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A Farm Like No Other

At the top of a small rise, with views of meadows and mountains peeking through the tall trees, is something you wouldn’t expect to see at an animal rescue or an organic farm. Laid out on a clearing in the woods is a rustic labyrinth, outlined by rough stones placed there by young men from an alternative high school and veterans struggling to overcome the memories of war. In the middle of the labyrinth glisten hundreds of crystals, lying on the ground beneath a massive quartz crystal cluster. 

The goal for every animal that comes here is to make sure they never suffer again.

“We encourage people to help us build the labyrinth walls by leaving a rock someplace along the path to the center,” say Sansa Collins, Animal Care Manager of Sanctuary One, “and then take a crystal from the center with them when they leave. That way, they can take a piece of the Sanctuary and carry it with them always.”

The idea of give and take permeates every aspect of life on this farm. This is not the sort of thing you hear when you leave most farms, but Sanctuary One is not like most farms — in fact it’s not like any other farm in the United States. Sanctuary One was conceived as a place where people can come to reconnect with the earth and experience profound healing by working in the dirt, where the earth is healed through permaculture practices, and where animals who have experienced abuse and neglect can come to be healed and live the rest of their days in safety and comfort. The idea of give and take is integral to everything and everyone - human and animal — at the Sanctuary.

Though not common in the United States, care farms are prevalent in Europe. However, one thing that sets this care farm apart from its European counterparts is the commitment to permaculture principles, a term first coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. Permaculture is a philosophy that encourages working with rather than against nature; practicing extended and thoughtful observation rather than extended and thoughtless labor; and looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.1

The core tenets of permaculture are:

Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.

Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.

Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.2

Each of these tenets is integral to life at Sanctuary One.

Giving Back To The Land

The picturesque 55-acre property that houses the Sanctuary looks pristine and fertile, but its previous use as a cattle ranch took a toll. “The land was used hard,” says Collins. Cows are notoriously tough on land — they graze the plants down to the root, which causes erosion and allows invasive weeds to take hold. Around streams or creeks, the hard hooves of cattle trample the ground and push dirt into the water, choking out fish and aquatic vegetation, and creating soil runoff. In addition, excretions from cattle can pollute water directly.

After years of this hard use, the land at Sanctuary One needs to be rehabilitated and made healthy again. After all, the land is what supports both animals and people — if it’s not healthy it can’t produce the food we need to live. If we give back to the land, it keeps giving to us. This is one of the key principles of permaculture, and it is practiced faithfully here at Sanctuary One. For example, grazing animals are moved around to different pastures to keep them from overgrazing any one area, sheet mulching is used instead of rototilling, and there is a commitment to use locally sourced materials whenever possible and conserve resources.

Sanctuary One tends two gardens using organic practices — one large enough to feed the staff and interns who work at the farm and provide enough to sell at the Jacksonville Farmers Market. All proceeds from the sale of produce go directly back into the farm’s general fund to support their work. Any produce that is not sold or used by people is fed to the animals on the farm - nothing goes to waste. Weeds and organic waste are composted, and the resulting rich compost is mixed into the garden beds. Animal manure is collected from the barns and fields and added to the compost piles to further enrich the soil and improve crops.

“We don’t rototill the soil. Instead we layer the compost and the soil and let it all mix together on its own,” says Della Merrill, the Sanctuary’s Program Manager and a certified Master Gardener. Why not rototill, I wondered. Merrill answers before I can even ask the question. “Rototilling harms the microorganisms in the soil. They do better when they aren’t disturbed.” This approach has helped the soil replenish, and the garden produces more each year. Weeds grow profusely between rows of produce, while the mounds supporting squash, tomatoes, beans, carrots, radishes, cabbages, potatoes, beets, onions, garlic and many varieties of greens are practically weed-free.

“We are producing a food forest,” says Collins. A food forest? “Yes,” she says. “That’s a permaculture concept that looks at the health of the food system on every level — from below the ground to the tops of the trees. Each layer produces food for something else.” Microorganisms feed the soil that feeds the plants that feed the animals and people. The waste from the animals feeds the soil, and the cycle continues.

