Terry Cummings and Dave Hoerauf are the founders of Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary, a 300-acre refuge in Poolsville, Maryland.
Since 1996 we have rescued and cared for hundreds of cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys, the vast majority of whom came from small farms where they were being raised for meat, milk or eggs. As someone who has witnessed firsthand the terrible neglect and abuse of animals on these sorts of farms, I know that small-scale farming is no more humane than large-scale industrial farming. So I was quite surprised and concerned when animal groups started promoting this humane myth, praising small-scale farms and encouraging people to eat "cage free" and "free range" animal products. Whenever animals are treated as commodities there can never be anything humane about it.
Growing up in the suburbs, I had the same idyllic view of farming that most people have. It wasn't until I graduated from college and moved to an agricultural area that I witnessed firsthand the disturbing reality of how animals are used and killed for food. At the University of Maryland where I received a degree in Animal Science, I learned that farming animals is a business, and that farmers must always consider the bottom line. They can never be sentimental if they want to make a profit. This is why so many of the common farming practices, such as castrating and dehorning, are done without painkillers--to save money, and why farmers lobby to be exempt from the anti-cruelty laws--because treating animals more humanely would cut into their profit margins.
A year after college I moved to an old tenant house on a 300-acre farm. The family raised pigs and goats for meat. They gave the animals the bare minimum of food, and housed them in trailers and barns with no bedding. When one pig broke his leg coming off the truck, the farmer left him to die a slow death, as he was unable to compete with the other pigs for food and eventually starved. Once, the farmer took me along when he sold his animals at a livestock auction. I was shocked to see the conditions of the animals that the men from nearby farms brought to sell. Cows with huge tumors on their eyes; severely limping goats and sheep with curling overgrown hooves; pigs with hernias dragging on the ground; and hundreds of wobbly baby calves, some just hours old, taken from their dairy cow mothers as soon as they were born so that the farmer could sell all the milk to people. I came home feeling sick. These were not animals from large industrialized farms. The unwanted offspring, the diseased and neglected animals that were now being discarded and bid on by the meat buyers were the reality of small-scale farming.
When Dave and I moved to our current farm we were originally just renting the farmhouse. The rest of the land was being leased to a beef farmer who had a "free ranging" herd of about 200 cows, calves and bulls on 400 acres. This farmer never once called a veterinarian. If a cow was sick, he would put a chain on her leg and drag her into the barn with a tractor, leaving her to die with no food or water. We made friends with the cows, fed them apples and named them all, only to wake up one day to see them being beaten into a truck and taken off to the slaughterhouse. We stopped eating meat after that, and later stopped eating dairy and eggs. Then we decided to start a farm animal rescue. We couldn't save our cow friends who had already been killed, but we hoped that by educating others about the truth involved in how farm animals are raised and treated we could save many more.
We noticed in the beginning that some animal groups, when speaking of farm animal welfare, often referred only to "factory farming," implying that small scale "family" farming wasn't really a problem. In the last few years this trend has gone even further, and these same groups are now actively promoting small scale farmers and their products. This has made our job as educators and animal advocates much more difficult. We often see visitors at our sanctuary who are convinced that they are helping animals by purchasing "cage free" eggs or "local" beef. When they learn that the vast majority of our animals were rescued from small scale farms, they are surprised and confused, as they have heard so many good things about these types of operations. We now have to spend much more time describing in detail what really goes on at so called "free range" farms, where the animals may have a little more room to move, but are still treated terribly. And no matter what, they are all eventually killed in the same way as those who come from the large scale industrialized farms.
During our educational tours, we describe how our sanctuary animals were rescued from farms where they were starved, neglected and abandoned. We explain that the best thing people can do to help animals is to stop eating them. We encourage people to try the wide variety of delicious plant based foods and meat and dairy alternatives. After meeting and interacting with rescued animals and realizing that they all individuals who have distinct personalities and are worthy of care and respect, visitors often feel motivated to change. We hope that by offering people an opportunity to meet these former victims, and that by telling their stories, we can help to dispel the myth that the raising and killing of any animals could ever be considered humane.