When Jess Strathdee and her partner Andrew decided to take up jobs on a Canterbury dairy farm in early 2013, they thought they’d found the perfect rural lifestyle.
Together on and off for more than a decade, the couple accepted the early starts, long hours and physically demanding work because it was a chance to spend more time together in the fresh country air, with no daily commute.
But after working with cows and calves for nearly four years, Jess – who was a confirmed carnivore and dairy eater – admits her life has “done an enormous 180”.
Once a meat-eating dairy farmer, she’s now a passionate vegan with an interest in activism and animals. “Once you break through that barrier of social conditioning to eat meat, you wake up in a world of horror,” tells the mum-of-one.
“You realise you’ve been blind to this holocaust going on all around you. A lot of vegans experience this, but for me, because of what my job was, it was even more intense. It sounds crazy and I accept people might not understand.”
Growing up in Dunedin, Jess, 36, insists she was never a big animal lover. “I had a dog when I was a kid, but that was about it.”
Initially, when she worked as a milker on the small farm with a 600-head herd, she felt a “sense of pride and solidarity with the cows”.
But a few months later, when she first witnessed calving season while working as a calf rearer, Jess’ dramatic conversion began.
“The sense of horror was immediate,” she shudders.
“I saw mothers who had birthed in snow or storms have their babies taken immediately – they didn’t even get to clean them first. The tiniest calves are tube-fed twice a day for four days, a litre of colostrum poured in all at once.
“I knew, logically, that cows need babies to produce milk, but I didn’t really think about the fact those babies are almost immediately taken away from their mothers. That first morning, I knew I would never have dairy again and I cried every day for two weeks.”
After becoming pregnant in 2014, Jess, who was juggling a degree in politics and social policy with her farming work, had minimal contact with the cows because of farming laws for pregnant women.
Andrew, meanwhile, was working 14 to 16 hours a day with little time off. “The day Mac was born, he was back out milking again within hours and I was basically a single mum.”
Jess was often alone, balancing a new baby with dirty nappies and full-time study. “I was unhappy, but I was too busy to dwell on it too much. As Mac got older, things became easier and I had more time to think.”
By July 2016, with her fourth calving season underway, Jess spiralled into a serious month-long depression, which led to a breakdown.
“I had never felt suicidal before, but I almost lost my mind with grief,” she tells.
“Being a mother intensified everything I was feeling for the cows and their babies. I woke up and realised exactly what I was living amongst – what was paying my bills.
“Mothers were birthing outside my window and I was listening to their labour pains all night, and then watching them loving and cleaning their babies until my man came with the tractor and cage to take those babies to the pens.”
Crying now, Jess continues, “I used to go out and film the cows on my phone for those two hours they were together with their babies. It sounds silly, but I just felt if I could document it, it meant something.”
Ironically, it wasn’t Andrew or even Mac, now two-and-a-half, who saved Jess from self-harm, but the words of a kind stranger – a vegan activist in Dunedin called Carl Scott.
“I’d never been on social media before, but at my lowest, I joined Facebook and found a whole world of vegans and animal rights groups. It was like, ‘This is it!’ It empowered me.
“Especially talking to Carl, who had once been a slaughterhouse worker and became an animal rights activist. I messaged him and he was absolutely crucial in me surviving my breakdown. His words stayed with me and it was my turning point.”
Jess immediately started planning her departure from the farm, with or without Andrew.
“I had to get out – I was surely losing my mind,” she tells.
“I was even prepared to leave Andrew, my partner of 16 years, the love of my life and father of my son, if he hadn’t also wanted to go. Luckily, he told me he too was broken and so miserable that he couldn’t do another season.”
Nearly four years after first setting foot on the farm, Jess, who’s a part-time care worker, and Andrew, a full-time student, now live in a small coastal Canterbury town, where they’re happily raising Mac as a vegan.
“Things aren’t easy – we get by with very little – but we’re so happy,” she smiles. “We are like different people. At the moment, I work with humans, but my dream is to work with animals.
“Memories of the farm still haunt me and leaving it all behind was not a celebration – I felt enormous guilt at walking away from the cows. But at the same time, if I hadn’t worked there, I would never be looking forward to the future that I am now.
“People might question why I stayed so long. The only way I can explain it was that I knew it all in my head, but it took me becoming a mum for it to move to my heart.”