In today's edition of Bit & Grain, historian Cara Smelter brings us a story of a group of animal rights advocates working to provide refuge for recused farm animals and to demystify why people choose to practice veganism. Smelter is an advocate for the cause and, after submitting this essay, became a board member with the organization.
Story by Cara Smelter Photography by Philip MacDonald
Lenore Braford’s journey to founding Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge with her husband, Paul Drake, began in an Oberlin College classroom.
When she was an undergraduate there, Lenore Braford had to debate the ethics of eating animals for a philosophy course and she was tasked with making the argument that it is ethical to eat them. Braford had always loved animals, but hadn’t fully developed her stance on eating them. “Through my research preparing for the debate and looking at all the arguments... it was clear to me that this is a debate that I am going to lose,” says Braford. The assignment changed her life. She gave the argument, but after reasoning the ethics and morals of the debate, Braford decided she couldn't, with good conscience, keep eating animals. Braford remembers, “I became vegan then."
After college, she considered her long-term goals and settled on animal welfare. “I remember googling and finding the words ‘farm sanctuary’ for the first time, [and I thought] 'Ok, I need to advocate for this group of animals that most people do not consider,'” says Braford.
Four years later, Braford has made her dream a reality.
Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge (The Refuge) sits in a clearing nestled between thickets of trees, just off of North Carolina Highway 87 in Pittsboro. This 20-acre property is divided into a stunning landscape of pastured and wooded land punctuated with a large eye-catching barn. Stained in rich natural golden brown hues with red paneling, the barn’s silver roof pops against the wooded surroundings. Inside, sunlight streams through large, open squares in the roof, illuminating a thoughtfully designed interior for rescued goats and sheep. Completed in August, the barn is home to animal families like Sweet Mama and her two babies Ace and Ivy, born not long after their mother’s rescue. This family of goats often walks, plays and eats in a little cluster around the property.
Currently, 42 chickens and turkeys and three goats call The Refuge home. Some came from factory farms while others were surrendered, found in shelters, or were homeless and found wandering prior to arriving at The Refuge. The origin stories of the animals reveal uncomfortable truths about the realities of factory farming, an industry Braford and her husband aim to raise awareness about.
Sunflower the hen came to The Refuge from a backyard flock, where all of her flock mates were killed by a predator because of a poorly constructed coop. When she first arrived, Sunflower suffered from trauma, shaking endlessly, averting her eyes and not eating. Andi, Louie, and Jordan, a group of three charismatic turkeys, came to The Refuge from an industrial farm. They were rescued as chicks, a critical moment in their life.
The poultry industry is a large part of North Carolina’s economy. According to the USDA, last year North Carolina raised 28 million turkeys for slaughter making it the third highest producer, ranking alongside Minnesota and Iowa. Often, turkeys raised for slaughter, like Andi, Louie and Jordan, are kept in crowded, poorly ventilated buildings where the birds are raised to grow rapidly. As many as 10,000 turkeys can be contained in a single building where turkeys grow three times the size of a wild male turkey in just four months. High growth yields and housing conditions can cause a variety of health problems including, swollen eyes, muscular atrophy, cardiac and respiratory issues, and organ failure.
Today Sunflower has been rehabilitated. She is now a shadow to visitors, following them around the barn and seeking attention. Because Andi, Louie and Jordan were rescued as chicks, they’ve been raised on a healthy diet that has given them a chance at a longer life. These animals are ambassadors for work of The Refuge where they greet groups of visitors and as Braford states, “[They] want to see you, get to know you.”
Particularly striking about The Refuge and the work of Braford and her husband, Drake, is the way they blend architectural innovation in animal sheltering with the Animal Rights Movement. “What we are trying to do at The Refuge is build beautiful spaces,” says Braford. “We wanted to be very thoughtful and meticulous and do it in a way that really says something about how we feel about these animals and how we feel they should be respected and treated.” Because many of the animals arrive traumatized from situations of severe abuse, the couple designs every barn to be a site of peace and shelter.
Mindful of each animal’s experiences, Braford and Drake, an architect, who studied animal behavior, conduct extensive research to determine what buildings animals would want to live in, and in effect, create “dream” spaces for refuge residents.