Giving Back To Animals

In the vast majority of ways that humans and animals interact, the animals “give” and the humans “take.” We take their milk, their eggs, and their skins for our clothing, their flesh for our tables. Humans use animals for our scientific and medical experiments. In return, most animals get short, torturous lives. Though this debt to animals can never be repaid, Sanctuary One tries to undo the harm that others have caused to animals. At this time, the Sanctuary has more than 70 animals in their care. Many of the animals had sad stories before coming to live here, some unimaginably so.

Some of the Sanctuary’s chickens were among 50,000 birds abandoned in an egg laying facility in Turlock, California. When the facility’s owner ran into financial trouble, rather than try and re-home or sell the birds, or even euthanize them humanely, he simply left them caged and locked behind closed doors, to die slowly of hunger and thirst. It took more than two weeks for authorities to get to the chickens—by then thousands had died and only a few sick and dying birds were rescued and given a second chance at life. Today, a few lucky hens that now call the Sanctuary home, scratch the ground and roost in a straw-bale coop, safe from predators and harm.

Rose, a beautiful roan mare, is still a bit skittish and shy. She was found in Crescent City alone in a field, painfully thin from starvation. Her foal was found dead in the field. Rose had been mistreated her whole life — everything that was ever done to her was done by force. She is slowly learning to trust people and overcome her fears, now that she is safe and will never be hurt again.

Comet, a mustang, is not shy. She walks right up to visitors and likes to be petted and scratched. Comet was part of a wild horse round up where many horses were sold and taken for slaughter. Comet’s mother was probably among the horses killed for meat, but Comet was too small to bother with. Just a few days old, with her umbilical cord still attached, Comet was tossed on the side of the road and left to die. She and four other foals were rescued by the Strawberry Mountain Mustang Rescue and eventually Comet was brought here, where she has become the dominant mare in the field.

Six alpacas group together — clearly friends. They were rescued in Polk County, Oregon when 175 alpacas were seized from a breeder who neglected them. Oregon State University provided the veterinary services needed to bring the animals back to health, and then they were transferred to other organizations, or adopted by people who would care for them.

On many days during the academic year, a steady flow of young people from local schools visit to spend time working at the farm.

Two of the Sanctuary’s resident rabbits were previously owned by a drug dealer. When he was murdered, many rabbits were left behind without food or water. By the time authorities finally arrived, many of the rabbits had died. Among those rescued were two who were nursed back to health, spayed and neutered, and are now thriving in a safe and comfortable bunny haven.

Perhaps the most famous resident is Lisa—a 700-pound Yorkshire pig. On this day she is lying next to her friend Lulu in a shaded barn, where they are enjoying the cool dirt on their bellies. Lisa was rescued by a humane society in Bellingham, Washington after neighbors witnessed Lisa’s owner beating her in the face with a board. Her crime? She wandered away from his farm seeking the company of other pigs. Pigs are famously social and intelligent. They love to have company and things to do to keep their busy minds occupied. Lisa was kept alone, the equivalent of spending time in solitary confinement, while she was being fattened up for slaughter. She couldn’t stand the torture of being alone all the time, so she went looking for companionship. She has now been at Sanctuary One for four years, enjoying the company of two other pigs and many other animal friends. She will never be lonely or beaten again.

Lisa is getting old for a pig– much older than pigs normally get. Once a veterinarian treating Lisa asked the staff how long Yorkshires live. No one seems to really know since they never get to live a natural life span — they are almost always slaughtered when just a few months old. So in this way, Sanctuary One is also serving as a cutting edge pig geriatric facility — treating the aches and pains and hoof problems that come with carrying around a huge body for years on end. This is new knowledge that will be shared with other pig rescuers.

Lisa, like many of the others, came to the Sanctuary as a result of partnering with other rescues, shelters and humane societies. They do not typically accept animals from the public. However, through a fundraising program known as Safe Haven, they will consider a private intake for a significant donation that provides the needed resources to care for the animal in question and allows them to provide sanctuary and rehabilitation to more animals in need.

To be able to give such good care to every animal that comes to the farm, Sanctuary One must limit the number of each species they can rescue. Most of the animals are spayed or neutered to assure that no breeding happens. On average, Sanctuary One cares for about 100 to 120 animals each year. Many are adopted to loving homes, but some will spend the rest of their lives at the Sanctuary. The goal for every animal that comes here is to make sure they never suffer again.

