This is an excerpt from Mother Jones contributing writer Ted Genoways' new book, The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food.
On September 15, 2008, Lynn Becker got the phone call every hog farmer fears.
For months on end, pork producers across the Midwest had been struggling against record-low prices per head, but Becker had taken steps to protect his family's farm against contractions of the market. He had signed a producer agreement with Hormel Foods, maybe the one company with a recession-proof demand for pork, and he had planted enough of his own corn to sustain his herd for the next year, insulating his operation from skyrocketing feed prices. With another Minnesota winter already in the air, Becker was out walking his fields one last time before starting the harvest. "When I got in and checked the answering machine," he told me later, "there was a message from Matt Prescott with PETA." Becker was soft-spoken but bristled with nervous energy. His jitters, together with his work-honed physique and fair hair, made him seem much younger than forty. But he insisted that the four years since receiving the call from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had aged him by more than a decade. "They had 'damning evidence,'" he said haltingly. "Undercover. Of animal abuse. On a farm that we own."
Becker described his hog operation outside Fairmont, Minnesota, a little more than an hour due west of Austin on Interstate 90, as a "good old-fashioned, American family farm"—and it might appear that way at first. Everything about the old homestead suggests its age, from the weathered, brick-red Dutch Gambrel barn emblazoned with the name LB Pork to the simple farmhouse that Becker's grandfather built in the 1940s—the house where all big decisions are still made on Sundays around the dinner table. But in truth, Becker was already a major supplier, providing more than 50,000 pigs to Hormel each year, and he was making a bid to double that number by bringing the whole supply chain, from seed to slaughter, under his control. He owned 1,500 acres of prime farmland, where he raised corn and soybeans, which he put up in a colossal grain bin and ground at his own feed mill and then trucked to more than a dozen sites in Minnesota and Iowa to feed to thousands of pregnant sows in his breeding barns and tens of thousands of weaned piglets at separate finishing facilities. The company was sprawling and complex, employing dozens of full-time and part-time workers, and it was only getting bigger. Still, Becker insists that he always personally monitored every phase of his business. And as the voice message claiming animal abuse started to sink in, his shock and disbelief quickly turned to indignation.
"Wait a second," he remembered thinking. "Not on any farm I own."
Then it dawned on him. The farm in question wasn't LB Pork or even his breeding facility, Camalot, about 10 miles away outside the town of Welcome. The farm that PETA had investigated was a large barn complex, housing some 6,000 sows and tens of thousands of newborn piglets, that Becker had acquired less than a month before in Iowa, an operation he had purchased from Natural Pork Production II and renamed MowMar Farms but had only ever seen a few times. Becker phoned his day-to-day management company, Suidae Health & Production, based in Algona, Iowa, and asked them to reach out to Prescott and see if they could get their hands on this "damning evidence"; maybe the video they claimed to have in their possession had all been shot before the facility was under his ownership.
Meanwhile, Becker worked his connections. He was the president of the Minnesota Pork Board, and his wife, Julie, had been the Minnesota Pork Promoter of the Year in 2007. In fact, she was, at that very moment, on Capitol Hill with the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, the lobbying arm of the Pork Board, meeting with members of Congress. Becker called his wife so she could alert her fellow lobbyists. Then he placed another call to Cindy Cunningham, the assistant vice president for communications at the National Pork Board in Des Moines, Iowa.
Soon Becker heard back that PETA wanted to meet with him one-on-one and then stage a joint press conference. Everyone advised against it. Instead, with the assistance of Himle Horner, a public relations firm in the Twin Cities, he decided to issue a written statement, and Cunningham mobilized several agribusiness organizations to help answer press inquiries. But nothing could have prepared them for the onslaught of negative attention. The next day, when the Associated Press released the video online along with a wire report describing its contents, the story became worldwide news almost instantly. The video's camerawork was shaky and low-definition, captured with recorders hidden in the hat brims of undercover workers, but it had been cut together into a concise and harrowing five minutes.
In one shot, a supervisor was shown beating a sow relentlessly on the back. In another, workers turned electric prods on a crippled sow and kicked pregnant sows repeatedly in the belly. A close-up showed a distressed sow knocked out, her face royal blue from the Prima Tech marking dye sprayed into her nostrils by a worker who said he was trying "to get her high." In one of the most disturbing sequences, a worker demonstrated the method for euthanizing underweight piglets: taking them by the hind legs and smashing their skulls against the concrete floor. Fellow workers whooped and laughed as he tossed the bloodied and twitching bodies into a giant bin. The AP story revealed that PETA had already met with Tom Heater, the sheriff of Greene County, Iowa, and he had agreed to open a criminal investigation.
That night, Becker played the PETA video again and again on his iPad. He told me he felt numb as he watched his inbox fill with more than a thousand angry emails. He was starting to see what an ordeal the release of this video was going to be. But worse, he feared that Hormel would terminate its production contract with him—the contract he had used to secure a loan of more than $1 million to mortgage the breed barns in Iowa, with his family's homestead in Minnesota as collateral. If Hormel decided that Becker had become a liability, he and his family could lose everything.