For example, sheep like to be in large groups and to to see their surroundings and all members of the flock. They do not like dark corners or areas with unstable light. To remedy this, Drake created what he calls, “a zen temple”in their barn-- an open space with well-lit corners and little change in light. Goats, who are naturally curious and historically from mountainous regions, will enjoy jumping and sleeping platforms which provide stimulation and address the biological instincts of the animals.
These spaces give the rescued animals a chance for a happier, healthier life. At The Refuge, a safe place, the animals are able to demonstrate their ability to engage in complex communication through a wide ranges in vocalizations, body language, and by changing colors on their heads, challenging common notions surrounding the intelligence and emotional capacity of farm animals.
“Places like Piedmont allow visitors to stop seeing animals as vacant, impassive sources of entertainment and food and to, instead, see their warmth and beauty,” says Sean Anglin a volunteer at The Refuge. “I never thought I would hug a turkey nor think of it and miss it the way I think of and miss my dog, but having met one (Tony) at Piedmont, it's easy to see that there's really no difference.” Anglin, like other volunteers, considers his time with the animals life-changing.
Before volunteering at The Refuge, Mary Whitmire had never handled a chicken or a turkey. She says, “While I was quite nervous about the initial encounter... I have since grown comfortable touching and loving these incredible birds.” Whitmire, who quickly fell in love with the animals, has shifted to veganism, as has Anglin who says, “The term ‘life changing’ gets overused to the point of cheesiness these days, but realizing the reasons to become a vegan are life changing.”
Advocating for veganism is a large part of the Refuge’s mission. It offers free vegan cooking classes and an online form for users to submit any recipe to in turn receive a veganized version. These resources are intended to mitigate concerns about losing cultural or family cooking traditions that include animal products.
Braford understands the struggle of continuing traditions while embracing veganism. She is half Ukrainian, and pierogies, dumplings filled with potato, cheese, and onion, were a staple for birthdays, holidays, and other celebrations. For some time she gave up pierogies until finding a way to make them vegan that she says, “taste just as good.”
Already, Braford and Drake have seen the effect the new goat and sheep barn has had on the community. “We are seeing it have an impact with people who would not normally be interested in learning these types of things, says Braford. “It can bring people from different communities in and be a point of interest and in doing so, spread the message of how these animals are treated.”
Looking ahead, Braford and Drake have big plans for The Refuge. In July, they launched their newest barn campaign for ducks and geese. They plan to put in several ponds and look forward to creating innovative duck shelters. As they continue to grow, they anticipate taking in pigs and cattle as well. The couple’s dream is that ultimately, there will be no need for farm animal rescue, but until that day, they plan to continue changing lives one animal and volunteer at a time.
In spirit of The Refuge, photographer, folklorist and vegan Phillip MacDonald whipped up two vegan versions of classic cold-weather soups.
VEGAN LOADED POTATO SOUP
1/2 Cup of Raw Cashews (Soaked in water over night)
1 1/2 to 2 Cups of Vegetable Broth (Depending on the desired consistency of the soup)
3 cups of peeled boiled potatoes
1/4 cup of Nutritional Yeast
1/2 teaspoon of Garlic Powder
Pinch of Black Pepper and Cayenne Powder
Salt to taste.
Combine all ingredients into blender or food processor.
Blend until smooth (add more broth for thinner soup)
Salt to taste.
Pour into pot and simmer the soup for approximately 5-10 minutes on medium heat before serving
Garnish with Vegan Bacon Bits, Vegan Sour Cream, or Green Onions.
1 medium yellow or white onion
2 to 3 Celery Stalks
2 to 3 Bay Leaves
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 teaspoon of Dried Oregano
2 tablespoon of Olive Oil
2 cups of Dried Lentils (Soaked Overnight)
1 quart of Vegetable Broth
Pinch of Salt and Pepper
Chop Onion, Carrot, and Celery. Sauté in Olive Oil on medium heat, until the onions become translucent.
Mix in Tomato Paste, Salt and Pepper, and Oregano, cook for about 3 minutes.
Add Lentils and Vegetable Broth, then bring to a boil and then add the Bay Leaves and keep at steady boil for 20 minutes.
Serve with rice, green beans, or stewed tomatoes.