In May, Kevin, Gizmo, Paco and around 150 of their friends found themselves packed into 50-foot trailers headed on an impossibly complicated 47-hour road trip, one that Sweet Farm co-founder Nate Salpeter says his operation was forced to make.
Parents grimace with frustration when packing their children into a car with piles of snacks and fully-charged tablets, but Salpeter assumed the far more daunting task of transporting his farm's animals, all of them rescued from potentially traumatic situations, from California to New York.
Since 2015, Sweet Farm has sheltered animals rescued from petting zoos and encumbered farms, cultivated organic fruits and vegetables and raised over $10 million for startups solving challenges affecting our food systems. Husband-and-wife co-founders Salpeter and Anna Sweet (also the CEO of JJ Abrams' Bad Robot Games) are climate experts and entrepreneurs advancing a mission that aligns with Silicon Valley's interests in sustainability and venture capital. So what motivated them to spend $250,000 to move over 100 clucking chickens and bleating sheep, and why are other farms following their lead?
The Coastside conjures images of foggy skies and grass dampened by condensation but a couple of years ago, Sweet Farm's buckets of striped squashes and oblong tomatoes stopped appearing in its farm cart and CSA boxes months earlier than usual due to drought conditions. Since then, the farm's wells have dried up to the point where they can no longer irrigate fields of fruits and vegetables.
Sweet Farm's agricultural program also hosts field trials for tech companies focused on feeding the planet's growing population. For example, the fields would receive a treatment of biochar, organic matter burnt at high temperatures with limited oxygen, produced by a local waste management company. However, trials and experiments became ineffective when the wildly changing climate complicated the scientific process.
"There's a strong importance around the ag program being consistent, rote and robust. And really having predictable seasons ... it just became untenable to operate a strong program (in Half Moon Bay)," says Salpeter.
Beyond agriculture, finding housing for Sweet Farm's employees also became a challenge. It's difficult to receive the permitting to build housing on Coastside farmland, and the cost of living was outpacing Sweet Farm's salaries even though they were far above market rates.
Then in August 2020, the CZU Fire spread suffocating smoke across Sweet Farm, which was located on Tunitas Creek Road in the southern portion of Half Moon Bay. Salpeter and Sweet witnessed the evacuation line inching toward their property, and they joined other locals in evacuating their animals.
Thanks to an emergency response group operated by Robin Camozzi of Half Moon Bay Feed & Fuel, trailers crossed up and down the Coastside and Santa Cruz Mountains, shepherding animals across the Bay Area. Sweet Farm's staff acted rapidly but needed to control their emotions since the animals don't respond well to panic. "Maintaining your wits about you helps them make it through a stressful situation," Salpeter says.
It was two weeks before Sweet Farm's animal residents were able to return.
At this point, Salpeter asked himself, "What does the long term look like if these fires are becoming more and more commonplace?"
Salpeter and Sweet then traveled to upstate New York to take care of Sweet's parents and started considering a new home for Sweet Farm, or at least a second location. After some investigating, the couple began envisioning a property with rows of farmworker housing and productive partnerships with businesses connected to the nearby Cornell Center for Excellence for Food and Agriculture.
In summer 2021, Sweet located a promising 50-acre property in Himrod, New York, a historic estate that Salpeter says once served as the region's first vineyard. He saw the potential in renovating and providing programming in two creaking 170-year-old barns and treasured the ability to build new structures "kind of at the drop of a hat." Just as valuable were the location's robust natural resources. "Water comes out of the sky, it comes out of the ground. We're located right on a freshwater lake," says Salpeter.
In October, he sketched out the first concept for a main barn in New York, and two months later, he learned that the new property owners in Half Moon Bay would be pursuing a project on their land that could not coexist with the animal sanctuary. Salpeter's original plan to operate both a Sweet Farm East and a Sweet Farm West turned into the project of moving the organization's entire operation across the country.
Construction on Sweet Farm in New York started this past March and thanks to Mennonite building crews, new barns went up within two months. May 16 was set as the moving date for Sweet Farm's animals.
Weeks ahead of the move, a California team started sifting through the blood tests, fecal tests and health checks required to move animals across state lines. Due to concerns about avian flu, the birds received careful attention. At the same time, larger animals like goats, cows and sheep all needed to be tagged, identified and connected to their testing in the event that the transport trucks were pulled over.
