Farmer Tom Lim had been raising poultry for 20 years when the company he worked for as a contractor terminated him without warning, leaving him saddled with debt and unsure of where to turn. “My heart just dropped,” he said. “I didn’t know where to make money to pay off our loans.”

Lim was born in rural Cambodia, where his parents tended rice fields with water buffalos, raised a smattering of chickens and grew vegetables around their home. That lifestyle shaped his love of farming, but was a far cry from what he found himself doing as an adult, raising 540,000 chickens a year in North Carolina for Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the largest meat producers in the US that supplies chicken to Walmart, Costco and KFC.

The longer he stayed in industrial-scale poultry farming, the more aware Lim became that it “hurt the environment” and that “many poultry farmers get sick due to breathing inside the [chicken] house”, he said, referencing the ways that the ammonia in factory-farmed chicken waste harms ecosystems and human health alike.

Tom Lim with his mushroom crop. Photograph: Courtesy of Transfarmation/Mercy for Animals

But he didn’t feel like he had other options – every season seemed to require a new loan from the bank to pay for an upgrade that Pilgrim’s Pride demanded but wouldn’t help pay for. “They told us that if we cannot upgrade what they want us to, we’d lose the contract,” Lim said. The result was an endless cycle of debt that made leaving the business feel impossible.

Lim’s predicament is an increasingly common one for farmers in the US, where about a quarter of all farm operations are in debt and family farms are increasingly bought up by large agribusinesses. Many of the small farms that do remain are like Lim’s, running operations where growers take their orders from multinational agriculture companies, which often prioritize the bottom line over the health and wellbeing of growers, their animals, and the water and land they depend on.

Lim is one of a number of farmers transitioning away from industrial animal agriculture in favor growing vegetables and mushrooms.

Though Lim’s contract ending forced him to take a job off the farm, it opened him up to other possibilities of what he could do with his land. Lim and his wife, Sokchea, are currently in the process of converting their former chicken barns into greenhouses where they can grow vegetables, and they’ve already converted an old refrigerated truck bed into a specialty mushroom-growing chamber.

“To make a living growing vegetables on my land is my dream,” he said. “This is the healthy way of making food. In the chicken house, you deal with ammonia, the smell, insects, all that. Versus the greenhouse, you go in there it just feels fresh and healthy.”

Making such a dramatic shift isn’t easy, but the Lims had help through an organization called Transfarmation, which provides farmers with technical support and small grants of $10,000 to $20,000 on their journey to transition away from factory farming.

Transfarmation is a project of the animal rights advocacy group Mercy for Animals, and arose from the relationship of its president, Leah Garces, with farmer Craig Watts, a whistleblower who made national news after 20 years of contract poultry farming for Perdue. (Watts had become troubled by the discrepancy between the picture that Perdue painted in its advertising and the conditions that Perdue chickens actually lived in. “I felt, as a farmer, that [the consumers] needed to know what was happening,” he said.)

Leah Garces and Craig Watts. Photograph: Courtesy of Transfarmation/Mercy for Animals

According to Transfarmation’s director, Tyler Whitley, leaders at the organization realized that if they wanted to help end factory farming, they needed to create resources to help farmers do something else.

“We’ve been told by the farmers that we work with that the biggest barrier is a knowledge gap. It’s very different raising chickens versus raising fresh fruits and vegetables, very different working for Tyson versus having to find your own customers,” said Whitley.

Transfarmation is partnering directly with farmers like Lim and Watts to transition their farms, as well as paying them a small stipend to collect data about their transition that will be made freely available online for other farmers who want to make a similar pivot. The organization’s farmer resources hub includes reports and YouTube webinars for learning about programs in each US state, sample plans for turning a shipping container into a mushroom-growing chamber, economic analysis of different crops, and guides on how to sell to restaurants and retailers and at farmers’ markets.

Tanner Faaborg grew up on a farm in rural Iowa where his parents contracted with a commercial pig farming operation, filling two barns with 1,100 pigs each.

But like the Lims, the Faaborgs soon found themselves stuck on what Tanner described as a financial “treadmill”, where the operation was always requiring that they invest money to upgrade or fix something but never delivering high enough returns.

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Plus, “doing that kind of work in those conditions takes a toll on your body. It’s a lot of hard work and there are a lot of injuries involved, and it’s not the best air quality,” said Faaborg, describing chores that would begin each morning with dragging any 250-pound pig that had died overnight out of the barn.

When he went away to college and started getting interested in sustainability, Faaborg found himself unable to imagine himself working on the farm unless something changed.

“I just couldn’t escape the environmental impact that it was having with these two Cafos [concentrated animal feeding operations] and the open pit lagoon and everything that goes along with that,” he said. (Research has shown that living near industrialized hog farms can shorten the lifespan not just of farmers, but of their neighbors, too, due to the air and water pollution they create.)

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Iowa has one of the highest cancer rates in the country, and we have constantly contaminated wells,” he said.

“And so I started talking to my parents about it,” he said, first convincing them to install a solar array on their land, and then more recently, to get out of the hog business altogether and start growing mushrooms. The farm recently began selling its fresh specialty mushrooms as well as mushroom products like tinctures and mushroom salts.

At first blush, former livestock farmers – many of whom are not opposed to eating meat – and an animal rights non-profit that promotes veganism might seem like an odd pairing. But whether the players involved were first animated by concern about the exploitation of animals, land or people, they end up having enough in common to work together. “What we find is that the more that you talk to a farmer about why they want to exit and what they dislike about the system, we agree on 90% of things,” Whitley said.

Tanner Faaborg with his crop. Photograph: Courtesy of Transfarmation/Mercy for Animals

It’s still too early to declare any of these farm transitions a resounding success, and only time will tell if the Faaborgs, Watts and the Lims will be able to find the market to financially support their new endeavors. But they all seem encouraged at what could be possible, and appreciate the solidarity that comes from knowing they’re not alone.

Faaborg recalls the feeling he had when they first installed solar panels on his parents’ farm – their neighbors were skeptical, and some even made fun of what seemed like a hare-brained idea. But over time, the solar array paid itself off, and Faaborg noticed that some of those same skeptics began installing solar equipment on their own land. He hopes that his family can once again influence their little corner of the agricultural landscape by shutting down their Cafos in favor of something gentler on themselves and on the land they farm.

“The hope is to take on this challenge, find success, and then showcase that change is possible,” he said.

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