The founder and CEO of Refarm’d – which helps farmers to turn their land into animal sanctuaries and produce plant-based milk – on the mission to persuade businesses to switch their means of production.

GERALDINE STARKE

Founder and CEO of Refarm’d

Farming is a noble and ancient pursuit, often handed down over generations. Only a handful of jobs are as back breaking, vital or rooted in one’s identity.

Few occupations are in such perilous danger. Between 2003 and 2013 in Europe, one out of four farms closed down, crippling costs squeezing farmers caught between unreasonable demands from supermarkets and changing consumer habits. Now the dairy industry must contend with the disruption of the pandemic. Small companies and family businesses are the ones suffering the most from these changes, with many in the animal farming industry suffering financially and emotionally. But what if there was a way for farmers to stop using animals, keep their land and turn a profit?

 

As a vegan, I had always wanted to build my own animal sanctuary but was frustrated with the existing model. Limited to a certain amount of land space and animals I could rescue, I would be reliant on donations and volunteer work. It is difficult to scale and become self-sustainable, so it’s a very fragile way to save animals. I came to the conclusion that animal farms (excluding factory farms) could be the perfect sanctuary – these farmers already have the land, the animals, and they know how to care for them. However, there had to be a way for the farmers – many of whom are already struggling – to make a living once they’d made the switch. After a year of researching and talking with farmers, ex-farmers, politicians, food and land specialists, I proposed that farmers could continue producing milk – plant-based milk.

Milk alternatives – almond, oat, soy – have seen astonishing growth in recent years with the market expect to triple in the next five years.

Through Refarm’d, we help farmers adapt to this trend and make the transition to plant-based milk production. We demonstrate that it is an easy, cost-effective process that requires simple ingredients, equipment and training, starting with a 3-month trial period so the farmers can test our model and know that it is right for them. We set up pre-orders from customers in a 250 km radius around the farm, with ongoing subscriptions to weekly deliveries. We also help them source ingredients from local producers so they don't necessarily need to grow those ingredients, as well as find customers for them using our community platform. This allows the farmers to connect directly with customers without going through multiple intermediaries, better understand local demand, and decide the worth of their work themselves. After that, we go on a long-term contract and will be on call, forever if needed. The farmers can leave at any time, but the animals are saved from slaughter or exploitative production, legally, for the rest of their lives.

I initially reached out to people within my own networks who I knew would be interested not only in the alternative market, but in helping farmers and animals. We created a map where people could show their interest and mark where they lived in order to better understand the need. The UK had a high showing, so this is where we first started. Following our success in the UK, I had farmers from France, Switzerland, the US and Germany contact me. There's no point trying to go to a farmer who is happy about what they are doing – that is a waste of both our time. Once the farmer starts to get in touch with me, they're already in a mindset looking for a solution.

None of this would be possible without the very best advocates and spokespeople – farmers themselves. We created a support group between farmers so that those who have already changed, those who are transitioning and those who are interested can all be in touch together. We’re now talking to ten farms and have ambitious plans to grow in line with consumer demand. Once we’re able to help farmers make more of a switch to renewable energy and optimise their farm then we’ll be able to reduce to cost of everything and make their products more affordable to more people. We will always go where the opportunity is – if a farmer from Mauritius gets in touch, we will help him! We are helping all farmers, no matter why they want to change.

 

Our work sits across a number of Sustainable Development Goals – Good Health and Well-being, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Climate Action, Life on Land – and hopefully demonstrates how by directly working with the people who are closest to an issue, it is possible to effectively and fundamentally change the how, what and why of a livelihood, for the benefit of the individual, community and planet. Systematic changes such as these, even if on a small scale to begin with, are needed to shift a dial as enormous as public diet and animal welfare. It is said that "The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer." In 2020 and beyond, it is crucial that we balance that dogged disposition with plant-based pragmatism.

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