Beyond these required tests, plenty of questions demanded Salpeter's attention. These inquiries included: "Which transport company to work with, how to handle feeding, do we send team members (with the trucks)? Do we transport themselves in trailers? Do we send them all nonstop?"
Consultations with veterinarians and a search for a vendor that could handle the sensitive animals led to an unexpected solution, the blue-and-black striped trailers of Brook Ledge Horse Transportation, a company focused on transporting racehorses. Brook Ledge's website boasts a list of "High Profile Passengers," and it includes the last five Kentucky Derby winners.
Hiring Brook Ledge meant that Sweet Farm could house its animals in box stalls (commonly seen in horse stables), larger spaces that resembled the ones where the animals normally slept. And while farm animals aren't Brook Ledge's normal cargo, the company could provide drivers experienced in caring for finicky animals.
Now that two 50-foot trailers were secured, Salpeter had to assemble a puzzle that resembled a riddle posed on a standardized test. Each trailer was divided into seven different stalls, and some had the ability to be subdivided even further. Frail animals couldn't be roomed with others that had high stress responses, in fear that the excited flapping of wings might cause an injury.
"You're not able to break up a rooster fight when you're barreling down an interstate," Salpeter says. Other pairings provided a chance for close companions to sleep snout-to-snout, like pigs Sweet Pea and Spuds, who escaped from a factory farm and were rounded up by Animal Control in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
After organizing the animals, the Sweet Farm team needed to create a feeding schedule for the Brook Ledge drivers. Chickens had to peck at juicy berries to maintain their hydration levels, and some of the animals needed their usual medications. Each truck housed two drivers, who would alternate shifts in order to make the 47-hour drive, stopping only to distribute feed and water in the trailers.
When it came time to load up the animals in the carefully prescribed order, staff and volunteers lured each one into place with treats. "These animals are very food-motivated," says Salpeter. The first trailer left California's rocky coasts on schedule for an 8 p.m. arrival in New York, and the second truck departed four hours later. The team rushed to the airport to catch flights that would arrive ahead of the vehicles.
While designing the road up to the barns, the Sweet Farm team included a large roundabout that would allow for the trailers to pull up beside the stalls. The animals disembarked from the trailers like passengers exiting an airplane, as an exit ramp extended from the side of the container and led directly into the center aisle of the barn. At 3 a.m., the second trailer was completely unloaded under moonlit skies. One and a half semi-trailers filled with equipment soon followed.
Today, the pigs are sniffing around their new forested pastures, an environment that Sweet Farm was never able to provide in California. Garlic has sprouted, flowers are spreading their scent across the acre of cultivated land and the trellises of the vineyard are awaiting the vines that will wrap around them next year.
In conversations, Salpeter has encountered other animal sanctuary operators moving away from the West Coast. Property values around him in upstate New York, a region he calls one of the nation's most climate-stable, have started to skyrocket. He's heard that big farms are also leaving California thanks to increasing costs of feed. Water used for producing hay has historically been heavily subsidized, but the drought might threaten this aid. The San Mateo County Department of Agriculture has reported instances of larger vegetable growers cutting back cultivation and selling land.
Other factors are influencing a farm's decisions to close or move, like how Half Moon Bay's 110-year-old Bay City Flower Company shuttered in 2019 due to competition from international producers and the region's shift toward tourism. Peninsula Open Space Trust's farmland program has focused on protecting properties from turning into private estates, and the organization estimates that 46% of San Mateo County's farms have disappeared since 1990.
Salpeter says that he doesn't want to sound "alarmist," but he recognizes that farmers are facing numerous challenges.
For Sweet Farm, the move cost the nonprofit approximately $250,000, a quarter of its annual budget, not to mention the lost revenue from prioritizing the planning process over revenue-generating programs. However, Salpeter says he knows that they made the correct decision.
"When you consider runaway processes within climate, accelerated temperature increases ... it was a big enough long-term risk that we had to make that calculated decision to get out now, before it was an emergency. The last thing that we wanted to do was try and navigate a cross-country move at the 11th hour," he says.
Even in California, you can still meet Nibblets the goat and Spuds the pig on "Goat-2-Meeting" at sweetfarm.org.