Sonia Faruqi graduated from Dartmouth and went to work on Wall Street at exactly the wrong time. After two years of 70-hour work weeks—eating breakfast, lunch and dinner most days at her cubicle—the Great Recession reached its apex, the investment banks laid off thousands of employees, and she was out of a job.
In her mid-20s and exhausted from two years of spending most of her waking hours at a desk, Faruqi started calling around to small farms hoping to find a pastoral, rustic place to volunteer for a few weeks. She landed at a dairy farm, and then an egg farm, and then more farms—and few of them pastoral or rustic.
“I realized I was learning a lot that I didn’t know and that most people don’t know,” Faruqi says. “I was getting an inside look at a really secretive industry that I had stumbled into.”
At some point, the out-of-work investment banker started to become an investigative journalist. Her new book, Project Animal Farm: An Accidental Journey Into the Secret World of Farming and the Truth About Our Food, is the story of the nearly two years she spent traveling all over the world and researching the book.
“At the beginning, people didn’t know it was for a book,” Faruqi says. “I didn’t even know it was for a book. I went back and talked to some of the people who are in the book, and they’ve been very supportive. For other people, I changed their names so that the book wouldn’t have any detrimental impact on them.”
On a farm in Canada, Faruqi saw otherwise kind people act barbarically with their animals. She interviewed a farmer who castrated piglets and docked their tails with an open blade. (“Castration doesn’t hurt at all,” he told her, the piglet squealing all the while. Performing the practice without anesthesia is banned in much of Europe.)
Faruqi spent nearly two years researching the book and traveled all over the world. She worked on a chicken farm in Indonesia that had thousands of wooden chicken coops, each barely a foot tall and a foot wide. In Belize, she spent time at a farm run by Mennonite missionaries that raised cattle and chickens and that she describes in the book as “exactly what I’d been seeking all over the world.” In Singapore—the only country in the world that spends less on food per capita than the United States—most of the farms were gone; the country now imports nearly all of its food.
“For almost all of these factory farm companies, there’s very little information online,” Faruqi says. “You have to ask around to find out where they are and then just show up. I would go to a restaurant and ask where they get their meat, and they would give me a number or an address. I couldn’t do any of that beforehand. I had to meet people and do all of the investigations after I arrived.”
Faruqi, who grew up mostly eating meat and is now a vegetarian, said she had a visceral and emotional reaction to much of what she saw—animals crammed tightly together in pens for, in many cases, their entire lives. One dairy farm that she visited looked more like a prison or an actual factory than a farm, though the term—“factory farm”—has moved from pejorative to common usage at many of those places.
“I had expected pastoral and picturesque, and it wasn’t,” she says. “The cows were chained to their stalls. I wasn’t comfortable with it, and there was a lot of tension between myself and the family I was staying with.”
Although the experience was difficult to take at times, Project Animal Farm shows the complexity of a largely inhume industry operated by good, hard-working people all over the world. “I met a lot of wonderful people who I would not have met otherwise,” Faruqi says, “people who were very different than the stereotype we have of factory farmers.”
Scott Porch is an attorney and contributes to Kirkus Reviews and The Daily Beast. He is writing a book about social upheaval in the 1960s and '70s.