A couple of miles north of Bayard, Iowa, at the crossroads of two wide gravel tracks, there are three enormous sow barns: the site of Lynn Becker's MowMar Farms. It's now operated under the name Fair Creek, though you'd never know it; there are no company signs, no indication at all of what's going on inside. The barns gleam white in the sun and seem, by all appearances, to be well ventilated, well supplied with water from giant external holding tanks, and generally well turned-out, right down to their square corners and tightly tacked aluminum siding. Gary Weihs (pronounced "wise"), the site's original developer, saw to it that the facility was clean, inconspicuous, and odor-free. It took him two years of disputes and disagreements to get a permit recommendation from the board of supervisors for Greene County, so he wanted to be sure there were no complaints once the facility was built.
Fellow workers whooped and laughed as he tossed the bloodied and twitching bodies into a giant bin.
After spending years working with large corporations like Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, and Monsanto in operational management, Weihs had decided to return to his native Iowa. He planned to combine the experience he had gained growing up on his father's hog farm outside of Harlan with the statistical analysis of three decades of corn pricing and hog yields he had performed to complete his MBA at Harvard Business School. "We flat price everything," Weihs told the National Hog Farmer, "so that we make a little bit per head and base our profits on quantity." Under the name Natural Pork Production II (NPPII), he lined up investors and, when he had the start-up money in place, began building facilities, about one per year. The three-barn complex in Bayard was the fifth unit—a 6,000-sow farrow-to-wean operation, where returns would be generated for investors by selling roughly 130,000 weaned pigs each year to finishing operations at $36 apiece. All told, NPPII facilities were supplying about 15 different hog farmers with close to 800,000 weaned pigs, for gross annual earnings of nearly $29 million—but all while carrying precarious overheard, including roughly $5 million in construction costs per site and millions more invested in the breeding sows housed inside.
To make the ambitious plan possible, Weihs enlisted Daryl Olsen, president and CEO of the Audubon-Manning Veterinary Clinic (AMVC) in Audubon, Iowa, to oversee building and operations. AMVC's name makes it sound like a small mom-and-pop animal hospital, but it is, in reality, one of the 10 largest pork producers in the United States, with more sows in the mid-2000s than Tyson or Hormel and already in well-established relationships with, by Weihs's estimate, more than a dozen finishing operations. If Weihs could scrape together the start-up capital for a facility, Olsen could staff it quickly and provide guaranteed buyers.
But by 2003, when the facility was first proposed in Bayard, many Iowans had grown suspicious of factory farming. Though Weihs was the first hog developer to come into Greene County, many builders—particularly Smithfield's Prestage Farms from North Carolina—had been erecting megabarns in other parts of northern Iowa. Bayard residents had observed the problems there and wanted to see NPPII's plans to mitigate environmental impact from waste and to hear how the animals would be cared for. Weihs pledged that NPPII could "raise 800,000 hogs a year and pollute less than my dad used to" and that the hogs would be "treated like royalty." In describing the facility to the Midwest Ag Journal, Weihs made it sound like a paradise for hogs: "We put them in separate crates, so they have their own water and feed and they can't fight. That way, even the weaker ones are productive." When some countered that Weihs seemed to be describing factory farming, he went on the offensive. "We are a factory," he said, "and there's nothing wrong with that. Would you want your car to not be made in a factory? There's quality control in a factory. There's good treatment of people and animals in a factory." He argued that the meat from factory farms, thanks to hormones and antibiotics, was leaner and, because of high volume, could be produced at a lower cost. "So the consumer gets cheap pork loins, and lots of them, and they're high quality," he said. "I think it's the American way."
But in 2006, everything changed. The rollback of Iowa's vertical-integration ban created an instantaneous boom in the building of hog confinements, which signaled an influx of start-up capital but also attracted dramatically more competitors. In 2000, there had been 38 applications statewide to build confinements large enough to require permitting through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. In 2005, the year Smithfield was given an exemption to the law, that number vaulted to 203 applications. The following year, with Cargill and Hormel now granted the same exemption, the number jumped again to 318. In less than two years, Iowa went from having an outright ban on corporate involvement in hog farming to having more than half of its 17 million hogs in confinements owned by or under exclusive contract to three large meatpackers.
Under pressure from Big Ag, many states have outlawed the gathering of undercover video and other documentation of abuse. (Click on the states for more info)
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In the midst of this period of sudden competition from corporations, the per-bushel price of corn shot up from $2 to more than $3. New supports encouraging the production of ethanol had instantly increased the demand for corn. Meanwhile, in late 2006, the USDA revised its harvest estimate downward by 200 million bushels because of weather. These factors, combined with the smallest on-hand corn reserve since the drought years in the Clinton era, sparked a run in commodities speculation, driving the price to heights it hadn't seen in more than a decade—and defying the downward trajectory of prices seen since the early 1970s. Depending on whether you were a corn grower or a livestock producer counting on that feed, the New York Times wrote, "you have daydreams—or nightmares—of that $5 mark."
"When corn started going from $2 to $4, it was pretty clear that it wasn't going to be profitable," Weihs told me. He sold out his personal interest in NPPII and moved on to developing other industries. Meanwhile, feed prices continued to soar on climbing energy costs, reaching as much as $8 per bushel of corn, and suddenly the model Weihs had sold to investors proved utterly unable to withstand the market shift. Investors started pulling out—and, soon, NPPII was in a position of needing to sell its facilities quickly, just to keep its backers from ruin. "Eight-dollar corn has a way of doing that," Weihs told me, but he defended his original business plan. "The economic models weren't built for even $4 corn, much less $8 corn. And unfortunately, we got it wrong. As a developer, I was looking back and corn was $2 and $3 for 30 years. I just didn't see it coming. That was my mistake."
