Can Drones Expose Factory Farms? This Journalist Hopes So. | Civil Eats

Can Drones Expose Factory Farms? This Journalist Hopes So.

drone on farm

drone on farmWhen Mishka Henner’s infamous feedlot photos made the internet rounds last year, they caught most viewers off guard. Filled with what looked like colorful pools of ink, smeared across beige canvasses, their captions made it clear that the black flea-sized dots in the photos were in fact cows, and the “ink” was liquid manure collecting alongside giant feedlots or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

When Will Potter, the author, TED fellow, and journalist behind the blog Green Is The New Red, saw the images, he didn’t just feel nauseous, shake his head, and click on something else. He wondered, what else could we learn about CAFOs by documenting them from above? This month, Potter started fundraising for a journalism project called Drone on the Farm, which will use unmanned drones to fly over and document large factory animal farms. Just one week in, he has already exceeded his initial goal of $30,000. On Friday, he told his followers he was “working around the clock with photographers and journalists in multiple countries to craft a plan for expanding the project.”

Will-Potter.largeFor the last several years, Potter has been documenting so-called ag-gag laws, which give large farms the right to press charges against those who document their practices. The goal is to scare animal rights activists, who have been filming the mistreatment of animals from the inside for years. And they often come with harsh penalties; in some cases, exposing cruelty can lead to more jail time than committing it.

These anti-whistleblower laws have been proposed in 25 states, and passed in nine. Just last spring, Potter reported on the first ag-gag arrest. Now, he’s looking to expand the conversation beyond animal cruelty.

Unlike Henner’s hideously gorgeous photos, which were taken by satellite and capture animal agriculture at a grand scale, Potter’s will likely aim closer to earth. “I think undercover investigators have done a heroic job of documenting again and again what happens on factory farms behind closed doors. But what’s been absent from the discussion is how farms and industrial operations also impact surrounding communities and the environment,” Potter said over the phone last week.

With the funds he raises, Potter plans to travel to multiple states (especially those where ag-gag laws have taken effect or will soon take effect), take aerial photographs and videos, and create a short documentary. He also hopes the information will “contribute to public debate about ‘ag-gag’ laws internationally” (such as in Australia, where similar laws have been proposed), and he plans to “brief media and policymakers” about what he finds.

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While Potter added a disclaimer on his Kickstarter page, saying, “I cannot make any guarantee of what I will be able to document,” the odds that he’ll break new ground are quite high. In fact, public information about these farms is so rare, it would almost be hard not to uncover something the public doesn’t know.

You see, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t collect data on large livestock operations. A proposed rule published in 2011 would have required CAFO owners to report information as basic as the location of the CAFO’s production area, and the number and type of animals. But the rule stalled out the following year and despite lawsuits from environmental groups, the agency shows no sign of planning to collect the data anytime soon, let alone regulate the farms. According to Food and Water Watch, one of the plaintiffs: “By bailing on the [the CAFO reporting rule], the EPA maintains the status quo of not even knowing how many CAFOs there are in the United States.” [Emphasis ours.]

So nearly anything Potter learns about the scale of existing operations, and how they might be impacting the surrounding waterways, could break new ground. And not a minute too soon, says Potter. “Ag-gag bills are just one piece in a much bigger trend of the agriculture industry and to shut down access to information. But, if anything, the overwhelming public interest in this issue shows that we need more access right now–not less.”

The journalist is also aware of the controversial nature of working with drones. “We know that some types of drones kill people around the world,” he says. “But in a lot of ways, that’s what appealed to me about this project. It shows that the technology is not inherently skewed toward that type of use.” Because these remote-control aircraft are increasingly accessible and affordable, he adds, “It’s time to turn the technology on its head.”

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Twilight Greenaway is the former managing editor and executive editor of Civil Eats. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times,, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

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  1. Sande
    How horrid what this is doing to our land and surrounding communities. It is time we all stand up and shout...NO MORE!
  2. Jim
    If factory farm are abusing the animals and the environment, they should be held accountable.
    Plain to.. see.. they have no ability or desire to control there on actions..
    The love of money is the root of this evil..

  3. Please expose the cruelty. We must restore humane treatment. Also, get people to stop eating meat!
  4. I would suspect that you will find a few outliers, but that most large farms take good care of their animals. The profit motive along should force good behavior. You can't make money mistreating animals.
  5. Amy
    Wait, how much abuse do you think goes on, on factory farms? Waste treatment is tightly regulated by the EPA and quality assurance programs created to ensure ethical and safe treatment of livestock. As for the impact on the surrounding communities they sustain rural America since 96% of farms are family farms. Also, doesn't the USDA have data for livestock operations and their size and location? If they don't many states do. Don't be so mislead without talking to an actual producer first.
  6. Periel Stanfield
    Amy, where are you getting that figure? I highly doubt that is correct. Over the years, animal farms have gotten bigger and denser. And in the process, many small farms have been squeezed out of the agriculture business. More than half of U.S. livestock are now produced on just 5 percent of farms. Giant meat companies are now spreading their factory farms to other parts of the world, like Eastern Europe and Central America, where environmental and labor laws are even weaker.
  7. LeRoy
    I think when a drone/camera gets out of a lunchbox in one or more of these animal sweatshops these naive people will see the bad side of these packing house/torture chambers and hopefully band together to force a cleanup.
  8. t
    Time to crawl out from under your rock and open your eyes. Family owned farms my ass!!!! I've nevr heard of a family owning a farm that has millions of heads of cattle or millions of chickens/turkeys. These CAFOs are owned and run by Big AG Corps like Cargill and these corporations don't even pay for the corn they use on the feedlots. Find out what they feed the cows besides the corn that makes them so sick, the cows are septic when slaughtered.

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