One woman’s rowdy mission to change the ranching crisis

An article by Frances Pinero

Words

Frances Pinero

This article by Frances Pinero was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

A rancher’s revolution is brewing in the USA. It all started when fourth-generation cattle rancher Tommy Sonnen married city cowgirl Renee King-Sonnen, for the second time to be exact. Heading out of his day job career and into retirement, Tommy was running a cattle operation to supplement his income. Little did he know that his land and herd of 29 cows would soon become the first documented cattle ranch to go vegan, transforming itself into a registered nonprofit animal sanctuary, meanwhile inspiring other ranchers to change their lifestyles. Tommy’s retirement plans were about to be turned upside down.

"Whether it be veganic farming, solar farming or wind farming, the Rancher Advocacy Program is pioneering solutions to help farmers and ranchers opt out of animal farming."

The story of the Rowdy Girl Sanctuary started when Renee was tasked with bottle feeding a young calf, whom she named Rowdy Girl. Previously she’d spent little time outside with the animals, since Tommy ran the day-to-day business, but little Rowdy Girl calf would change Renee’s relationship with farmed animals. As much as they loved their animals, the realities of ranching life were haunting her, and she dreaded the day when, a few times a year, a red trailer would pull up to the ranch. It would sit for days as the older calves were baited inside to be separated from their mothers and taken to be sold. Renee couldn’t help but watch when the final calf was loaded, and as the red trailer pulled away, the mother cows would chase the trailer and cry out for days. Over the next four years, Renee transformed into a vegan, and inevitably couldn’t go on living on the ranch. She gave Tommy an ultimatum: stop selling the calves, or risk losing their marriage. The next few turn of events would change their lives forever. With Tommy threatening to sell the whole herd, Renee proposed to buy them all herself. To Tommy’s disbelief, in four months she raised $36,000 on a crowd-funding platform. A man of his word, Tommy obliged, sold his heard to Renee, and Rowdy Girl Sanctuary (RGS) came into existence in 2015.

© Fikry Botros / “I’m not only an animal advocate, I’m a rancher’s advocate.” © Fikry Botros / “I’m not only an animal advocate, I’m a rancher’s advocate.”

Word got out that RGS was accepting farmed animals from slaughter, and Renee’s phone started ringing more. She was gathering a sizable following on her blog ‘Vegan Journal of a Rancher’s Wife’. Pigs, goats, chickens, and ducks were becoming part of the RGS scenery. Meanwhile, Tommy was on his own journey to veganism. He was curious to see if a plant-based diet could help him improve his health and avoid the heart disease that had taken his father’s life too early. The environmental impact of animal agriculture also came into view for him, only adding to his motivation. He gave veganism a go, and never turned back. 

The Rancher Advocacy Program (RAP) was born into existence in July 2018, when it became evident to Renee that the ranchers calling her were facing a crisis. For many, there was no way out of the animal agriculture business. Most were multi-generational family operations, and giving up the land and ranching lifestyle would be unthinkable. Renee and Tommy’s story had gone viral and was picked up by major news networks. For the ranchers on the other end of the phone line, Renee and Tommy’s story had become a beacon of hope, and a story that finally gave people the permission to speak out about concerns considered taboo by the ranching community.

© Fikry Botros / Tommy comes from a multi-generational ranching family. © Fikry Botros / Tommy comes from a multi-generational ranching family.

RAP is pioneering the playbook on ranch transformations. One of their biggest endeavors so far is that of the Barrett family ranch, an Arkansas chicken and cattle ranch that would send 100,000 chickens to slaughter every 52 days. When owners Rodney and Jennifer Barrett switched to a plant-based diet to transform their health ailments, Jennifer called Renee as she realized they could not keep up their dual lives as vegan ranchers who raised chickens to make a living. They made the bold move to stop sending their animals to slaughter, but a viable back-up business plan was desperately needed as the farm bills were piling up quickly. RAP came to their rescue and organised a fundraiser to ensure their survival, and connected them with veganic farming experts to help transform them into a mushroom farm. The four giant sheds that previously housed chickens will be used to grow over 3,000 pounds of mushrooms per week. 

While Renee is the energetic and spirited face and voice driving RAP into unchartered territory, she’s very clear to say that Tommy is the beating heart of the sanctuary operation. Quietly working behind the scenes, you’ll typically find him repairing trailers, tending to the land, and accompanying Renee on the house visits they do when ranchers come calling. The rancher home visits are being documented and shared with the world on a podcast titled ‘2 Rowdy Vegans’, a collaboration between Renee and animal rights activist and documentarian Ryuji Chua. It’s not your typical podcast.  Many of the recorded conversations are informal, off-the-cusp, and emotional heart-to-heart talks between Renee, Tommy and ranchers who are at a breaking point. 2 Rowdy Vegans is more like being a fly on the wall at a rancher’s house. The accents are thick and the conversations raw. Renee has a way of getting people to open up and go deep. While sipping soup and talking through the sounds of chickens and dogs around the house, the ranchers start to reveal their deepest struggles and moral conflicts, on the record. Tommy and Renee are empathetic listeners, but perhaps the best thing that they offer the ranchers is an out. They offer the unimaginable: a way to keep making a living that doesn’t require them to leave the land. A way to keep the family tradition alive, but evolve it in a way that reflects changed core values. 

Whether it be veganic farming, solar farming, or wind farming, the Rancher Advocacy Program is pioneering solutions to help farmers and ranchers opt out of animal farming. RAP is quickly evolving into a coalition of businesses, organisations and individuals that are passionate about healing our planet and helping farmers with viable solutions and strategic partnerships. “I’m not only an animal activist, I’m a rancher’s advocate,” says Renee, and with that, she and Tommy are working to leave a lasting legacy that will transform the future of farmed animals, human health and planet health.


 

Frances Pinero is an American Latina Biomedical Engineer. She is currently raising three little citizens of the world, and is on a journey to a more sustainable lifestyle.