Some workers seemed to be finding a sadistic joy in taking out their frustrations on the hogs.
By May 2008, rumors were flying among the workers at the sow barns that NPPII was on the brink of bankruptcy. According to at least one person who toured the facility during this time, the "quality of the husbandry" had begun to decline, and, according to another source, things had finally gotten so bad that a group of workers went to the farm manager, Jordan Anderson, with their concerns. Anderson initially claimed not to know what they were talking about, then laughed them off, saying there was nothing to worry about "as long as PETA don't find out." After one worker, identified by others only as Dave, finally threatened to report his concerns directly to Daryl Olsen at AMVC, he was terminated. Soon after, PETA received a message from the fired worker, describing the conditions at NPPII in stark detail. Overmatched and undertrained, workers were often kicking sows and beating them with herding boards or gate rods just to move them from one part of the facility to another. But, more than that, in the void left by a lack of management, some workers seemed to be finding a sadistic joy in taking out their frustrations on the hogs.
"This is cruel treatment of the animals," Dave wrote to PETA, "and I thought you should know."
When Robert Ruderman showed up at Natural Pork Production II's sow barns to apply for a job in June 2008, he didn't know anything about the history of the facility or even who they were supplying. He was an undercover investigator, working for PETA, and knew only that a whistle-blower had alleged that animal abuses were occurring at the threadbare operation. Ruderman's cover story was thin—a vague account of meeting a girl online, coming to Iowa to be with her, but then things not working out. He was hired immediately, no questions asked.
Ruderman spent the morning of June 10, his first day, watching training videos, but by the afternoon he was assigned to shadow Shelly Mauch, a senior employee who worked in the farrowing facility: a single barn accommodating 15 rooms with 68 stalls per room—and each stall housing a sow that was either close to birthing or had recently given birth. Mauch explained that about 15 litters were born each day, with an average of 11 piglets per litter. Roughly 20 percent of those were classified under one of four headings: abortions, mummies, runts, or deformed. An abortion is a piglet that has developed fully but is born dead. A mummy has died earlier in the pregnancy and is born still wrapped in its embryonic sac. These dead deliveries along with birthing waste—placentas, umbilical cords—were deposited in the dead room at the end of each day and collected for composting. Runts and piglets born with deformities—displaced hips, spraddled legs, tumors—were more problematic. They had to be thumped, the euphemism for killing a piglet by smashing its skull against the concrete floor.
Of the remaining three-quarters of each litter, all had their tails docked—the males were also castrated with the same metal clippers—and sprayed with an iodine solution to prevent infection. According to Ruderman's daily logs, the piglets' screeching during those procedures was so loud that workers wore earplugs to protect their hearing. "Never do I hear the piglets cry and screech like that at any other time during their stay on the farm," he wrote, not even when they are weaned from their mothers after 20 days and loaded up in trucks to go to finishing operations.
In the weeks that followed, Ruderman managed to shoot undercover video of piglets as they were castrated, including some with unrecognized scrotal hernias, dubbed "ruptures," whose intestines would fully protrude when snipped. He got close-ups of bloody piglets after being thumped—skull-crushed, paddling their legs and twitching, gasping for air, as others were piled on top of them in giant bins. He secretly made detailed transcripts of AMVC's own records: the thousands of piglets tail-docked, the 200 thumped each week. But none of what he captured was illegal—or even frowned upon. The industry insists that tails and testicles are clipped to prevent them from being bitten off by littermates and becoming infected. And thumping is not only legal but also an industry-sanctioned method of "humane euthanasia." In fact, what legal protection does exist is a law requiring that piglets euthanized by blunt-force trauma must receive only one blow. And, again and again, Ruderman noted: "I did not see any piglets thumped more than once."
But then, on June 27, Ruderman was helping to take sows out of their farrowing stalls for herding back to the breed barn. One of the sows was moving out of her stall and into the sheltered hallway between the two buildings when Marvin Mauch, the manager of the breed barn and Shelly Mauch's father, reared back and struck the sow hard across the back with his herding cane. Ruderman was shocked; according to his notes, Mauch had raised the cane "like a tennis serve" and then brought it down "like an ax." The sow squealed and rushed ahead into the hallway.
But Marvin's real anger, it appears, was directed at an intern who had seen him smoking in the breed barn—a violation of Iowa law—and reported him to Jordan Anderson. In the lunchroom, Marvin confronted the intern. According to Ruderman, Marvin shouted that he hated snitches and made physical threats. The intern shouted, "I can't handle this!" and stormed out, never returning. The next day workers learned that Marvin had been suspended, pending an investigation both by AMVC and the Department of Health. Not long after, Marvin was fired "for harassment and intimidation of an employee," and the intern was persuaded to return to work at another farm. "This is a small victory for the animals," Ruderman wrote in his log.
