Scenes From 'This Horror' in Iowa


Joe Fassler

Anyone who's driven through Iowa knows when he or she is near hog and chicken factories—the car is invaded by their stench. Soon long, low, windowless hangars appear in rows looking, in the benign interpretation like hotels on a Monopoly board or, in the less benign interpretation, like dormitories in a concentration camp. Only vents like portholes betray what's inside, at least in what you can see from the road. The large companies that own and the run the factories don't want to let you anywhere near them, let alone inside.

I saw this for myself when I went to Iowa for a piece on Niman Ranch pork, raised on pasture—the profitable, principled alternative to the "concentrated animal feeding operations," as the factories are called. In an interview with Paula Crossfield, Dan Imhoff, author of the new CAFO Reader, a collection of essays that is required reading for anyone thinking about factory farming, describes the peerless Wendell Berry's contribution:

Wendell [says that] when you lose your small farmers, you lose your community. When you lose your community, you lose your reverence for the land. When your reverence for the land is turned over to this higher corporate economic power, then everything becomes commodified. Then we lose the beauty and our control over a healthy life, the fabric of our country. And these are the issues that are at stake here.

Joe Fassler, an MFA fiction student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, drove over to Clarion, the seat of Wright County, which gives its name to a business at the center of the egg recall: Wright County Egg. He tried to get inside the company's corporate offices, but of course didn't. He did, though, talk to a lot of the town's residents about the effects DeCoster operations have had on a town that, as Verlyn Klinkenborg, who grew up in Clairon, described it yesterday in the New York Times, has been transformed from the landscape he knew to "this horror":

Instead of people on the land, committed to the welfare of the agricultural enterprise and the resources that make it possible, there was this horror—a place where millions of chickens are crowded in tiny cages and hundreds of laborers work in dire conditions.

Listen to some of the voices Fassler did get to hear—and join Imhoff in his hope "that people in Poland and Romania read it and maybe the Ukraine and Georgia, and anywhere else that the CAFO industry is beginning to set its sights" read his book too.