Unique farm sells cow hugs

Farmers are always on the lookout for ways to generate more income streams from their operations. But a small outfit with farms in California, Missouri and Tennessee has come up with a truly unique business model. The Gentle Barn sells contact with farm animals as therapy and stress relief—and it’s been in operation since 1999.

As founder Ellie Laks explains on her website, she founded The Gentle Barn in 1999 because “it was a dream of hers since she was seven years old. Animals were always very healing and nurturing to her as she faced the challenges of growing up, finding herself, fitting in, feeling understood, etc.” Laks majored in special education and psychology and decided that The Gentle Barn was “a perfect way of putting all her talents and passions into one.” She and her partner Jay Weiner, who met her as a volunteer, run The Gentle Barn as a nonprofit. “Like Ellie, Jay also turned to animals for the support, love and nurturing he needed as a child,” according to the website.

The Gentle Barn started on a half-acre property in the San Fernando Valley in California. In 2003 Ellie and Jay moved The Gentle Barn to a 6-acre “paradise” in Santa Clarita. That property is described as having large horse and cow pastures, a red and white barnyard for the smaller animals, an organic vegetable garden, shade trees, and “a panoramic view of gorgeous mountains.”

The operation added two locations, one near St. Louis, Missouri, and the other in Nashville, Tennessee. According to a radio interview by Ellie, the St. Louis location came about when some cows destined for slaughter escaped and made the news as they wandered onto a major highway. The publicity helped her acquire them as rescue animals. She located a property in Dittmer, Missouri, outside of St. Louis, and a new location was born.

“It is their goal to open Gentle Barns in every state so that everyone in America can hug cows, cuddle turkeys, give pigs tummy rubs, and look into the eyes of these animals and know for certain that we are all the same, and deserving of the same rights, respects, and freedoms,” according to the website. Ellie claims that since its inception, The Gentle Barn has saved thousands of animals and hosted more than 500,000 people.

The Gentle Barn has a range of programs for a number of different prices, for groups, couples or individuals. An individual “cow hug therapy session” costs $200. What do customers who are “sad, lonely, stressed out and scared” get? “Come heal with the cows! Get hugs and unconditional love from our therapy cows. Meditate with them, hug them, and let them reassure you, fill you up, and love you. Put your worries down and leave renewed. The cows are here for you.” While Ellie and Jay are emphatic that although they believe hugging cows and petting other farm animals relieves stress and promotes wellness, they are not licensed therapists.

For $400, a group of 1 to 10 people in a “family tour” can “have the barnyard to yourself and with the help of your tour guide, you’ll brush cows, feed horses and donkeys, cuddle turkeys, hold chickens, pet goats, and sheep, give pigs tummy rubs, and so much more.” An “all-day founder’s tour” for a group of up to five people goes for $2,000.

“Being at The Gentle Barn is like walking through a giant storybook where you’ll hear the animals’ stories of resilience and learn what they teach us about forgiveness, unconditional love, and living in the moment,” the website continues. Guest can munch on popcorn while listening to presentations about the animals, “then hug the cows, feed the horses, give the pigs tummy rubs, hold the chickens, cuddle the turkeys, pat the goats and sheep, and so much more.”

The website does ask that lunches be vegan, “out of respect for the animals.”

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].