But by then, Ruderman had noticed that many sows arriving in the farrowing barn from the breed barn bore the signs of abuse—red welts across their backs from the herding canes and unexplained bloody gouges in their rumps. Even with Marvin gone, the breed barn was little improved with Richard Ralston now in temporary command. He wasn't cruel like Marvin, but one of his fellow workers told me, bluntly, "Richard was a moron." He was nervous around the 500-pound sows and often indecisive in ways that endangered coworkers and harmed the hogs.
On one day, for example, Ruderman watched Ralston attempt to put down two seriously ill sows by using a captive-bolt gun (CBG). According to Ruderman's log, "He retrieved the CBG and loaded a small metal shell into the device. The first CBG shot, administered into the middle of her forehead, did not kill the sow. The sow was still very much alive, on the ground, moving her head and torso and kicking her limbs. She appeared to be writhing in pain as a result of the first shot. She grunted and wailed. The second shot further debilitated her and she died about a minute later." The second killing went much the same.
In order to get big, farmers had to acquire more of everything: more land, more row crops, more animals, more equipment, more loans, more overhead.
PETA made the unusual decision to dispatch a second investigator, in hopes of getting him hired on in the breed barn where Ralston could be monitored more easily. But PETA would need to work fast. By then, Jordan Anderson had called a meeting to confirm the rumors: Natural Pork Production II was trying to sell out. Prospective buyers would be coming to inspect the place, so everyone was instructed to keep the blood from thumping and docking cleaned up. And they should be aware that new ownership might mean new management; everyone's job was potentially on the line. In late July, Ruderman recorded that a buyer had been found. In his notes, the name is entered first as "Momeyer," then "Momar," and finally the correct name: MowMar Farms.
The history of the Becker family farm in Minnesota could double as a microcosm of what has occurred in the hog industry as a whole in the last half century. Lynn's grandfather, Walter, was just six years old when he moved with his parents to the farm west of Northrop in 1920—and he never left, building a second home for his own family a stone's throw from the original farmhouse. When Walter took over in the 1950s, the operation was still an old-fashioned diversified farm, raising cattle, hogs, and chickens, along with a variety of crops. But in 1966, he decided to build a hog confinement, maybe the first in Martin County, with slotted floors and a pit below to catch manure.
By today's standards, Walter's farm was still quite small when he passed it on to his son, Larry, in the 1980s: just 200 sows, which were only confined during nursing. But Larry named the operation LB Pork and began expanding capacity enough to make room for his sons Lynn and Lonny as partners. Larry built a gestation barn, bringing the sows permanently indoors, and added a two-ton on-farm gristmill, so that the family could grind its own feed. In 1995, Lynn returned from the University of Minnesota with his new wife, Julie, both with degrees in agriculture business management; they took over daily operations for the family, bringing the latest in ag science with them.
Lynn quickly revamped their whole system. The family had been using three "continuous-flow" nursery barns—a simple method of maximizing barn space by moving pigs from one pen to the next as they grew. But diseases that once were held in check when pigs were exposed to Minnesota winters now flourished in temperature-controlled confinement barns. When a spate of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) tore through the barns in the winter of 1996-97, Becker decided to switch to a two-step process: gestation to weaning in one set of barns, finishing in another.
He also set about aggressively expanding. Within five years, LB Pork was a full-scale, farrow-to-finish operation with 1,500 sows housed at two sites and more than 32,000 weaned piglets at 37 finishing barns spanning 12 sites. LB Pork was also part owner in Camalot, a 2,200-sow unit, and annually bought 15,000 heads of "isoweans"—piglets that are medicated and weaned early in isolation to prevent them from being exposed to adult illnesses. Between their own facilities and facilities they managed as contract growers, LB Pork had roughly 24,000 pigs on inventory at any one time. They even launched Granja Becker, a 500-sow farrow-to-finish operation in Minas Gerais, Brazil. As dramatic as the expansion of LB Pork seems, it is reflective of a larger trend in the pork industry—one where hog producers either had to choose to keep their operations small and make only small profits or get big and do their best to compete amid (and sometimes against) the forces of industrialized agriculture.
The trouble was—and is—that in order to get big, farmers had to acquire more of everything: more land, more row crops, more animals, more equipment, more loans, more overhead. All of which steadily put more of the business and the profit but also more of the risk and the fixed costs onto fewer producers. When Lynn Becker joined the family business in 1995, there were more than 10,000 hog farms in Minnesota; by 2007 that number had fallen to 4,700. But over the same period, Minnesota's overall hog production went from just under 5 million head per year to nearly 8 million. In other words, half as many farms were producing nearly twice as many pigs. And no place was going bigger than Martin County—with LB Pork, both geographically and economically, at its very center. Already the state's top hog-producing county, Martin went from turning out 240,000 hogs per year in 1990 to 790,000 in 2008—with a full 10 percent of those hogs coming from LB Pork.
When, in the mid-2000s, the big meatpackers filed their lawsuits and obtained their exemptions from vertical integration, the timing couldn't have been better for the Beckers. They were continuing to expand their farming—from 900 acres of corn and soybeans to 1,500 acres—and had recently erected a new 150,000-bushel grain bin. When the sagging global economy drove up feed prices and drove down demand for meat, creating the worst hog market in history, the Beckers were insulated. They had raised enough corn, stored directly on the farm, to get them through. At the same time, LB Pork's main customer, Hormel Foods, was experiencing a spike in demand for cheap meat, especially Spam. So Lynn Becker found himself in the enviable position of having a store of cheap feed and a buyer lined up to purchase as many hogs as he could bring to market.
