Report — From the November 2014 issue

Cage Wars

A visit to the egg farm

On Google Maps the farm looks like a space station or a huge fallout shelter, but as I drive down the shop-dotted Main Street of Martin, Michigan, and through its bucolic neighborhoods, I see only lovely fall leaves, long yards, and friendly houses. I cross a thicket of trees, and abruptly the town gives way to a vast plowed field. Far off lies the farm, silver silos that jut into the sky over a collection of giant warehouses, home to 2 million hens. I drive toward them. The tremendous barns rise around my car, and the air fills with the sound of machinery and the sharp smell of ammonia. I pull into the tiny parking lot of Vande Bunte Eggs family farm. I’ve come to see the cages.

© Adam Dickerson

© Adam Dickerson

Despite the noise, the farm appears empty and there is no one in sight. I walk to the office building behind the original Vande Bunte home, a small rectangle on the map compared with the outsize barns. The farm opened just after World War II, in the wake of the era of the modern henhouse, and is run today by two sons of the farm’s founder, Howard Vande Bunte. Inside, a grandson, Rob Knecht, greets me. He’s thirty-one and amiable, but he says, “Good to see you!” with a weary smile and some nervousness. For weeks he and I have been engaged in a series of negotiations over the phone and on email. “You have to understand the risk I’m taking here,” he’d said.

I did understand. In the 1970s, “Chickens’ Lib” was a handful of women in flower-print dresses holding signs, but in the past decade farm hens have become almost a national preoccupation. The agriculture industry has been subject to an onslaught of bad press fueled by the release of undercover videos taken by investigators who apply for jobs as farmhands — or, more rarely, farmhands who become whistle-blowers — and shoot video inside the megafarms’ barns. Animal-protection groups post footage online of birds in extreme confinement and being roughly handled. Criminal charges are filed, chain retailers drop the egg farmer in question, and citizens or legislators vote for better conditions for the hens. This cycle repeats itself.

The agriculture industry has responded in a variety of ways, most controversially by lobbying states to pass what are known as ag-gag laws, making it a crime for anyone to film, photograph, or record inside a barn unless the farm has hired the person specifically to do so. These laws are in place in seven states as of this writing. But the public by and large seems to distrust such laws. In 2013 and 2014, twenty new ag-gag bills and amendments were introduced in fourteen states and all but one were defeated.

© Adam Dickerson

© Adam Dickerson

Still, it is rare for anyone, especially a reporter, to be allowed onto an industry farm. But Knecht is in an awkward position. I first met him six weeks earlier in Lansing, Michigan, where a few dozen farmers, food-service workers, and university associates had gathered for a conference called “A Peek into the Future of Egg Farming” held by the industry trade group, the United Egg Producers. At the conference Knecht told me the industry needed to become more transparent and that his company was transitioning to the new “enriched cage systems.” He and his uncles are proud to be pioneers in what the industry calls the latest and largest-scale developments in hen welfare. They are hoping enriched cages will be the compromise solution, the place where welfare and productivity meet, and that these cages will become the national standard, as they already are in England.

If they’re proud of what they’re doing, I called him and asked, Why couldn’t he let me see?

“With every fiber of my being, I want to let you come,” he said, “but I’d be really leaving myself open.”

Next we had a volley of phone calls and emails that ended in his invitation. I agreed to follow the rules applied to any visitor: I would come to the farm alone, I would not film or take pictures, I would leave my phone in the car, and I would view only the new “enriched” barn, not the conventional “battery cage” barns.

Finally, Knecht shakes my hand and shows me in.

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is the author, most recently, of the memoir Revolution. She teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

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