Illegal Art Photography In the Age of the Ag Gag 2017-01-20T23:24:54+00:00

“Nobody trusts the industrial food system

to give them good food”

-Joel Salatin


What is the Ag Gag?

We live in a society where the perception of the food that we consume is far removed from the reality of how it is produced. Every year we consume more than 8 billion chickens and over 80 million pigs. We never see where these animals lived or know about their lives. We have some concept that they are raised on farms but even that idea is nebulous. We have pieced together a composite of food packaging, advertisements, and a general concept.

Modern farming practices are vastly different than those practiced by farmers not even twenty years ago. The corporate mega-farm of today is entirely alien to those who have never experienced the scale of it.

They are truly a wonder of modern technology and farming advances. These farms, heavily automated and carefully controlled by sophisticated and interconnected computer networks, allow a small crew of individuals to tend to massive numbers of livestock extremely efficiently.

Why then are these farms hidden away from the public? Why don’t we see pictures and advertisements from these enormous technological wonders everywhere?

The truth is, while these farms allow a fantastic gain in the yield of meat to the space and resources utilized, the cost in both animal and environmental welfare is very high. It is high enough that there has been a deliberate and concerted effort to keep images of these farms out of the public eye. This censorship of the media through what are commonly called “ag gag laws” has gone so far as to make taking images of these places under certain situations illegal.

This is the concept that my work revolves around. Riding the fine line of legality on photographing these places to give an unfiltered view of the realities of these farms. The scale of the farms are shown in broad landscape images with the large, nondescript buildings standing in stark contrast to the expected pastoral farm scene. The living animals and their remains are shown as they lived, in tight spaces that are packed to capacity.

The goal is to both enlighten and educate the viewer to the realities of modern farming practices and how these “ag gag laws” are used to manipulate our perception of modern farming.

-Kai Plews

Manure Lagoon

Managing liquid and solid waste is a constant concern for large confinement farms. Hogs are housed in barns that have a metal or concrete floor with openings for waste to pass into the pits below the living areas. In smaller farms the waste builds up and is pumped out when full. In very large farms the waste is constantly drained into storage lagoons on the property.

These lagoons can hold thousands of gallons of liquid and solid waste. They are constructed out of earthen dams which have on a regular basis burst releasing the contents into local rivers and streams.

During the growing season the waste is sprayed onto the fields as fertilizer. While the waste does not enter the ground water this way, rains will wash the waste off into streams, rivers, and lakes.

Control Shed

Managing a large farm takes a lot of effort. Many factors need to be taken into account on a day to day basis. This is why modern large scale farms rely heavily on automation to control the day in and day out tasks.

Utilizing a complex series of controls and networks, every part of the daily routine from feeding, to lights, to temperature is controlled by a central hub that manages all these variables. This allows for a farmer with a small team of workers to manage thousands of animals with relatively low risk.

Things can go wrong very quickly, however. A loss of power or malfunctioning controller could spell disaster. For example fans are required to stop the build up of methane gas from waste in hog farms. If the fan controllers don’t turn the fans on when needed, the entire barn of hogs would suffocate from their own waste. Methane buildup can also cause explosions and fires which happened recently to a nearby farm.

Hog Stall

Hogs live their entire lives indoors. They never leave the barns that they are raised in. At no point do they ever touch anything other than concrete or metal.

They are segregated into pens with metal fences. The farmer has to take care to keep the population of the barn at a reasonable level. When packed in too tightly hogs will often attack one another. This leads to injury that will quickly develop an infection as the animals have no where to go to escape their waste.

In order for the hogs to be as lean as possible (pork is the other white meat after all), the hogs are deficient in their natural body fat so they have a harder time regulating their temperature. They also have no opportunity to wallow or root which are natural behaviors of pigs. This can cause them stress as well.

Lagoon Shore

Liquid and solid waste are not the only things in the manure lagoons.

They become convenient places to dump the trash produced in the day to day operations of the farm. Often items such as medication applicators, syringes, scalpels, and other trash in the waste.