And Becker recognized the opportunity. He shifted from looking for sites to build expanded facilities to searching for beleaguered companies in Iowa that he might be able to take over. "Calculated growth and modifications to our operation are how we've steadily maintained growth," he told the Progressive Farmer. "We need to position ourselves so that when good opportunities arise, we can jump on them." About that time, Becker met Gary Thome through their mutual veterinarian, Daryl Olsen, the president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the CEO of the Audubon-Manning Veterinary Clinic. Thome, like Becker, had what Hormel itself describes as "a long-term agreement" with the company. "Because of this agreement," according to Hormel's own literature, Thome had access to "the capital required" to build a finishing facility.
"It's kind of like when you know you're going to sell your car. Are you going to put new tires on it 50 miles before you sell it? Naw, you run them down to the wires."
Now Thome and Becker were both looking for another chance to expand, and Olsen had not only an opportunity but an urgent need. Natural Pork Production II—whose hog barns near Bayard, Iowa, were managed by AMVC—was on the verge of bankruptcy and, with twelve facilities to offload in a hurry, the company was offering bargain-basement prices. Becker visited two Natural Pork sow barns in May, where he told me he found a "sinking-ship feeling." But he chalked it up to neglect by an unraveling company. "It's kind of like when you know you're going to sell your car," he said. "Are you going to put new tires on it 50 miles before you sell it? Naw, you run them down to the wires."
So Becker and Thome reached an agreement with NPPII on a complex of barns housing 6,000 sows near Bayard, Iowa, renamed the operation MowMar Farms, and officially took possession on August 18. The facility was exactly what Becker's company needed, but he acknowledged that the barns were not initially up to snuff. "The animal care had been slacking a little bit," he told me. "I think the manager would see somebody at the coffee shop that morning and might ask them to help do some chores." Becker said his management company, Suidae Health, had reinterviewed all of the employees—and many had quit rather than face retraining or termination. "That's always made me feel good," he said. "They could see there was a new sheriff in town."
On July 23, 2008, about the same time that Lynn Becker was finalizing the purchase of the hog barns in Bayard, Michael Steinberg, the second PETA operative, arrived in Iowa and was hired for one of the new openings in the breed barn. On his first day, he watched training videos, then at lunch met with two representatives from Suidae Health & Production, who explained that the new ownership would be taking over the farm on August 18. Steinberg then began his on-the-job training with Richard Ralston, who had been made the temporary head of the breed barn until a permanent replacement could be found for Marvin Mauch. Ralston was in a foul mood that day; he had sustained a long cut that morning when he was bitten by a boar brought into the breed barn to detect which sows were in heat. He admitted to Steinberg that, knocked down and bleeding, he had wanted "to beat the hell" out of the boar.
"When I get pissed or get hurt or the fucking bitch won't move," Ralston says in a portion of the video, "I grab one of those rods and I jam it in her asshole."
Barely a week later, Steinberg was able to get Ralston on video, admitting to a series of abuses—including anally penetrating the sows with gate rods and herding canes. "When I get pissed or get hurt or the fucking bitch won't move," he says in a portion of the video, "I grab one of those rods and I jam it in her asshole."
"You take the gate rods and shove it in their asshole?" Steinberg can be heard asking.
"Yeah, fuck 'em," Ralston says.
When pressed, Ralston told Steinberg that he knew he could get in trouble. "Half the shit I do nobody else is supposed to do," he said. But the very next day, when Steinberg was having trouble moving a frightened and balking gilt from isolation back to the breed barn, Ralston and another worker, Shawn Lyons, jumped in and started kicking the agitated hog. Finally, Ralston turned to Steinberg and said, "Stick your finger in her butt." When Steinberg refused, he says Ralston replied, "Stick it in her pussy then…Just whip your dick out and get some pleasure." Later, in the break room, Ralston bragged about "giving it" to a sow with his cane. Steinberg, at first, understood him to mean that he had been beating her, but Ralston shushed him and told him to lower his voice. "I was shoving it in her pussy," he said. Steinberg asked if this helped move the sows along, but Ralston shook his head. "Just fucking around," he said. Weeks later, when the deputy sheriff was investigating the case, Ralston admitted to boasting he had penetrated sows with his cane but said he was just trying to act "macho" in front of his coworkers, particular his assistant manager, Alan Rettig.
Rettig was the one, Ralston said, who was always shouting to show the sows your dick. At 60, Rettig was significantly older than 27-year-old Ralston and the other men, most of whom were in their late teens to early 30s. But he had more on his coworkers than just years; Rettig had cultivated a hard-ass mystique. He told everyone he had been a member of the Iowa Sons of Silence, a motorcycle gang that had been broken up in 2001 for trafficking drugs and firearms, and he was rumored to have served prison time. He certainly relished his image as a vicious, unpredictable presence in the barn, and he not only perpetrated violence but also frequently egged on his coworkers.
