5 student farmers choose sanctuary over slaughter for the animals they raised

It's a rare decision, but could their numbers signal beginning of a trend?

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For three goats and two sheep raised by Fullerton students in a Future Farmers of America high school program, life is pretty sweet.

Let’s start with just the fact that they are alive. The alternative — and the path for pretty much every other animal raised by most Future Farmers — was the slaughter house.

Instead, the goats, Bruce, Pam, and Kevin, and sheep Shawn and Phry (pronounced “fry,” though not because of any sick humor about lamb chops), are living at a refuge called Farm Sanctuary, in Acton, near Palmdale. It’s where they went instead of the OC Fair’s annual Junior Livestock Auction, which was held a week ago.

 

The animals are getting this option because their young owners — three girls and two boys — made a rare decision:

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Rilea Reed, a soon-to-be sophomore at Fullerton Union High, is one of the five students at the school — an unusually high number, according to Farm Sanctuary — whose bond with her animal (the lamb, Phry) was so strong she could not bear to see it become somebody’s dinner.

“I won’t judge other people,” says Reed, 15, of other students who raise animals for slaughter. “But I personally don’t want to do that.”

Reed isn’t against eating meat, as long as her meal is killed humanely. And not all goats are slaughtered for food. Some end up, as Reed put it, as “lawnmowers” that are purchased by private parties to efficiently and organically clear unwanted brush by letting them graze. Others might be used for breeding.

But Reed came to view Phry, named after the ancient Greek courtesan Phryne, like a pet.

Purchased from an agriculture teacher for $400, Phry was a runt with a funky gait when he and Reed met. Reed taught him to walk on a halter, like a dog, and took him hiking on trails near the school farm. It was a natural for Reed, who has a menagerie of other animals at home that includes rabbits, snakes, chickens and rats.

Instead of selling him at the Fair, she wanted Phry to go where he could continue to be treated with love — petted and called by his name. On July 9, her family delivered Phry to Farm Sanctuary in a dog crate.

Reed said he’s missed: “He was a very nice guy to have around.”

 

Rescued animals

Farm Sanctuary, about a two-hour drive from Orange County, sits on 26 acres off the Antelope Valley Freeway. It currently houses about 170 animals — goats, sheep, horses, pigs, several cows and one llama, Yoda. The sanctuary usually has chickens and turkeys as well, but that’s been on hold this year because of a regional outbreak of Newcastle disease.

The nonprofit organization started in 1986 and now has two sanctuaries, the Acton farm in Southern California and a larger operation, on 275 acres in upstate New York, that cares for more than 800 animals. Other rescued animals — 3,000 since 1986 — are placed in Farm Sanctuary’s nationwide vetted adoption network.

The Acton farm is a humble operation — a goal post-shaped cluster of one-story animal stalls and staff offices surrounded by enclosures for the various breeds, some corrals, and a cow pasture. The goats like to scramble on a wooden jungle gym at the top of a wide, steep hill that’s dotted with juniper trees, cactus and yucca plants. When not at the gym, the goats can wander an open space at their leisure.

On a recent weekday, West Coast shelter manager Jessica Due moves about the property in dusty jeans and a worn green Farm Sanctuary T-shirt, stopping often to nuzzle with a goat, scratch a pig’s belly and coo at other animals under her charge. She points to Ramsey, a ram rescued last year from the Malibu fire, and to Soosie and Hattie, a pair of 18-year-old goats who are the farm’s senior citizens.

She also visits the Fullerton rescues: Boer goats Pam, Bruce and Kevin are bunking together in one enclosure, which they have to themselves. Phry and Shawn, both Suffolk cross sheep, are quarantined one stall away from each other, each being treated for ailments — one for a respiratory infection and the other for internal parasites.

Pam also has a hoarse cough. “We’re getting you taken care of, baby girl,” Due says to the goat.

Farm Sanctuary is not the typical end point for animals raised by Future Farmers. It’s mission, in fact, is to combat what it sees as the abuses of factory farming, operating under the motto “rescue, education, advocacy.”  Sanctuary co-founder and president Gene Baur earned a master’s degree in agriculture at Cornell University. The Acton farm offers weekend tours and other events.

Baur, a vegan, says Farm Sanctuary fields hundreds of calls monthly. They might get a few requests a year from farming students, though some years there may be none. Baur believes that’s because agriculture programs are designed to raise animals for food.

“They’re not being encouraged to find another option,” says Baur. He adds that when he’s gone to county fairs, he’s seen young farmers struggle with the conflict between the love they’ve developed for their animal and the business end of selling livestock for slaughter.

“Their conscience, and their empathy, often have to be shut off to pursue these things.”

At the OC Fair, 257 animals were sold during this year’s Junior Livestock Auction. Average prices ranged from $2.57 a pound for hogs to $6.28 a pound for goats. Beef fetched an average of $3.39 a pound.

One of the Fullerton students who chose to send an animal to the Farm Sanctuary expressed relief via email:

“For the past eight months I’ve been stressed about where he was going to go and him possibly being on someone’s kitchen table.

“You saved my baby. I’m forever grateful.”

Strong bonds

In California, where agriculture is a leading industry, more than 89,000 students in 334 high schools around the state participate in Future Farmers of America programs, according to the California Agricultural Education website.

Orange County has nine high schools that offer FFA livestock programs, rural islands in a sea of suburbs. Students from eight 4-H programs in Orange County also show animals at the fair in Costa Mesa, according to Evy Young, agriculture education supervisor for OC Fair.

Young isn’t aware of any Orange County students who pulled their animals last year from the livestock auction in favor of rescue. The five who chose that route this year is an unusually high number, she acknowledges, but could be an anomaly.

“I wouldn’t say that this is something that is going to continue to occur,” Young says. “Most students who go into agriculture programs understand the end results off their projects.”

Four years ago, another Fullerton Union High student couldn’t bear the thought of auctioning Lola, the pig he raised to a hefty 200 pounds. Farm Sanctuary took in Lola, who today is, according to Due, “living the life” at a New York swine enclosure that gives her access to some nearby woods.

Before Kevin the goat is sent to a Farm Sanctuary adoptive home in Utah, Kevin’s recent caretaker, Sabrina Ifantis, hopes to visit him a few times in Acton.

Ifantis, 15, of Fullerton, says she knew that when she joined FFA last school year, as a freshman, that the animals were born for one purpose: meat. But all along she didn’t want that fate for Kevin. She reached out to Tanaka Farms in Irvine to perhaps add him to their petting zoo, where she figured he’d be treated well. When Tanaka Farms could not take him, Ifantis turned to Farm Sanctuary in early July.

She cried when she went to say goodbye to Kevin at the school farm one day after tennis practice.

“I didn’t think it would hit me so hard,” says Ifantis, who doesn’t touch red meat but does occasionally eat chicken to get some protein. She says she is done with the FFA program, especially after seeing a cow that had been slaughtered on the school farm.

Ifantis says her family, which has four dogs, would have kept Kevin if they had the room. Her dad’s dream is to get a larger place in a rural area. If that happens, Ifantis hopes to retrieve Kevin.

“If we move and have more land, we will take Kevin back and get a few more goats.”

 

 

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