Refarm’d Project is one of the most brilliant and inspiring ecological vegan projects running at the moment in the world. It’s what the world needs to go forward. Meet Geraldine Starke, the woman behind the idea:
Please tell us a little bit about yourself first. What is your background and how was this idea born in your mind?
I am a French mom of a two-year-old, living in Spain with my husband and our three doggies. I initially studied hospitality management and worked in several restaurants, shops and hotels. After becoming vegan, almost 10 years ago, I worked on several vegan projects, like creating an online vegan shop in France, a green event planning company and even building a vegan village with other founders in Portugal. I also wanted to build my own sanctuary, but I was never really happy about the fact that sanctuaries rely on donations and volunteers to work, as it makes it quite risky. I personally know people who have sanctuaries and they are always struggling, and some have had to close down. I wanted to create a new model of sanctuaries that would be self-sustainable.
One day I had the realization that farms could be the perfect places to become sanctuaries, as they already have the land, the structures, the animals and the people who care for them on a daily basis. This model also avoids using more resources to save animals, since we know that the farming industry uses so many already. And most importantly, it has a direct impact on animal exploitation because each farm we are transitioning is one farm fewer bringing new babies into this world. We can’t continue saving animals if they continue breeding them by the millions. Well, then I needed to find a business model to make this plan work and motivate farmers to make the transition. That’s how Refarm’d was born.
How do you find the farmers who are willing to make the transition from animal farming to producing plant-based milk, and who are these farmers?
We don’t try to find farmers ourselves. We believe there is no point in trying to convince someone who likes what he is doing. Instead we prefer to help those who want to be helped. So it’s farmers contacting us directly. Sometimes it’s organizations that work with farmers trying to find a way out that redirect them to us. Otherwise it’s farmers themselves that heard about us or looked for help online. There is really a high demand from farmers. We have a long waiting list and get contacted by farmers in countries all around the world: Germany, the UK, France, Mexico, the US, Pakistan, Switzerland, Spain and others.
So far we have started 3 farms on oat milk production, two in Switzerland and one in the UK. For all farms we will be making organic, fresh plant-based milk made with local ingredients only and sold in reusable glass bottles. We don’t require farmers to grow the ingredients themselves, so that they can start immediately and because some just don’t have the land for that. But two of our three farmers have already planted oats and will use their own oats for next year’s oat milk production. We have a mix of “older” farmers and young. But it is true that it is often when the younger generation takes the farm over that they want to make changes.
What are the biggest challenges the project faces so far?
What we are doing has never been done before, on multiple levels, and that comes with a lot of challenges. We really try to stick to our values of handling everything around a transition so that farmers don’t have to, and also providing a plant-based milk product that is high quality, organic, fresh, made only with local ingredients and only sold locally. It’s also a small/medium scale production, so that is also challenging, as it has been very difficult to find appropriate machines. So much so that we are now developing our own machines.
The recipe has also been a big challenge as we didn’t want to use any added sugar or oil or any additives. The biggest difficulty was trying to find natural sources of the enzymes that are usually used for oat milk production. We didn’t want to use the lab-made enzymes as those require complicated processes and are not really safe, especially for our farmers to handle in a small production room.
And last but not least, is logistics. Logistics and deliveries are really complicated and hard to optimize when you are not a big company. We have therefore developed our own delivery system, but it’s still our main struggle as it is very costly. Well, and then there is COVID-19, and that just made our year and progress really difficult.
What machinery is needed in order to make milk from oats in big quantities? Is someone funding the purchase of the machinery? And how long does the transition take?
As mentioned, the oat milk production is small/medium scale production. We are not transforming the farms in huge factories, it stays handmade in a small production room. We, at Refarm’d, are the one providing all machinery to the farmers for free. Our model is that from the milk sales, we give 85% to the farmers and the rest we keep at Refarm’d and this money is used to buy machinery for the next farm and pay for all operational costs. So basically every farm transitioning is helping us financing another farm transformation.
As mentioned we have now started to build our own machinery as we were not happy about what currently exists. They have machinery for milling the oats, cooking, filtering/pressing but also washing the bottles and bottling. As we are not asking farmers to necessarily plant oats or source other local ingredients, the transition can happen in a matter of weeks. We do initial market research to find out if there would be interest for plant-milk in the region and start finding businesses that would like to become pickup locations and resell the milk. Depending on the farmers some may need more time, such as if they need to restore a part of a building for food production, for example.
On your website you reference plant-based milks, and not just oat milk. Do some of your farms produce other plant-based milks instead?
All the farmers we are working with will only use local ingredients. So depending on where the farm is in the world, the ingredients will vary and therefore they will be doing different types of milk. For now, our three farms, as they are in Europe, only produce oat milk. But the idea is that they will be producing other types of plant-based milk and other plant-based products like cheeses, butters, etc.
Will the sanctuaries sterilize animals in case they have both females and males, so that the animals will not reproduce?
Yes, all males are castrated, which makes it possible to keep them and have a happy mixed herd.
Have you received any negative feedback from farmers? Like that you are destroying their business for instance, or the fact that this way of making milk won’t give them subsidies as the governments give to dairy farmers?
As we are not reaching out to farmers directly ourselves, we haven’t gotten such feedback, no. Most farmers are more anxious about being certain that they can gain enough income with plant-based milk. So some farmers wanted to wait to see how other farms work with us and succeed before taking the leap. In regards to subsidies, most farmers can keep them, as the subsidies are not related to the animal exploitation but just to having farm animals and farm land. We are working on this point to help farmers keep subsidies and hopefully in the near future get more governmental help for farmers transitioning.
Any governmental reaction to your project so far? It would be so good if this was welcomed and boosted by governments, because what we need is institutional change, not just one person or one farm at a time.
We have been in touch with someone working in the European parliament and for the Green Party, and they very much are pushing towards getting more help for farmers switching to plant agriculture. It is really not easy though, and often the changes being made to the criteria for getting subsidies don’t make much sense or have a positive impact on sustainability and environmental health.
Thank you for your time and good luck with your amazing project!
This article was first published on the Ethos & Empathy website.
Featured image: cows at Farm Sanctuary in New York. Image credit Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.