In-Depth Interview with Farm Sanctuary Founder Gene Baur
Gene Baur is one of the good guys. President and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary — the nation’s leading farm animal protection organization — Baur has since 1986 been advocating on behalf of beings whose distinct burden to bear is based on something as simple and likewise complex (and uncontrollable) as this: They don’t share our same language. Baur, with the help of his oh-so-special team (Susie Coston stands out), gives the innocent a voice, and that voice speaks volumes.
In his latest tome, Living the Farm Sanctuary Life Baur invites readers to join him down on the farm. The nonprofit has three sanctuaries, one in New York and two in California (Orland and LA). Home to hundreds of rescued pigs, cows, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens and turkeys, the three locations provide a transformative haven for not only animals, but also anyone who sets foot on the properties. Humans come away healed, too.
Feathered or four-legged, every resident acts as an ambassador, representing the billions of animals raised and killed for food every year in the United States alone. But the beauty of Farm Sanctuary, of exploring and embracing their generous grounds, is the fact that their rolling hills and big red barns are beyond reach of the bad guys. Animals have names, not numbers, personalities not tags, freedom not confinement, affection and attention not isolation and abuse. These are the lucky ones, and Baur’s new book ensures readers are left understanding and appreciating this profound truth.
Co-written with esteemed author Gene Stone (Forks Over Knives, etc.), Living the Farm Sanctuary Life is an easy read, perfect for vegans-to-be and the recently evolved, or even longtime members of the movement. The language is accessible and so is the subject matter, lending a top level look at what’s happening on our planet and how folks #livingthefarmsanctuarylife can contribute empathy rather than apathy. Farm Sanctuary is the antithesis of indifference, and this full color coffee table piece proves that.
“The ultimate guide to a mindful, compassionate, animal-friendly life,” reads the title subhead. Within, readers will love learning the individual rescue stories; familiarizing themselves with the FS tenets; dog-earing pages bearing resources and quick tips; as well as, perhaps most compelling, poring over the comprehensive recipe section, courtesy of plant-based chefs and other vegan figureheads from coast to coast. (Think Tal Ronen, Chad Sarno, Roberto Martin, Jason Stefanko, Miyoko Schinner, Jay Astafa and Jenné Claiborne; and Alicia Silverstone, Rich Roll and Joshua Katcher, among others.)
The bottom line is, whether you’re new to the animal rights movement or an avid activist, this book has a place in the home of every vegan who wishes to make a difference for the earth, animals and his/her own health. It also makes a great gift for the freshly converted.
Ecorazzi had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Gene Baur over lunch last month, dining at Manhattan’s Upper East Side staple, Candle Café. We spent over an hour picking his brain about various topics and what follows is an edited version of our candid conversation. Subjects covered include the value of veganism, our broken political system, the abolitionist versus welfarist debate and how and what this enduring career as an educator and example leaves him feeling in the face of a world we largely can’t control.
As a side note/fun fact, know that for decades Baur’s defined factory farming as an attitude that commodifies sentient animals. So, at least according to this interpretation, if you consume meat, dairy or eggs, you’re supporting an egregious industry. Not cool.
What compelled you to write this book? Why did this book need to be written?
A book gives Farm Sanctuary a platform to reach more people, [affording them the opportunity to, in a way,] take the feeling of Farm Sanctuary home. So, there are lots of beautiful pictures. There are also recipes, because critical to living the Farm Sanctuary life is eating plants instead of animals. It’s really to inspire and support people who want to live the Farm Sanctuary life, which is a life rooted in living in alignment with compassionate values, eating food that’s good for us and good for the planet.
For whom is this book intended?
This book is intended for anybody interested in living well. A lot people who read it will be our own members and supporters, but also people just starting to think about how they can live in a way they can feel better about. So often people live in dissonance, in a way they don’t feel good about. A key part of that is eating food that comes from animals. They’re contributing cruelty and they don’t like it and they try not to think about it. This book is for those people to take steps towards compassionate living. Farm Sanctuary speaks to people where they are on their own journey, and this book does that.
Did you have any criteria for recipe selection?
We were fortunate to have Chef Jason Wyrick reviewing recipes. He tested many and we had volunteers around the country test them as well. So, they went through a screening process. We wanted variety. Some taste really good and are not necessarily very healthy, others are very healthy. There’s something for everyone.
Is becoming vegan the most crucial thing one can do to make a difference?
Yes. Every day we make choices that have impacts, and our food choices have profound impacts. Choosing plant foods instead of animal foods does so much to improve our own health, the planet’s health and the lives of animals. It’s a no-brainer. It’s a win-win-win.
And, being vegan is not an end point. It’s not an ingredient list. It’s an aspiration to live as kindly as we can. It’s as simple as that. It boils down to our relationships with others: Are they based on mutual benefit or are they based on exploitation? This applies to people as well as animals as well as the earth. How do we relate and what is our impact? Are we investing and engaging together in a positive way, or are we taking something away? Are we co-creating and evolving and learning and growing together? Or is one hurting the other? Those are the questions I look at. Are we taking somebody’s life? Are we taking somebody’s baby? That’s obviously not vegan.