One day, after weaning a group of piglets, Steinberg, Rettig, and Lyons started returning sows to the breed barn. Rettig grew impatient at how long it was taking Lyons to move a particular sow. He took the gate rod out of Lyons's hands and cracked it down on the sow's back twice, each blow echoing through the barn. "Don't be afraid to hurt 'em!" he shouted. Another time, Rettig exhorted Ralston, "Hit 'em hard! Show 'em your dick! Show 'em your penis!"
One afternoon, barely two weeks into his employment, Steinberg went around with Rettig to adjust the feed for the sows. Rettig wanted Steinberg to jab each one with a wooden handle until they stood up, so he could judge their weight. When Steinberg didn't hit them hard enough, Rettig repeated his usual refrain—but with a new wrinkle. "Hurt 'em," he said. "Nobody works for PETA out here!"
On the hidden camera video, there is a tense moment, as Rettig asks Steinberg, "You know who PETA is?"
Steinberg mutters a reply, apparently fearing that he has been discovered. But Rettig is too busy searching his memory to notice Steinberg's hesitation.
"That's Protection for the…" Rettig begins. He seems to be scanning his thoughts, still oblivious to Steinberg's reaction. "Protection for the Environmental Treatment of the Animals. I hate them. These motherfuckers deserve to be hurt!" By now Rettig seems lost in reverie; he raises the handle and shouts, "Hurt I say! Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt! If you've got to hurt 'em, hurt 'em!"
Steinberg says something about a mild tap on the head being enough to get the sows to their feet, but Rettig isn't listening.
"Take out your frustrations on 'em!" he says. In a portion of the video not released to the public, Rettig concludes, "Just make believe that one of these motherfuckers scared off a 17-, 18-year-old voluptuous little fucking girl that's hornier than a bitch! And it scared her off. Then you beat the fuck out of her."
Soon after, the word went out to employees that the new owner, Lynn Becker, would be coming to the barn on August 18. There were going to be some changes, and Becker wanted to address the staff directly. The workers were nervous going into the meeting, but Becker's low-key demeanor seemed to set them immediately at ease. He introduced himself and Pat Thome, one of the sons of his business partner. Then Becker explained that the biggest change under MowMar would be thumping more runts. With corn at $8 per bushel, it was just too expensive to stick with undersized piglets that weren't putting on weight quickly. "Everything else will remain the same," he said.
On the secret audio recording of the meeting made by Robert Ruderman, the first of the PETA investigators, an unidentified woman sounds quite concerned about how to know which piglets would now be deemed undesirable. She had seen Becker and Thome personally thump some 200 piglets that morning.
"Did you guys get rid of the ones that you didn't want me to ship tomorrow?" she asks. She was trying to understand, she said, what path they intended to pursue with regard to runts.
"There's a trail of blood out there for you to follow," Becker says.
From the back of the room, Al Rettig lets out a relieved holler: "And the boys are back in town!"
On September 3, Jeff Kayser, the production manager at Suidae Health, called a lunchtime staff meeting and distributed the MowMar Employee Handbook. After running briefly through standard guidelines, he asked everyone to turn first to the page marked "Animal Rights Statement" and then to one marked "Mistreatment of Animals Statement." Kayser read both statements aloud. The second warned that any employee caught abusing an animal would be fired on the spot, and any worker "observing mistreatment of animals by another employee is also subject to termination unless he/she reports the mistreatment to MowMar, LLP during that current working day." Kayser told everyone to sign the statements, right then and there, and hand them in to him as they left the meeting.
Afterward, Rettig was fuming. He didn't care if he saw someone gut a pig right in front of him, he said. "I'd rather suck an elephant's dick than rat on anyone for anything." Greg Hackler, another worker in the breed barn, chimed in: "Gotta do what you gotta do to push those fucking pigs." Rettig said the new owners should make the pigs sign a pledge not to kick him in the shin, slam him into a gate, stomp on his feet, or try to break his arm. As the other workers seemed to ponder the implications of this change, Rettig was having none of it. "Motherfucker hurts me," he said, "that fucker gets a caning."
Two days later, Robert Ruderman decided to put this new policy to the test. With his recorder rolling, he went to Randy Vaughan, the new farm manager hired by Suidae and MowMar to take over from Jordan Anderson. In his log notes, Ruderman wrote, "I reported to Randy the following abuses that I had witnessed on the farm: the hitting of sows, seeing cuts on sows after being loaded into the farrowing barn, the improper thumping of piglets (piglets who are not dying immediately or even shortly after being thumped), and the spraying of spray paint into the faces of those sows who have attacked/killed their own babies."
Vaughan seemed unsurprised and unconcerned. "I'm not gonna get too shook up about it," he said, "unless somebody's really abusing 'em, is all—somebody's beating the piss out of 'em, and not feeding 'em, no water, that kind of stuff." Ruderman countered that the cuts and welts on the backs of the sows was evidence that they were being beaten. "Don't get too excited about it," Vaughan instructed. Some of those injuries might have come from the sows scraping up against the metal gates. As for the injuries squarely on their backs and hindquarters? "Ya know, I mean, you got to do something if they won't move. You got to move 'em." Ruderman left that Friday evening angered that Vaughan had dismissed his reports of animal abuse, but he hadn't expected any consequences for making the complaints. So he was shocked the following Monday when he was called into Vaughan's office and told that the farm was cutting back. Vaughan told Ruderman that he was being let go.
