‘Now They Are More Like Comrades’: The Dairy Farmer Who Went Vegan
Jan Gerdes grew up on a dairy farm in Germany, which he later inherited. In 2002 he converted it into an animal sanctuary…
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
— Upton Sinclair, novelist and slaughterhouse journalist
There are a few common responses when you talk to people about being vegan. One of them is ‘I could never do that’. Then the excuses come rolling in. They have a nut allergy so there’s no way they could choose a plant-based diet. They just couldn’t possibly give up cheese. They go to the gym, and need all the excess protein they can get. I’m not a preachy vegan, but these conversations do get tiring.
So when I came across this story of a German dairy farmer who went vegan, I was at once surprised and inspired. In my experience, farmers tend to be the most defensive when it comes to their omnivore diets — for obvious reasons. And so, if a dairy farmer could do it, surely so could anyone?
The story of Jan Gerdes
Jan Gerdes grew up on a dairy farm in North Germany, named Hof Butenland. In the 1980s he took over the farm from his father, taking on around 60 dairy cows. It remained this way until 2002.
In 2002 the way that Jan saw his animals began to change. He had grown up on a farm, and it was his way of making living, and so it’s understandable that he had come to see his cows as products, and a way to generate profit, rather than as living beings. But he began to see that his own industry was not humane: that raising cows, repeatedly impregnating them, taking away their calves, and slaughtering them when they stopped being profitable, was not humane.
Jan features in the documentary Live And Let Live, where he speaks of one particular moment which brought the reality home for him. He had allowed a young girl, named Cecile, to come to the farm for work experience, as she wanted to train to be a dairy farmer. When she arrived, Cecile was told that a certain dairy cow was going to be sent to slaughter the next day. When she asked why, Jan told her that the cow no longer gave good milk, and therefore was no longer going to make them any money. Cecile was so upset by this that she sat with the cow and played the flute to it all night and through to the next morning, to comfort the cow before she went to slaughter. She continued to play the flute to her until the moment that the cow was stunned unconscious with a bolt gun, the next day.
Jan could no longer allow his animals to be sent to slaughter once they were ‘useless’ in the eyes of business. And so he began to change his farm. Initially he attempted to make Hof Butenland a more ethical farm, leaving the calves with their mothers for longer. But he found that this only made the separation more difficult for mother and child.
He had decided to give up the farm completely and sell everything he owned. His cows were to be taken to the slaughter.
On the day that the cattle were picked up to be sent to slaughter, the vehicle that was sent was too small. Ten of Jan’s animals would not fit, and he was told they could be picked up two weeks later. For Jan, this was too much, and he promised the ten cows that they would live on Hof Butenland as long as they wanted, without having to produce milk or meat.
At the same time, Jan had met animal rights activist Karin Mück (now his wife), who suggested that he turn Hof Butenland into a retirement home for cattle. As someone with a lifetime of knowledge of cattle and agriculture, he was perfectly placed to do so.
And so, Hof Butenland — once a dairy farm — became an animal sanctuary.
In addition to cattle, Jan now houses rescued chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, rabbits, horses, cats and dogs at Hof Butenland. These animals co-exist, and this has only heightened how Jan now sees animals. Once they were a money-making machine. Now he sees them as individuals, with personalities and characters of their own.
“Before, I denied that I liked them. There was no other way. I wanted to earn a living. And now they are more like comrades. You are happy, you talk, you talk to them. You talk to a cow as well as to a pig or to a cat or a dog; I don’t see any difference. They all have their qualities and they are happy when I talk to them — and they tell me something. It really is a great way of living together.”
This has now become their slogan: ‘Animals aren’t machines’. The farm now aims to give a space where animals can live freely, and where humans and animals live alongside one another, peacefully. They also work to educate, telling the stories of the animals who come to live on Hof Butenland. Such as Frieda, a cow who was made immobile through being used first for milk and then as a machine for embryo transfer. By telling the reality of the industry, Jan hopes that more people will change their diets.
Jan Gerdes isn’t the only farmer to turn vegan. There are an abundance of examples. Chris Mills was a dairy farmer in the US before he turned vegan and founded the Grass Is Greener sanctuary. Harold Brown was a beef farmer in the US, and now a public speaker on animal agriculture and veganism through his Farm Kind platform. Susana Romatz was a dairy farmer in the US, and now produces vegan milks and cheeses. UK beef farmer Jay Wilde turned his farm vegan and donated his herd of cattle to an animal sanctuary when he could no longer make peace with making money from his practice.
These are people who once directly profited from the animal agriculture industry. If they can do it, anyone can. These are the people who truly know, truly understand what the animal agriculture industry looks like. If they could see that change needed to be made, so should we all.