“We believe that all animals have value in and of themselves, not for what they can do for humans,” says Collins. To that end, and contrary to what other care farms may practice, animals are not used for food or milk at Sanctuary One. While on the premises, staff and visitors are asked to refrain from eating meat. It’s simply a way to acknowledge and respect the value of animals as fellow beings on the planet we all share.

Giving Back To People

“We don’t do things here on a large scale,” explains Merrill. “We do things on a human scale.” This means there are no huge tractors or combines, no commercial processing facilities, no fertilizers or weed killers. A cadre of staff, interns, students and volunteers keep the gardens growing, the fences and barns in good repair, the sprinklers flowing and animals healthy.

We all know that getting out and exercising in fresh air and sunshine is good for the body and soul. At its most basic level, anyone spending time at the farm gets a healthful benefit. But the benefits here go much deeper.

On many days during the academic year, a steady flow of young people from local schools visit to spend time working at the farm. During their visits, they learn science, social studies, and math lessons in a hands-on, active way. This type of learning is so engaging that students don’t even realize they are learning — this just seems like fun, but the lessons learned here carry over in the classroom and in life. “As a teacher, there is no greater reward than witnessing authentic student engagement. The ground is fertile at Sanctuary One for students and animals to grow and learn from one another,” says Ryan King, a teacher at Ruch Elementary, a local school that partners with the Sanctuary.

Each spring, students from the alternative breaks program at UC Berkeley, stay and volunteer for several days at the farm. Alternative Breaks is a service-learning program for students to explore social issues through meaningful service, education, and reflection during their academic breaks. The students are inspired by what they see and experience here; they want to find different ways of being in the world. One young woman got a tattoo on her forearm representing the animals she worked with while she was here. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do, but she wanted to make sure she never lost her passion for animals. She returned to the Sanctuary the following year as a leader of the alternative spring break program.

One intern who spent time here graduated from the law program at Lewis & Clark University with a focus on animal rights. She is currently pursuing a career that helps the lives of many animals. One intern used to be an ultrasound technician, but found the career unfulfilling. He came here searching for a way to live more meaningfully.

The Sanctuary regularly hosts groups of troubled young people — kids who were abused, neglected, or entered the judicial system at young ages. They come here because adults make them, but something happens once they get here. “No one leaves here without being changed in some way,” says Collins. “Even kids who live in rural areas may never have seen a cow or pig close up. They don’t think about where their meat comes from.”

But troubled kids also seem to relate to animals who have suffered. They understand that it’s hard to learn to trust again, hard to let go of the past and feel safe. But caring for animals and seeing a horse or pig or llama overcome the past seems to open the hearts and minds of kids who have also known their share of suffering. Gaining the trust of an animal, or growing food from a garden, takes time. So becoming a part of the Sanctuary also means becoming a part of the flow and rhythm of the earth. Working here helps people to learn patience, to learn to keep working toward a goal even if it takes some time to see the results. It has been said that gardening is an act of optimism, and that is learned here, too. You plant the seeds and have faith that they will grow.

For a couple years the Sanctuary hosted a group of veterans on a monthly basis. Among the animals grazing peacefully in pastures, or among the quiet of the trees, connecting with the earth can help put the heart at ease. These veterans looked forward to the exercise, the fellowship with other volunteers, staff and each other. Many veterans remarked on the peace and quiet they found here and how caring for animals brought them so much joy, how even mucking fields felt good. One veteran remarked, “Where else can you go to heal yourself from the inside out, help animals heal, build a healing garden . . . it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Veterans and many other volunteers built the labyrinth. It provides a path for reflection, a way to mirror the inner journey in the outer world. They built the path, curling in and out of itself, stone by stone, step by step. In walking the path, many people experience epiphanies, clarity, or an outpouring of emotions ranging from grief to gratitude. The experience of walking the labyrinth, much like the experience of visiting Sanctuary One, is different for everyone. But one thing is certain, once you come to this healing farm; you will never be quite the same again.

1. Mollison, B. (1991). Introduction to permaculture. Tasmania, Australia: Tagari.

2. Mollison, Bill. “Permaculture: A Quiet Revolution — An Interview with Bill Mollison.” www.scottlondon.com. Retrieved 17 May 2013.