When Sonia Faruqi was laid off from her Wall Street investment banking job, she set off for what she thought was a quick rural holiday volunteering on an organic dairy farm in Canada. But when she found the conditions there to be anything but the pastoral ideal she envisioned, she began living on farms as she traveled throughout Canada, the United States, and other parts of the world to examine animal farming. Faruqi, 29, who lives in Toronto, documents the state of animal welfare on large factory farms, small traditional operations, and many things in between in her book, “Project Animal Farm: An Accidental Journey Into the Secret World of Farming and the Truth About Our Food” (Pegasus, 2015).
Q. Before this, what was your experience with farming?
A. I had never interacted with farm animals. If you think about it, the fact that we never interact with farm animals is surprising. There are more farm animals on the planet than human beings. But we never see them. We never hear about them. We don’t hear how their lives are.
Q. What did you initially set out to do?
A. I wanted a rural vacation, something different. I wanted something that was picturesque and relaxing. That’s how I ended up on this organic dairy farm. Immediately, it was obvious things were not as they seem. Cows were chained to stalls for two-thirds of the year. One hundred twenty days of outdoor access, that’s what organic [standard] says in the US and Canada. The minimum is also often treated as the maximum.
Q. How did you gain access? These farmers can be secretive.
A. I was generally moving through social settings, especially when I was in Canada. I was becoming part of the community. When I would go to, say, Indonesia, I would look things up online, but show up in person. I would go to a restaurant and would ask where do you get your meat? Then I would go to another place, then another. Eventually, I would find myself in the right community.
Q. What discovery made the biggest impact on you?
A. Industrial farms are like warehouses. They literally look like a large shed or interconnected warehouses. You’re seeing little grass. There is no sunshine and no fresh air. The animals are in their own closed world, a very automated world. There’s a button for everything. Farmers often don’t need to go in [with the animals]. They can manage by phone. They’re that automated. In factory farms, the cost, the food, everything is measured to the decimal point, and evaluated and manipulated accordingly. If you go to a pastoral farm, it is completely different.
Q. What’s the difference?
A. It’s open. It’s all grasses, trees. You see the animals. The breeds are often natural. These pastoral farms are less controlled, but there’s more happiness and overall better health. They don’t need things like antibiotics and hormones.
Q. Describe the different kinds of commercial farm operations.
A. Small pastoral is the traditional farm that still exists in some parts of the world: a dozen or two dozen chickens, a couple of pigs, maybe a cow. Small pastoral doesn’t work anymore because they’re not profitable. Then there’s small industrial, which also doesn’t really make sense. It’s small, so there are no economies of scale. There are large industrial farms. About 95 percent of farms for meat, egg, and milk operations in the US and Canada are like that. And there’s large pastoral farms. They have up to tens of thousands of animals. The animals are outdoors and living a good life. It can be economical for the consumers, lucrative for the producers, and it’s also working for the animals in a sense. It really came home to me when I visited a large pastoral farm in the mountains in Vermont: It’s hundreds of cattle just roaming the mountains and eating the grasses. It’s a profitable farm.
Q. What would need to change if we wanted to rely more on these farms?
A. We need to reduce meat consumption for more large pastoral farms to be possible. I think the average hen factory farm has about 300,000 hens. We’re not going to have that with large pastoral farms. At that scale, it’s very hard to maintain standards.
Q. After everything you saw, what do you think?
A. Sometimes people view the topic as automatically dark and hopeless. It is dark, but it’s not hopeless by any stretch. There are a lot of possibilities. Large pastoral is one. Regulations and inspections are important and, in many ways, they’re easy and can play a significant role. Europe also offers us a good role model. They’ve banned the extreme confinement practices like laying cages for hens, sow crates, and veal crates. They have a functioning food system, happy consumers, and a much better ethos.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.