attached to him, would be very upset. I talked to him about giving Peanut and Wally to a sanctuary but he didn't like the idea of doing it for free, so he told the hired hand to ask the neighbors and give a couple more weeks. If no one wanted to buy him then he would have to give him up. Of course at this point the hired hand had too much on his plate and he decided to help me out.
He thought, “If she has a place for Peanut and his best friend Wally then why do the extra work?”
No one really wanted them to go to slaughter deep down, so we ended up getting the son to agree to give up Peanut and Wally for a better life. The hired hand was also a pretty helpful friend and worked with the sanctuary owners to load Peanut and Wally into a trailer. Of course they thought something horrible was going to happen to them because they had watched other sheep getting slaughtered on the property, and recently saw every other sheep go into a trailer and never come back. They had no clue how lucky they were, so they fought hard, but we eventually coaxed them in and they are now living up in the mountains at Bleating Heart Sanctuary.
Bleating Heart Sanctuary is literally run by a couple with tireless devotion to taking care of bunnies, goats, sheep, chickens, roosters, lamas and dogs. They are doing their best to be good stewards of the world and see that they can do a lot of good by rescuing, loving and taking care of farm animals. After seeing them, I realize this is the relationship that the deceased farmer wanted. She would have loved to keep the goats alive rather than kill them, as she specified in her will.
This mental dilemma finally worked it's self out and screamed to me, "Why not support people doing that?"
Why not create programs that people can rely on to meet their needs and create good stewards of the earth, through truly sustainable practices? Helping animal agriculture workers find purposeful careers in this up and coming regenerative farming world has become my passion and I'm very fortunate to meet people who wanted to create this vision in Colorado as well! Together we are building paths to heal our communities.
So now you know what inspired this vision. Now you know where the roots lie. All we want to do is help our rural neighbors roll with the punches, so to speak. If you are a compassionate person who also feels called to build an compassionate and regenerative system please contact us, we would love to be in touch with the northern Colorado animal agriculture community to see what the future could hold for you!