Things were turning chaotic for Michael Steinberg in the breed barn as well. Al Rettig was rumored to have been injured over the weekend—crushed against a gate by a sow—and was out for days. Greg Hackler was nowhere to be seen, and Richard Ralston, without explanation, was no longer in charge of the breeding facility. With the hierarchy unraveling and the prospect of a mass turnover that might scatter the workers, PETA decided to conclude the operation and go public. They summoned Ruderman and Steinberg back to the East Coast and prepared to make the phone call to Lynn Becker.
By the time Lynn Becker actually received the voice message, Daphna Nachminovitch, vice president of cruelty investigation at PETA, was already on a plane bound for Des Moines. She met with deputies from Sheriff Tom Heater's office, turning over CDs of video footage and a black binder of paperwork labeled "Abuse and Neglect of Livestock at Sow Farm." Heater assigned Deputy Sheriff Russell Hoffman to investigate and met briefly with Jeff Kayser from Suidae Health. By then, the edited five-minute video was everywhere on the internet, and Kayser requested that Hoffman accompany him to MowMar, where he planned to terminate Alan Rettig and Richard Ralston immediately.
That afternoon, directly after the meeting, Kayser went to MowMar and fired Ralston, who then agreed to answer some of Hoffman's questions outside in the deputy's official pickup. Shown the video, Ralston dropped his head in shame. He told the deputy that he felt "like shit," seeing himself beat the sows. "But in the environment," he said, "you don't realize that it's right or wrong. You're here to get as much done as you can. You're the only one that knows what's going on. People just stand around and watch." Deputy Hoffman asked Ralston to write out a statement there in the cab of his truck. When Ralston protested that he wasn't a good writer, Hoffman agreed to have him go through everything again while he wrote it down for him.
He prodded sows with clothespins, hit them with wooden herding boards, and pulled them by their ears, but only in an effort to get pregnant sows that had spent the last 114 days immobilized in gestation crates up and moving to the farrowing crates.
In the coming weeks, Hoffman began tracking down the other workers to question them about abuses itemized in the PETA list. Shawn Lyons tipped off the sheriff that Al Rettig was packing up and planning to skip town before he could be charged. Hoffman went to Rettig's home in Scranton and asked him to come out to his pickup parked in the alley. Rettig, predictably, was unapologetic. He told Hoffman that he had only been at this facility since March 2007, but he had worked as the manager of two breed barns previous to this one—a total of 18 years handling sows—and he was willing to do "whatever it takes to keep hogs moving and not get hurt and not get the hogs hurt." Everything he did, he said, was to protect himself, and all that stuff about 17-year-old girls and showing them your dick was just "bullshitting." He told Hoffman that "people don't have a clue as to what really goes on in there and what you have to do to survive—to keep your body, to keep your health, and to keep your job."
From there, everything began falling into place. Hoffman got Shelly Mauch to admit to huffing angry sows with marking dye to calm them, but she said she had been instructed in this technique by farm manager Jordan Anderson. Greg Hackler admitted to kicking sows, to jabbing them hard enough with clothespins to make them bleed, and to hitting sows multiple times with the captive-bolt gun—one sow six times. Jordan Anderson admitted to instructing workers on huffing sows and the use of clothespins.
Finally, almost as an afterthought, Hoffman interviewed Shawn Lyons. Lyons acknowledged to the sheriff's deputy then—as he did to me later—that he had prodded sows with clothespins, hit them with wooden herding boards, and pulled them by their ears, but only in an effort, he told me, to get pregnant sows that had spent the last 114 days immobilized in gestation crates up and moving to the farrowing crates.
As Lyons remembered his conversation with Hoffman, he rocked nervously in his recliner chair in the living room of the tiny, tumbledown house he shares with his wife and two kids, the same house he grew up in, just two blocks off of Main Street in Bayard. His watery blue eyes seemed on the verge of tears as he tried to explain himself, and he spoke in a skittish mutter that would sometimes disappear all the way into silence as he rubbed his thin beard. Lyons said he never intended to hurt the hogs, that he was just "scared to death" of the angry sows "who had spent their lives in a little pen"—and this was how he had been trained to deal with them. "You do feel sorry for them, because they don't have much room to move around," he said, but if they get spooked coming out of their crates, "you're in for a fight."
On October 22, Deputy Sheriff Hoffman preferred charges of livestock abuse against six workers at the sow barns: five counts each against Alan Rettig and Richard Ralston, two counts against Greg Hackler, and one count each against Shelly Mauch, Shawn Lyons, and Jordan Anderson (who was also charged with two counts of aiding and abetting livestock abuse).
Hoffman then began calling them, one by one, with instructions to come in and surrender at the Greene County Courthouse.
