The Barrett Family

The Barrett Family Story

My name is Jennifer Barrett. I live on a farm in Southwest Arkansas where my husband, Rodney, and I formerly raised cattle and chickens—for 18 years. My family and I moved to this farm when I was in high school (1987). Rodney and I got married in ’91, moved away for 8 years, and then we moved back to the farm with our small children and took over the operation in late 1999.

Both Rodney and I had grandparents with farms and shared a deep love for country life, agriculture and animals. We were thrilled to have an opportunity to earn a living doing anything in agriculture so, we were thrilled to leave behind our civilian jobs and jumped at the chance to take over my parents’ chicken operation. We knew it would be hard work but were willing to do whatever to allow us to be on the farm. Our connection to the land here primal and strong. 

We raised chickens in my parents’ chicken houses from late ’99 until 2006 when we could no longer compete with the newer industry standards so, we decided to take out a loan to build four new chicken houses. We were proud of our investment and of our farm. Rodney had grown up around auto mechanics and had been a working mechanic for nearly a decade before I even met him. His skills and work ethic were invaluable and he dedicated himself to being an excellent farmer.

We were so proud to be raising our children in a way that would teach them a work ethic and give them skills and a respect for where their food came from. They raised goats and pigs and made the fair circuit throughout their high school years. It was something we all participated in as a family and really loved it. And, they learned to swallow their heartache at the end of season when it came time to face the inescapable truth of raising animals for food. 

I thought I was giving my children some sort of gift by toughening them up or desensitizing them to the reality of farming at an early age. I was in high school when we raised our first batch of chickens and I was traumatized the first time I saw them all being caught and hauled away in trucks, knowing their fate. I really believed that it was beneficial to educate my children from an early age to know the reality of food production. The chickens, cows, pigs, and goats were a commodity. Any sentimentality was accepted as a cute novelty but, we all knew not to get too attached or to show too much emotion. 

In 2011, Rodney got sick. He began having symptoms that were affecting every aspect of his life including the farming operation. We put enough money together to pay for a colonoscopy and the news came back as ulcerative colitis. The doctor told us that there was no cure and prescribed some very expensive drugs to combat the symptoms. The thought of my beautiful, strong husband living the rest of his life with this thing—with this terrible, awful thing—was such a feeling of hopelessness. But, my stubborn will kicked in almost immediately and I determined in my mind that there had to be a better way. This couldn’t be the final say.

I began my research immediately. At first, things looked pretty grim. He started on the drugs and we tweaked a few things in our diet but, life pretty much remained the same for a while. He only took the drugs for a few months because the side effects were worse than the symptoms. Through this seeking of health, I started to try and get healthier myself. I was suffering from painful arthritis, depression, hypertension, obesity and IBS. I’d started wondering just how long we would even be able to keep up with the farm since we seemed to be declining so quickly. 

Then, in 2013, I started working out and really cleaning up my diet. By default, the whole family started to eat better. There was less junk food in the house, I was cooking more meals at home and adding in more and more veggies. I started to feel so much better just from cutting out processed food and sugar and, Rodney’s UC was in remission most of the time. 

Then, in May of 2016, we did a 3-week plant-based program. We only had a small amount of animal protein in the first week and then the second two weeks were fully vegan. When that program was complete, I felt like a whole new person. My mind was so sharp and clear. I was sleeping like a baby. I had so much vitality and energy and JOY. We both did. It was revolutionary…but, it raised a million questions.

I’ve heard that the soul is covered by a thousand veils and this revelation tore down many of them. Lightbulbs started to come on in regards to our farming operation. It was like my cognitive thinking had been adulterated my whole life and I could finally see clearly. The big haunting question was “if I feel this good by NOT eating what I’m raising, then…why?? Why is any of this happening?” 

Just after that first 21 days of plant based eating, I remember standing in one of our chicken houses the day before they went to slaughter and feeling so heavy with grief that they were all going to die…and for what? 

My job up until then had been one of those badges of honor, a “dirty” job, a good old American way to make a living. And it was hard!! So hard on us in every way. But we did it with pride because we were providing a product and we were serving the greater good and it was, at the very least, allowing us to live on our beloved farm.

