A ‘Transfarmation’: Meet The Woman Helping Animal Farms Turn Vegan

With more and more animals farmers suffering from guilt, activists like Sarah Heiligtag are providing a solution


7 Minutes Read

Sarah Heiligtag, a vegan who transforms farms, stroking a pig on the grass Sarah Heiligtag has helped more than 100 farms move away from animals - Media Credit: Sabina Diethelm / We Animals Media

Back in 2017, a Swiss vegan farm owner named Sarah Heiligtag received a phone call from a nearby dairy farmer. He’d been growing uneasy about his business, and was struggling to cope with the guilt of raising animals for slaughter. His call came the day after he took another load of his cows to the slaughterhouse, and he asked her if she could help him turn his farm vegan. “I said yes you can do that,” Heiligtag tells Plant Based News. “I didn’t know if it would be true or not, but I just was so intrigued by the idea to change whole farms around.”

Since that day, Heiligtag has helped 125 farms in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany move away from animals. She calls this process a “transfarmation.” Animals will either be moved to sanctuaries, or remain and allowed to live out their natural lives in peace. The new farms will always be entirely vegan. 

Farmers mostly get in contact after experiencing the guilt that sometimes comes with their line of work. “They suffer because of what they have to do to animals,” she says. “It can be that they have been suffering for years and years and years and didn’t see a way out, but it can also happen that they look into one animal’s eyes and suddenly realize there’s someone behind these eyes.”

Claudia and Beat Troxler watch as Sarah Heiligtag feeds carrots to one of the goat and one of the pig residents at Lebenshof Aurelio, in Lucerne, Switzerland. With the help of Sarah Heiligtag, Lebenshof Aurelio was able to transform from a dairy and pig farm to a vegan farm and sanctuary. Lebenshof Aurelio, Buron, Lucerne, Switzerland, 2022. Sabina Diethelm / We Animals Media
Sabina Diethelm / We Animals Media Claudia and Beat Troxler (pictured standing) owned a pig and dairy farm, which they transitioned to a vegan farm and sanctuary with the help of Sarah Heiligtag (pictured crouching down)

The transfarmation

A transfarmation usually begins with a phone call. Heiligtag will find out as much information as possible about the farm and its potential to be changed. She’ll then visit the farm and check out the surroundings, find out their situation, and look into whether they’ll need financial support. “We talk about what they would want to do if they were completely free without boundaries,” she says. “Do they have any ideas of what they could do? And some do. Some really have dreams.”

The farms will adopt plant-based farming methods, often adapting to grow oats, chickpeas, lentils, fruit, and legumes. Farms like these help the Swiss population to eat more local plant foods, as these tend to be imported into the country. Some farms will also open sanctuaries and invite schools to visit and learn about the transfarmation process, while others will host B&Bs on their premises. 

A former beef farm owner Selina holding a baby next to an animal pen, while Sarah Heiligtag stands next to her feeding the animals
Selina (pictured on the left) and her husband Adrian Blaser took over his parents’ beef farm in 2020. From the very beginning, Selina had difficulty accepting how animals were treated like commodities. She objected to newborn calves being butchered once they were large enough, even though their living conditions were very good compared to other farms. Selina found Sarah Heiligtag online, and together they transformed the farm into a sanctuary and vegan farm in 2021. Selina and Adrian now grow chickpeas, working together with a Swiss enterprise that makes hummus. They also grow their own vegetables and have established an adoption program that allows people to sponsor animals living at the sanctuary. Besides the cows, there are also goats, chickens, rabbits, cats, and a dog who live there.
Sabina Diethelm / We Animals Media

‘A new normal’

Heiligtag is a long-term vegan and animal rights activist, and spent years doing undercover work in slaughterhouses before helping farms transfarm. “I really wanted to fight the system and stop it until I realized it probably will break me because it was so horrible, what I saw every day,” she says. Transfarmations are, for Heiligtag, a new form of activism that sees her change, rather than go against, the agricultural system. “I had this dream to work for a new normal. Not only against what’s happening, but also to show that it’s possible to be different, that we can do something for a peaceful world.”