A major health concern for the animals on the farm is the constant threat of infection. Injured animals can quickly succumb to infections and diseases like porcine cholera and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus spread rapidly in these confined conditions.

The farmer’s main weapon to combat infection is antibiotics. These are administered often on a preventative basis to all the animals on the farm. This build up of antibiotics has the worrying side effect of producing antibiotic resistant diseases in addition to the issues cause by the antibiotics leaching into the water supply from dam bursts and agricultural runoff.

Hatching Barn

After baby chickens are born the males are often culled and the females move from the incubators to barns where they will mature to laying chickens. Even if you buy your eggs cage free, the chickens those eggs came from most likely spend their entire lives in the barns.

The barns that house chickens are enormous. If you need a sense of scale look closely at this image and see the standard size picnic table in the bottom right. This image was taken from an interstate overpass. That vantage point was required as I could not get an entire barn into the shot without getting higher up.

Mortality Compost

Every large farm that I visited had at least a few of these concrete stalls on the corner of the property. Initially I had no idea what they were for until I found this at one of the farms.

When an animal dies on the farm the bodies are either hauled off to be processed or they are composted along with bedding and other organic waste on the farm. This produces an extremely rich soil that can be spread over the fields and allows the bodies to decompose quickly and in a sanitary fashion.

This is, of course, dependent on how observant of the rules each farm is. When properly done, compost piles are safe from runoff and scavengers accessing the bodies. This image is a case of improper mortality composting.

Hog Barn

These barns are technological powerhouses. Each barn runs coninuously with a high degree of control through automation of temperature and light.

The farms can run 24 hours a day, every day of the year regardless of season.

Turkey Coolers

Turkeys are placed in special cages on trucks to take them to processing facilities. The cages are stacked up on the trucks to maximize the number of turkeys each truck can hold. The turkeys that are placed in the cages in the center of the truck are more likely to overheat from being packed in with no airflow with the other turkeys.

This is not an issue when the truck is moving and air is forced through all the cages, but when the trucks are parked waiting to be unloaded at the processing plant there is no airflow. The solution is to park the trucks between banks of fans that push air through the trailers to keep the turkeys cool.

The fans also tend to blow out any loose feathers from the trucks. These feathers, along with the feathers plucked from the birds in the processing plant, are ground up to produce feather meal. Feather meal is a feed supplement added to animal feed to boost calcium and mineral content of the feed.

Compost Detail

Animal mortality composting is a common practice where animals that die on the farm are composted back into fertile soil. The bones take a very long time to decompose and are often discarded or sold for processing if there is a high enough volume.

When I initially started this project, I had never seen animal composting like this done before. I had grown up spending a lot of time on my grandparents farm, but the number of animals they raised was very small in comparison to modern animal farming practices. Seeing these piles of animal carcasses and bones opened my eyes to how much farming had changed in the last twenty years. I became obsessed with finding out more.

Pump Room

Meat processing in the scale that it is done today is very resource intensive. One of the surprising revelations of my travels was that these plants require enormous amounts of water to operate.

They require so much water that this plant has its very own water tower that is used just to feed the demand of the plant. This is the water pump control room for the tower. The tower is actually larger than the tower that supplies water to the town that it is in.

Every step along the way from growing the feed, to raising the animals, to processing the meat is very resource intensive. The largest resource that is used through all of this is water.

Fetus Dumpster

Controlling population and preventing the spread of disease is a major challenge for very large hog farms.

Breeding sows will spend most of their lives living in farrowing crates. These are small pens just barely large enough to hold an adult sow. They live in these crates either pregnant or nursing piglets until they are too old to produce. Care must be taken to arrange the farrowing crate in such a way as to allow the piglets room so that the mother will not crush them when she lays down to nurse.

When populations grow too high to be sustainable some of the piglets are aborted in order to keep the population at a sustainable level. These aborted fetuses are sometimes sold for various purposes including being sold to schools for dissection.