Veganism indeed entails evolving not only what we eat, but also what we wear — clothing, cosmetics, etc. — what “entertainment” we take in and so on and so forth. So, why are farm animals — rather than animals exploited in other ways in other industries — your specific soapbox, so to speak?
They’re the most abused and least thought about. They need the most help in the biggest numbers. And most people unwittingly support this. They are complicit. At the same time, most people want to be humane, so there’s a huge opportunity for change.
Most people believe animals should not be mistreated. But they assume eating animals is not mistreatment. If we accept the basic premise — animals should not be mistreated — we need to define what that means. Killing somebody who doesn’t want to die who we don’t need to eat seems to be mistreatment. That’s a logical progression many [tackle].
Within the animal rights movement, there is the abolitionist perspective and there’s the welfarist/single issue perspective. Can you speak to your stance?
Abolitionist versus non-abolitionist is a false dichotomy, causing — to a certain degree — divisions within this movement. Are you this one or are you that one? If people ask me, I say I am both. I am for a vegan world and I am also for lessening suffering in the short term. I don’t see them in conflict. I see them as part of a continuum.
Do you think this movement is perpetually two steps forward, one step back?
Most movements of change are up and down. Some days are better than others. But the animal rights movement has never had more momentum than it does today. I’ve never been more optimistic than I am now.
Your statement harkens back to the fairly recent landmark announcement of elephants being freed from circus slavery. It’s fantastic they’ll be retiring in 2018, but I want that for them now and I want that for every circus animal. Any thoughts on this?
This is a victory. Incremental change is how most change happens. We have to be patient. We need to push as hard as we can, but we need to celebrate victories when we can. This builds momentum. Small changes lead to more small changes, which lead to big changes.
I can appreciate your perspective, but it’s been a tough year for animals. The foie gras ban was repealed in California; the New York Times uncovered details of the egregious Nebraska animal laboratory; and Mayor Chris Christie, albeit predictably, voted against phasing out gestation crates for mother pigs in New Jersey, among other events. Can you speak to these “steps backward” that have taken place?
Each reflects a broken system — a broken system of governance, a broken food system — where processed, unhealthy animal foods are incentivized by our government and subsidized by our taxes. The U.S. legislative process is the best money can buy. You have an industry heavily invested in it. You have consumers who don’t care about these issues. People continue to have bad habits that continue to lead to enormous suffering, for themselves, the planet and animals. That is the chronic nagging I feel.
These are ongoing battles. And they’re important battles. We’re going to win some and we’re going to lose some. The big issue is systemic. It’s our governing system, it’s our food system and it’s consumers’ unwitting complicity. In some cases, when these things happen, it can cause people to think. So it can have a positive impact.
New dietary guidelines have been proposed in Washington to move us towards more plant-based foods, which is encouraging. So there are good things and bad things happening. You need to fight the bad, but you also need to embrace the good. That is the place to spend energy. That is a more fruitful endeavor. And that boils down to consumer food choices. Real change is going to happen in the marketplace.
What has been most effective in shifting consumer food choices to date?
Forks Over Knives has been a great tool, both the movie and the books. These resources are widely available and reaching a lot of people. Cowspiracy is likewise having a big impact, reaching an environmental movement that needs to hear its message.
We need to work on legislation and deal with our messed up political system, but where the rubber hits the road is [how] people spend their dollars. And, as people move away from supporting a deplorable system, we’re going to see a new economy emerge.
Do you think there’s anyone alive today that will see us tip the scales?
I don’t know. Things can change fast. I think the scales are tipping. Once they truly do, the question is: What is the world going to look like? For me the dream is a vegan world where nobody has to live in fear of anybody else.
Clearly you’ve found your life’s purpose. You found it in 1986 and, of course, it’s evolved. Can you talk about leading a life that feels fulfilled? I think a lot of people would draw inspiration from your unique experience.
I feel lucky to be doing what I do. It started with knowing there was a bad thing happening and wanting to do something about it. To address the animal agriculture industry, we started visiting [stockyards, etc.], finding animals left for dead. We just started rescuing them. These were decisions made in the moment, confronting a problem directly. It led from one to the next. It speaks to the importance of being in the present and doing the best you can with your circumstance, whatever it is. If you’re challenging something bad, like abuse and cruelty, the difficulty is to not become angry and bitter. We see the trouble people cause and the callousness and disrespect, and it’s disturbing.
The goal was to try to right a wrong and do it in a way that was ultimately engaging and uplifting. And not falling down into the pain and ugliness of the industry we’re challenging. Keeping positive in the midst of horror and inspiring people to have hope instead of angst and despair is, for me, very important. Just trying to be conscientious of that. We’re social animals; we rub off on those around us. If we’re doing something positive, it influences those around us. And, if we’re doing something negative, it influences those around us, too.
It’s an intricate interconnected web. Do you ever find yourself in despair?
There are times I feel the challenges ahead are severe. I know what we’re dealing with is generations of frail human beings and bad habits. So, it’s recognizing that we have a choice, to pull ourselves out of that sadness and create hope and peace. I trust there is good in the world and that it is all around us and that I can tap it.
Photos courtesy of Farm Sanctuary