Heiligtag will help any animal farm with potential to be transfarmed, and has worked with those housing pigs, dairy cows, chickens, and more. She will only, however, work with farmers prepared to move away from livestock completely. “I get asked a lot if I would help reduce the animals a little bit, or change them from cows to sheep, and I clearly say no,” she says. “For me change is really about getting out of animal agriculture completely. So the end and the future is always vegan agriculture.”

Llamas and an alpaca stand in a green pasture at Lebenshof Aurelio, a farm animal sanctuary in Lucerne, Switzerland owned by Beat and Claudia Troxler. Lebenshof Aurelio is a former dairy and pig farm that has been "transfarmed" into a vegan farm and sanctuary with the help of Sarah Heiligtag of the Hof Narr sanctuary. "Lebenshof" is a German word that loosely translates to "farm of life". The llamas and alpacas share the pasture there with two herds of cows. Lebenshof Aurelio, Buron, Lucerne, Switzerland, 2022. Sabina Diethelm / We Animals Media
Sabina Diethelm / We Animals Media Lebenshof Aurelio (pictured) is a former family dairy and pig farm in Buron, Switzerland that became a vegan farm and farm animal sanctuary with the help of Sarah Heiligtag

The myth of ‘good’ animal farms

Switzerland, where Heiligtag works, has among the best “animal welfare” laws in the world. She also often works with small and family-run farms, those the general public often deem as “good” (as opposed to “bad” factory farms). This means that, by anyone’s logic, the animal farms she transfarms would be among the best and most ethical in the world.

Why, then, are their owners carrying so much guilt?

“It’s not possible to produce animal products without exploiting animals,” she says. “Even those that look beautiful, even those that you think are typical Heidi Swiss farms, they still have to produce milk. You have to separate the calf from the mom. It’s a long ongoing suffering. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hundred cows or a thousand cows. It’s always horrible and it’s always really, really painful for the animals.”

Chickens in a shed on a Swiss chicken farm
Sabina Diethelm / We Animals Media Heiligtag tends to work with smaller and family run farms

Challenges of transfarmations

While she has successfully helped a huge number of farmers, not every farm that wants to has potential to be transfarmed. “The difficult thing for me is when I know I can’t rescue all of these animals that I see,” she says. “If I’m not sure if this farm is really ready for change, and I see all these animals looking at me. As soon as I see an animal I feel like I want to help, and leaving them behind is very hard.”

The global vegan movement is growing, bringing with it calls around the world for farmers to adapt and adopt animal-free methods. While many farmers are open and receptive to change, some have responded to changing attitudes with a fresh – and sometimes dangerous – determination to maintain the status quo. “There have been moments where there has been a lot of aggression,” says Heiligtag. “For example by a dad who is against the changing of his son’s farm. It can get quite emotional or even violent. I have to set my boundaries, and work out if I should go there or not. Once a farmer explicitly killed an animal in front of my eyes to show me that he’s the winner. So I see stuff that kind of haunts me sometimes, but that’s just part of it.” 

Heiligtag says, however, that such aggressive behavior is rare. “In general, I try to be kind, to understand everyone. I don’t want to harm anybody, I just want to stop animal suffering, and that’s what I try to say. I’m not going to places to say ‘you need to change,’ but if someone calls me, I’m going there.”

Selina Blaser (right), Sarah Heiligtag (left) sitting on a bench looking out into green fields
Sabina Diethelm / We Animals Media Sarah Heiligtag continues to help farmers move away from animals all over Switzerland

Challenges for farmers

The biggest boundary for those hoping to transfarm, says Heiligtag, is the social environment they live in, as well as potential judgment from other farmers. “Being brave enough to stand there and say ‘yes I’m changing,’ despite what everyone will say.”

The beginning of the transfarmation tends to be the hardest part, when farmers are, as Heiligtag puts it, no longer “in the club” with their colleagues. “But once they see that it’s actually working this changes,” she says. “Now the whole farm looks much more beautiful, and people come and say ‘wow, what you’re doing here is brilliant.’”

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