I thought for a while that I could live with the hypocrisy of it. I thought I could be a vegan that just so happened to raise chickens for a living. But it got dark for me. It was so horrible to know that all of this suffering and death and decay, this holocaust situation, was so unnecessary. I started to see the chickens differently. I’d never really looked at them as individuals before but, my heart started to break when I would see their terror and their suffering. They were no longer a product. They were birds!! They hatched from an egg…that miraculous thing that happens when a baby bird hatches from an egg…and we’ve mass produced it, and put them on an assembly line, and sentenced them to a life of misery, then slit their throats and for what? To clog our arteries and destroy our health? To spend a few minutes mindlessly munching on their flesh? It became more than I could bear. 

The debt on the farm was so huge, there really was no way out. I started to feel like a prisoner. The hard labor began to carry this deep shame with it. I started to feel trapped in it. The chains around us were tight. It started to become clearer to me just how twisted and sickening the whole affair really was. Not only were we raising hundreds of thousands of birds in the most deplorable conditions but, we were helpless to do anything about it. The debt on the farm kept us with our noses down and our mouths shut. Indentured servitude. What had been the promise of independence was now the very thing that was keeping us imprisoned, right here on our own farm. 

I continued to research and became voracious for information to back up my revelation experience with actual facts. And, boy, did I ever find some facts. The more I started to dig, the more it became apparent that a whole-food plant-based diet was the answer to every problem. Not only was it THE way for humans to be eating to thrive but, it was kind and compassionate. I liked being kind and compassionate. I started to learn about the environmental degradation that occurs with factory farming. And, with every new bit of knowledge, the noose tightened. 

Finally, in December of 2017, I was at the bottom. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t send calves to the sale barn. Working in the chicken houses became nightmarish. The sorrow I felt for their condition, the pain I felt when they all were sent to slaughter was no longer something I could transcend. I couldn’t un-know what I knew. I couldn’t un-see what I’d seen. I couldn’t deny what I was experiencing in a body that was thriving on plants. Everything in me wanted to embrace the truth but I was living in the middle of this horrible, incredible lie. 

One very cold and dark day, I sat down with all my brokenness, confusion, and desperation and wrote a letter to the universe asking for help. There was an intrinsic knowing that we would never be able to dig out of this alone. And, it turns out, there were people out there willing to help us out of our situation. 

This leads me to when I met Renee, Director of Rowdy Girl Sanctuary and the Rancher Advocacy Program. The story is long and winding but, it ultimately led us to exactly the right people at exactly the right time. Renee came into our lives at a time of great distress. We took a leap of faith in September of 2018 and cancelled our contract with the company for whom we were raising chickens and, we stopped breeding and selling cattle. This left us with zero income and no way to take care of the existing herd except with what we already had. Hay started to run out quickly and we had no way of buying more. 

When I contacted Renee to tell her about our situation, she was at my farm the very next day organizing and executing a fund raiser to get us hay. The next 24 hours were a whirlwind of generosity and we met our fundraising goal, bought hay, and had money left over to buy diesel. The logistics of how this all played out still baffles me.

It has been well over three years since we exited animal agriculture and entered into farm transition and, as with most groundbreaking ventures, it has not been without challenges. We have definitely proven to ourselves to be resilient. 

Even despite the efforts of outside forces to stop the transition, we have soldiered on. Through a time of great darkness and confusion we have all found redemption. 

This past fall, we made a new friend, Denis Vidmar of The MushHub who swiftly evolved the complexities of the transition. He became an integral part of the team that was desperate for solutions. His experience in mushroom farming and passion for everything mushrooms was exactly what the project needed to create a forceful momentum.

To say it’s been a whirlwind would be an understatement.

It is finally happening.

We are converting the chicken houses into a state-of-the-art mushroom farm! It’s just the coolest thing ever.

There is so much to tell about this historical transition. The past few years have been quite a season of learning for all of us. We’ve learned humility and forgiveness. We’ve become wiser to the darkness in the world. We have learned that the only way to overcome darkness is with light. And, let me tell you, we are about to shine the light.

With a newfound love for each other and an amazing team of people, we are forging ahead to a beautiful future in agriculture.