In recent years the explosion of PEDV (porcine epidemic diarrhea virus) in American farms has lead to massive control measures. PEDV is not fatal to adult pigs but it is very lethal to small piglets. If a mother sow is infected with PEDV it will pass the virus on to the piglet and the piglet is very unlikely to survive. PEDV is passed through solid waste and is very contagious, especially in the conditions in large farms where pigs cannot escape their waste. There is a vaccine for PEDV but it is not very effective against the strain currently spreading across the United States.

One course of action that can be taken in extreme cases is to cull all of the fetuses once PEDV is confirmed. Then the infected sows are removed, the barns disinfected, and new sows are brought into the farrowing barns. The culled fetuses are not suitable for sale and are collected in one place, (in this case a large dumpster) and then burned or buried.

It should be noted that PEDV has also infected hogs that don’t live in confinement farms, though the spread of the virus is more difficult as the animals aren’t constantly exposed to the infected waste.

Feeding Towers

The majority of the food that farmed animals are fed is corn. This is because corn is a highly subsidized crop and we produce billions of bushels of corn each year. Corn is a cheap food product that can be fed to a variety of animals. Cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, ducks, and fish are all fed primarily corn. This causes a variety of issues with each of these animals. None of the animals that we raise on a corn based diet would have naturally eaten corn in the wild.

This is an image of feeding towers on a farm that is raising more than a million chickens. These feeding towers are controlled by a central computer in a control room on the farm. Each large barn requires huge amounts of corn to feed the thousands of chickens in each barn.

Hole Miguel

When a farm chooses not to compost animals that die, they will employ the services of an animal mortality service. These companies come and remove the dead animals from the farm on a regular basis and take the remains to be processed into fertilizers and other products. The trucks, which look similar to regular garbage trucks, can be seen traveling from farm to farm picking up dead animals.

Vent Fans

Wire cage chicken farms allow for the largest number of chickens in the smallest amount of space. Each chicken lives in a small wire cage which is stacked several layers deep with other cages. The chickens live their entire lives in these cages. The barns are carefully climate controlled so the chickens don’t overheat or suffocate from methane buildup.

These enormous fans are as tall as an adult man and move the air through the barns. They are computer controlled and turn on and off at set intervals to maintain conditions in the barn. The first time I saw the steam coming from the fans on a cold January night I though it looked like these gigantic buildings were breathing. When the fans would turn on the vents would open before the blades began to spin. For a brief moment I could hear the cacophonous sounds of the thousands of chickens inside the barns. This is an experience I will never forget.

Corn Pile

Corn is the king of the commodity crops. We grow millions of tons of corn every year, yet we eat very little of it. Most of the corn that we grow goes to feeding animals and making ethanol. Why do we grow so much corn?

Corn is highly subsidized and even when there is an enormous surplus it is still profitable to grow. We have so much cheap corn that we are constantly looking for new ways to use it. As advances in the biology of corn and the mechanics of growing it continue to improve we will likely have even more corn to find uses for.

Hog Pile

When I stumbled upon this scene I was a little shocked.

I had gotten used to seeing dead pigs in dumpsters and in composting stalls. This was the first time I had seen them just lying on the ground. The dumpster was empty and the compost pile wasn’t full either.

My best guess is that these hogs weighed a couple hundred pounds and that dumpster was pretty tall.

I don’t think the farmers or the people who work on these farms are heartless people, but working with these animals day in and day out in this way may cause some to stop seeing the hogs as living creatures.

Chore Time

The most amazing advances I’ve seen in my travels have been the technology in these barns.

They are built to a low cost and yet they are climate controlled and can sustain a population of hogs in almost any weather. This has allowed farmers to raise more animals and for the farms to run year round without interruption.

They are revolutionary, and along with cheap corn, make this kind of farming possible.

Processing Plant

Where do we go from here?

Now you have seen a small sample of what modern farming practices have become.

What will you do with this information?

Contact Me

Let me know what you think of this work, as well as any suggestions you may have.

Thank you,


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