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Factory Farming at its Worst

05/02/2004
Philadelphia Inquirer
No 'hog heaven' at some factory farms

The odor knocks visitors off balance the moment they walk in the battered
front door of HKY Farm. It's not so much a barnyard smell as a noxious
combination of manure, ammonia and death that intensifies as one moves
toward the barns.

Next comes the sound of dozens of sows screaming and thrashing at their
cages at the arrival of visitors and the prospect of food, a noise so loud
and unsettling that a farm manager puts in earplugs as he enters.

Inside, HKY Farm looks like a Third World prison for pigs.

Dozens of dead piglets are dumped in piles or encased in pools of manure
beneath the floor, having drowned there after falling through a hole. Dead
hogs remain in their cages, discarded and stiff in walkways or rotting in
pens as other pigs gnaw at their carcasses.

Many of the 1,800 or so pigs that are alive are emaciated, crippled or
covered with open sores, having been poked by jagged iron bars from broken
cages or fallen through slats that separate them from the manure pits
below.

The nursery, heated to protect the piglets, is swarming with flies, and the
"sterile room" where food and medicine are stored includes yet another pile
of dead pigs stacked in front of a refrigerator and bags of pig feed.

Then there's the manure. It's piled in mounds in cages and concrete pens
where the animals live, dripping down the walls and floating as particulate
matter in a fetid brown haze that permeates the buildings.

"You've heard of hog heaven, haven't you?" said Robert Baker, an
investigator for the Humane Farming Association, speaking through a paper
air mask as he walked through the farm. "What this is, is hog hell."

Baker and other critics believe HKY represents all that is wrong with
so-called factory farming, from polluting the environment with dangerous
gases and manure to treating animals inhumanely.

The owner of the farm, Garry Young, contacted after the visit, blamed the
problems there on irresponsible employees.

"Those guys that worked there, why would they want to not clean up things?"
Young said. "We were after them and after them to clean things up."

But critics say HKY is hardly unique among the thousands of large hog farms
that have sprung up in the last decade as family farms have given way to
indoor facilities, known as concentrated animal-feeding operations, or
CAFOs.

In a petition filed in November with the South Dakota Attorney General's
Office, for example, the Humane Farming Association, a nonprofit
animal-rights group, alleges that the Sun Prairie Rosebud operation, a
96,000-hog facility on a Sioux reservation, is especially bad.

Although the facility is just four years old, the petition alleges that Sun
Prairie's ventilation fans and manure-flushing system are broken, creating
air so foul that respiratory problems are common among workers. Meanwhile,
sick pigs are left in pens to be cannibalized by healthy ones or beaten to
death by employees, the petition says.

"I don't think these are isolated instances," said Gail Eisnitz, chief
investigator with the Humane Farming Association. "It doesn't really matter
what they look like on the outside, but the death rate inside is just
unbelievable."

Greg Fontaine, the acting chief executive officer of Sun Prairie, denied
the allegations, saying his facility routinely tested the air quality and
maintained and repairs the flushing systems. He also denied that the hogs
were mistreated.

"I've found no facts substantiating any of the allegations that have been
made," Fontaine said, explaining that he immediately investigated the
claims. He attributed the complaints to disgruntled employees and to
animal-rights activists who skew facts to promote an anti-factory-farm
agenda.

A spokeswoman for the South Dakota Attorney General's Office said an
investigation was ongoing but declined to elaborate.

Proponents of large-scale livestock farming argue that HKY Farm is an
exception. While there are some irresponsible players in any business, they
say, most farmers maintain clean and efficient farms.

"Our margins are extremely tight," said Dave Roper, former president of the
National Pork Producers Council. "If you have an operation that is run that
way, that person is not long for the business, just based on the
economics."

Indeed, an impromptu tour of a factory-style hog farm in Mineral, Ill.,
found much different conditions, with healthy-looking animals, clean pens,
and relatively mild odors.

"It's just like anything else - if it's clean and nice, everything works
better," said James McCune, the farm's owner.

Young, HKY's owner, said he planned to close the farm because it no longer
was profitable and he already had removed sows. But he maintained that the
farm was not in such bad shape.