Supporters of intensive farming often use the argument that their opponents, or the media attempting to find controversy, select the worst examples. But the next few we selected totally at random. From the road we saw sparkling new sheds and a ‘Fresh Farm Eggs’ sign, and decided to check it out. The farmer could not understand why I was interested in seeing his operation.
"This kind of farming is illegal now in England, ain’t it? Why do you wanna film?"
This caught me off-guard. Wild thoughts entered my head. Had it been made illegal while we had been travelling around the States? He swore he’d read it in his local farming journal. It was only after I’d convinced him that the world might come to an end before there were no more caged chickens that he allowed us to have a look round his farm.
The pitch black interior of this massive chicken unit was so large, once you were halfway inside you could not see any exits, and panic welled up. Rows of cages towered above us, and the sun gun spotlit five or six half-bald chickens stuffed in each, a conveyor belt slowly circulating, collecting the eggs for immediate despatch to market. Thick dust hung in the air, catching in the back of your throat. The light picked out pathetic bundles of poultry writhing and struggling. Making their strange, throaty squawks, tens of thousands of birds joined together in an ear-shattering chorus. Here was complete neglect of the chickens – overcrowding was an understatement – dustbins full of corpses, dead
birds in their cages, half-dead birds littering the floor of the unit. The chickens just had to tolerate it, while the farmer had an easier life, with no weather or labour problems. Disease was kept down by liberal dosings of the birds with antibiotics. If they were to be wiped out by a system malfunction, a failure of ventilation or water supply, insurance would cover it. The farmer was well into his sixties, and seemed to me to have been duped into "going modern", perhaps by some fast talking sales rep. I suppose the farmer felt that the shiny new sheds were his only way to survive in modern agriculture.
There are some things I’d rather not know about – tree maggots, car accidents, venereal warts and veal production. The one we found and filmed was a beauty – a major operation. The ‘farm’ consisted of an old fashioned farmhouse and two enormous sheds – nothing else. To the uninitiated, the sheds could have housed tractors and combines. There was a strange earthy smell coming from inside, dampness in the air, in contrast to the dry heat outside, presumably condensation from the animals’ breath. We switched on the lights as the farmer, a gangly, crew-cut, quiet man in his forties, filled stainless steel vats with re-constituted dried milk. The smell made me hungry, though I quickly lost my appetite inside. Row upon row of calves were chained to a concrete floor, encased in wooden boxes slightly larger than their own bodies, in darkness twenty four hours a day except for twice daily feeding times. Separated from their mothers a few days after birth, deprived of roughage and iron, they sucked greedily at our fingers. The calves gazed in one direction hour after hour, day in day out, with no other prospect except slaughter at ninety days old. We visitors, not exactly a bunch of soft sentimentalists, became very sobered. Veal production is near to the factory farming ideal of the ‘animal machine’. An extremely profitable crop growing in the bottom of your garden, with the minimum of attention needed. The farmer had previously been in school administration.
We were driving through countryside where it took a sustained effort to find any farm animals out of doors. We travelled through villages of old white, wooden planked houses and rickety motels and individuals who stopped and stared at four city dudes in a red Cougar. Country music on the radio, Kevin Keating recalled memories of filming in Kentucky, Barbara Kopple’s Academy-Award winning documentary Harlan County USA, about a heroic miners’ strike. Keating was muscular, over six feet tall, a rough looking Adonis with a granite jaw, incongruously topped with a mop of blonde ringlets. It was impossible to estimate his age. His warm self-confidence was infectious and everyone we interviewed was immediately re-assured by his personality. Taking Victor’s directions on a shoot, he called upon vast experience, from a film on drug smuggling in Lebanon to a long stint on the road filming the Hells Angels. He had been shot at on location, once gravely wounded. The sources of my anxieties were all pretty much chickenfeed to him.
A feedlot was next. Strange, atmospheric sight it was too: Where there wasn’t concrete there was hardened, sun-baked brown earth for hundreds of acres crowded with bored, motionless beef cattle. As you moved along the fence perimeter, hundreds of pairs of eyes followed you. In such a visually bland environment, thousands of cows stranded on a brown dust moon, they looked at you as if to ask what else could they be doing.
The young pig farmer was brash and smug, hunting trophies in his wood-panelled den, a Lincoln and a Cadillac in his garage.
"All the farmers round here hate me."
"Coz of the methods I use – the most modern – and some don’t like them."
"Don’t you mix with them socially?"
The loneliness of the intensive pig farmer, with ten thousand pigs for neighbours. A windowless building so large that disorientation set in at once and we all lost each other. The pigs had belts round their middles and were chained to the concrete floor. They faced concrete walls and lay motionless and silent, barely acknowledging our presence. Occasionally one would look up with its human eyes and lashes in a threatening or broken stare. The farmer gave me a personal guided tour around his farm, taking pride in his underground slurry canals, his system of waste disposal which pumped thousands of gallons of pig shit into an open-air slurry lagoon.
He had begun, like so many factory farmers, with a small number of animals in a free range environment. "But a bad winter wiped them out, so I went into this." Higgledy-piggledy, he had added new wings to the giant plant. His buildings did not have the sulphurous aroma of chicken houses, nor the damp smell of the veal calf units, just an earthy smell, heavy with dejection. We had met a slightly guilty young pig farmer who had built his own units with big picture windows, so that the pigs denied the outdoors could at least see the sunrise and sunset. But the pigs here were in for a life sentence, mostly in pitch darkness.
Pigs are the most intelligent of farm animals. Incarcerating ten thousand pigs in one building turned them into neurotic pink blobs, ‘deprived’ them into madness. One old black and white pig was the farmer’s favourite. "Never had the heart to send this old girl to market, so I’ve kept her here. She’s more like a pet really." I doubted that pig was thankful for the reprieve, chained to the floor in a concrete, windowless cell.
The farmer was as oblivious as could be, though he boasted he "knew everything about pigs," which I suppose he did. I had a beer with him in his den and had to restrain myself from shaking him out of his porcine torpor.
We stayed in nondescript motels run by quiet middle-aged couples, with empty, leaf-filled swimming pools. Our cheap rooms were always on the second floor, no elevator, so we’d have to drag up all the equipment from the Cougar – the perfect end to the perfect day.
The text above in an authorised excerpt from a piece by Philip Windeatt, the researcher for the The Animals Film (1980), a pioneer exposé of the cruelty involved in animal farming. Directed by Victor Schonfeld and Myriam Alaux, and narrated by Julie Christie, it was first screened on Channel 4 in November 1982 and has just been released on DVD by the British Film Institute. Please follow the links on the left to buy a copy.