Off a small bumpy dirt road in Newberry is Peacefield Farm Sanctuary, a 30-acre farm committed to rescuing and rehabilitating neglected farm animals.
Emma and John Hoel, owners of Peacefield Farm Sanctuary, moved from Minnesota to Florida with the dream of starting a rescue farm to prevent animals from being used and abused in the food industry. Their ultimate goal is to save animals, while simultaneously encouraging others to eliminate animal products from their diets.
After John and Emma Hoel met in 2009, they said they bonded over their love for animals and began their journey on the vegan train.
“It wasn’t until we read the book that changed our lives called ‘How Not To Die’ that we switched to a plant-based diet,” Emma Hoel said.
After reading the book, the Hoels began eating a plant-based diet and immediately saw the benefits. They said more energy was the biggest benefit for them, which allowed them to return to long-distance running, something they both have enjoyed since childhood.
“We found that by eating a plant-based diet, we were able to recover faster,” Emma Hoel said. “Instead of limping around after a long run, we were able to go for another long run the next day.”
After making the life changing decision to start eating a plant-based diet, they began to dream about what they could do to help other people make the switch.
The Hoels started searching the country three years ago for a new home, and a farm to come with it.
“We found a place in Hawaii, but John kept coming back to this place in Gainesville,” Emma Hoel said. “I was so confused, like why Florida?”
Although Emma Hoel was skeptical at first, she now knows this decision was the best she’s ever made.
“Gainesville just hit all of the perfect things we wanted,” she said. “Being close to the university and having land and lush green pastures are just a few reasons why we picked this place.”
Peacefield Farm offers more than serenity and cute rescue farm animals. The Hoels have made it their purpose to help visitors incorporate plant-based foods into their diets by offering free advice and free vegan cooking classes. Sheetal Obal, longtime visitor of Peacefield, attended Peacefield’s very first event.
Obal said the farm hosted a summer potluck for a Gainesville vegan Facebook group about two and a half years ago.
“I went and I met them, and I realized how close they were to where I lived and just kept coming back,” she said.
Obal has been a friend ever since, bringing her children and their friends back for events and cooking classes. Obal has also hosted private parties at the farm, and even stops by all the time and volunteers to help out around the farm.
“During COVID, I organized multiple trips with my kids’ friends because you couldn’t really do a lot,” Obal said. “But more recently, I’ve found myself stopping by and helping Emma with farm chores and pulling weeds and taking care of the animals.”
Another longtime visitor, Rana Hyder, has been coming to plant-based cooking classes for over a year. She loved the experience so much, she had to share it with others.
“I took one of my friends to one, I took my mom to another,” Hyder said. “I took my son, and he really enjoyed it and became vegan as well.”
Kelsey Malles, a current graduate student at the University of Florida, first arrived at Peacefield accompanying her roommate, simply going along for the ride.
“I immediately fell in love with the place,” Malles said. “I asked them if I could start volunteering there during COVID, and I’ve been there every week since.”
Malles has also adopted a plant-based diet, and attributes her final push to going fully vegan to working closely with the animals. She also works at Fresh Kitchen, a health food restaurant, and started noticing all of the food waste they had.
“I realized how much of the scrap food they would just throw away,” Malles said. “I thought the animals would love all of this, so I started bringing buckets and having employees throw the food into the buckets for me to bring to Peacefield.”
On top of the health advice and healthy cooking classes, Peacefield also offers short tours around the farm where the Hoels can teach people about the dangers of the dairy and meat industries.
Obal said she once organized a trip for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and their families.
“Most of these people were not vegan or vegetarian,” she said. “But they all really loved going to the farm and meeting the animals and listening to John and Emma talk about eating a plant-based diet.”
Although their goal is to get as many people as they can to start eating a plant-based diet, John and Emma are known to be extremely understanding.
“Obviously they would love if everyone could be vegan and plant-based, but that’s not realistic,” Hyder said. “They’re very kind and have a very nice non-judgmental, peaceful way to present something that they are so passionate about.”
Obal also said the owners of Peacefield are the first people she met who didn’t try to change anyone.
“There are lots of sanctuaries in Gainesville, and a lot of times these people want to change other people and put a more negative spin on it,” she said.
This farm sanctuary is pure bliss, and the animals just add to its charm, she said. Each animal is special and unique in its own way, but there is one in particular that stands out.
Felix, an almost 2-year-old cow, had an unfortunate start to his life when he was rejected at birth by his mother. When the mother was giving birth, Felix fell and rolled down a hill into a pond.
In a normal situation, no one would have noticed that this occurred, and Felix would have drowned. Shannon Boos, a neighbor, just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“I was driving by on the way to my store with my mom and noticed something going on at the farm next door,” Boos said.
The mother and who Boos assumed to be grandmother of Felix were pacing back and forth, so she stopped the car and stepped out.
“I climbed over the fence, and I went back, and I saw Felix actually in the pond,” Boos said. “He had been born and rolled down the embankment on the pond.”
Boos climbed into the pond, picked him up, and set him on the embankment that he rolled off of. She called the owner of the other cows and Felix, hoping that he would come get him. She was wrong.
“We ended up taking him home and bottle-feeding him,” Boos said. “The owner didn’t care and wanted nothing to do with Felix.”
After about eight weeks of taking care of Felix and watching him grow, Boos knew that he needed a permanent home.
“I reached out to Critter Creek to see if they could take him but they were full,” Boos said. “That’s where I got Emma’s number.”
Boos reached out to the Hoels, in hopes of finding Felix a forever home. The Hoels were overjoyed, and were more than happy to take him in.
“We loaded him into our van, turned it into a cow hauler, and drove all the way to Gainesville,” Boos said. “He’s been with Emma and John ever since.”
“Her and her husband cried right before they left, they loved him so much,” Emma said. “They actually both wound up going vegan because of this whole experience and they send us updates on their journey every week.”
Boos was already considering cutting meat out of her diet, but it was Felix that finally gave her the push she needed to do it. After dropping Felix off with Emma Hoel, she learned more about what happens in the dairy industry and how they treat their animals. She ended up cutting out dairy too, and said she now lives a healthier and happier lifestyle.
“Our family is completely plant-based now, and it has been the best transition ever,” Boos said. “We don’t even look like the same people anymore, my husband is down 75 pounds, and I’m down almost 40.”
The Hoels have touched hundreds of people’s lives and have successfully introduced plant-based diets to many.
“Peacefield is truly peace on Earth,” Boos said. “What Emma and John do, they are angels.”