While the Greene County Sheriff's Office was still conducting its investigation, Lynn Becker, as the public face of MowMar, led an effort at damage control, with assistance from Julie Henderson Craven, the spokesperson for Hormel; Cindy Cunningham, the assistant vice president for communications at the National Pork Board; and John Himle, founding partner at Himle Horner, the PR firm in the Twin Cities hired by Becker at the recommendation of Hormel. Authored by Himle and released through Cunningham's office, a statement issued on September 17 read: "Representatives of PETA and MowMar's farm managers had a frank and open discussion in a meeting this morning about what PETA discovered and the actions being taken to correct this unfortunate situation." Among the actions Becker pledged to undertake: firing all employees found to have abused animals, instituting a zero-tolerance policy against abuse, and investigating the possibility of installing a video monitoring system. "I've known the hog producers who own that company for years," Cunningham said in an interview at the time, "and they will do everything possible to run that facility the right way. I know they are in there today, cleaning it up, and they will turn it into one of the best-run facilities anywhere."
Craven, for her part, reiterated that MowMar "shares our commitment to animal welfare and humane handling" but also told the Associated Press that, as she understood it, "the abuses took place before the change in ownership." PETA vice president Daphna Nachminovitch disputed this claim and pointed out that the new farm manager, Randy Vaughan, who had been hired by MowMar, was guilty of abuses as well. To back up the claim, PETA released a second video, showing Vaughan using a "hot shot" electric prod on an injured sow. Michael Steinberg, who recorded the video, described it that day in his notes: "She tried to stand up as he walked over, but both of her back legs were in very bad condition. In my opinion, she had a possible broken pelvis, hip, or legs, although nobody suggested this to me. Both of her legs were underneath the left side of her body. Randy continuously stomped on and kicked her bad legs and shocked her the whole time he was doing this." The second video brought renewed attention—focused this time more squarely on Hormel. "One month later, the pigs at this farm are still at the mercy of the same manager," Nachminovitch wrote in a public statement issued on October 21. "We have yet to see any action from Hormel that would spare these mother pigs and their babies one iota of suffering."
Craven went on the offensive. "We are appalled that PETA representatives not only witnessed incidents of improper animal handling without reporting the abuse, and after several months, have not released all of the video footage," she said in a statement of her own. "If they are truly concerned about animal welfare, they should release information when they obtain it." But Craven's statement ignored the fact that PETA had turned all video over to the Greene County sheriff for investigation only after Robert Ruderman was fired by Randy Vaughan in apparent retaliation for bringing these abuses to his attention. After the story broke publicly, PETA had offered five times to deliver those same materials to Hormel's offices but never received a reply.
"We don't want to do it, but we got to—because Hormel will quit taking the pigs."
Craven also repeated her belief that most of the abuses occurred before MowMar's ownership and added that the farm had only become a Hormel supplier after that change. Hormel's own corporate literature, however, issued just months before the whole scandal erupted, identified the previous management company, AMVC, as one of "our partners." The report said that the company's CEO, Daryl Olsen, met representatives from Hormel "during an industry meeting almost nine years ago [in 1998]. Soon after, AMVC began its business agreement with Hormel Foods and began supplying Hormel Foods with hogs." The report goes on to quote Olsen as saying, "We meet regularly to discuss ways we can help [Hormel] produce a better product and work together to meet that goal." Even more strikingly, the only other "partner" highlighted in the report was Gary Thome—Lynn Becker's co-owner of MowMar, who had first met Becker through Olsen.
In the midst of the second uproar—and perhaps in an effort to quell it—Sheriff Heater announced the indictments against the six former and current employees. He had pressed charges against nearly all of the offenders identified by PETA, with the exception of Randy Vaughan, who, based on the sheriff department's interviews of suspects, seems to have avoided prosecution simply by steadfastly denying all charges. So it was a special irony that on October 22, when Deputy Sheriff Hoffman was unable to reach Shawn Lyons and Shelly Mauch, he wound up calling MowMar—and reaching Vaughan. Hoffman asked Vaughan to inform Lyons and Mauch that they had 24 hours to turn themselves in at the courthouse. Vaughan agreed to relay the message, but he seems first to have called Hormel for guidance. At the end of the day, as workers sat around the break room, talking, Vaughan came in and told Mauch and Lyons that they had been formally charged—and that they were being let go. According to Lyons, Vaughan told him, "We don't want to do it, but we got to—because Hormel will quit taking the pigs."
Lyons called his wife, Sherri, and told her to get ready to go out. He had been fired and charged with a felony; he would explain everything as they drove to the county seat in Jefferson, Iowa. Once there, Sherri was shown to Holding Room 3 while Shawn filled out paperwork and had his mug shot taken. While she waited, Sherri's cellphone buzzed again and again; Shawn's name was already on the evening news. Hoffman released him with instructions to go find a lawyer. He might be able to beat the charge, considering that Lyons's supervisor had emphasized what a good worker he was.
"Well, they fired me," Lyons replied.
Soon after, his lawyer met with the county attorney and worked out a plea agreement—six months' probation and a $625 fine plus court fees. On January 15, 2009, Lyons went to the magistrate to plead guilty to one count of livestock neglect and sign an admission of guilt: "On or about August 27, 2008, I did the following: intentionally cause pain and suffering, or otherwise fail to provide livestock care consistent with customary animal husbandry practice." The date cited for the abuse was 10 days after MowMar Farms had taken ownership of the facility. Despite all the denials from Julie Craven, the eventual conviction for Lyons and others was for actions documented after the facility was under contract to Hormel—but the press didn't seem to notice. And, with no more ceremony than that, Shawn Lyons became the first person ever convicted of livestock abuse on a Midwestern farm.