Exclusive Interview with Factory Farm Drone Documentarian Mark Devries
You may recognize Mark Devries as the guy behind the insightful documentary Speciesism: The Movie, which saw its world premiere in New York City last September (2013). With the bootstrapped exposé, this first-time filmmaker “…explored why humans consider themselves to be the most important species on the planet, and the ethical implications of such a belief system,” wrote former Ecorazzi editor Ali Berman in her review. (The author of this article lent her impressions here and here, in case you’re interested.)
December 17 saw the clever, bright and wry 27-year-old GWU Law School grad once again assume his rightful place in front of the camera. Only this time, Devries had neither big screen nor feature length ambitions. Instead, he set his sights on YouTube. And something else was new, too: This go around he employed drones (two to be exact) to capture the footage he needed to prove his thesis — that hog farming has a devastating impact on both the environment as well as the communities situated nearby to these facilities. Specifically in North Carolina, where on multiple occasions Devries spied on several operations providing pork to Smithfield Foods.
Regardless your degree of familiarity with factory farms, gestation crates, poisonous poop lagoons and N.C.’s notorious pig problem (in addition to Iowa, among other states), Devries’ 4+-minute video clip provides a bird’s-eye view of what’s really going down on the ground. From open-air cesspools brimming with feces and urine from confined swine to feedback from locals affected by neighboring operations, avid vegans and meat devotees alike are apt to walk away from watching this clip with a newfound outlook on confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and their far-reaching negative effects. Spoiler alert: It’s stark.
While Ecorazzi in June published an article about Will Potter and his endeavor to raise funds for an aerial drone exploration of his own, Devries’ gadget-savvy gears have been greased since 2012, when a gentleman attending a preview screening of Speciesism made the suggestion that Devries should put eyes in the sky. But it’s no wonder both Potter and Devries are taking their respective investigations to new heights: Ag-gag laws have proven prohibitive for folks attempting to gather footage of and gain access to animal agriculture in the United States. Forget foraging on foot for intel; it’s time to utilize the latest technology available. Up, up and away!
Within five days of Factory Farm Drones’ release on the web, the project had amassed more than 350,000 views. As of our publication date, that number has jumped to over 1.3 million, with additional coverage courtesy of reputable outlets like International Business Times, Salon and RT.com, among others. Sites like Care2 and Upworthy also picked it up.
While Devries confirms there is something grander than this mini movie in the works, that’s the extent of what he’ll share with us at this time. Watch this space for future updates, view the viral video below and read on for our interview with this pioneering producer, director and dabbler in (master of?) the art of drones.
How and when did your “ah-ha drones” moment come about?
At a 2012 preview screening of my debut documentary, Speciesism: The Movie, Georgetown Law student Jon Mirsky suggested I consider using drones for future projects. I purchased my first drone later that year. It had a slew of technical problems from the beginning, and crashed multiple times during flight tests. I put the project aside in 2013, as I toured with Speciesism, and picked it up again in 2014.
What drove you to pursue something like this, beyond Mr. Mirsky’s encouragement?
The environmental and public health impacts of pig factory farms are devastating, and nothing compares to witnessing them up-close. These facilities house open-air cesspools — the size of multiple football fields — filled with untreated, toxic animal waste. The experience of neighbors is similar to what it would be like if they lived next door to giant lagoons of untreated human sewage. To empty these noxious pits, their contents are often sprayed high into the air using oversized sprinkler devices. This can turn the excrement into a fine mist that can travel downwind to local communities. Besides never knowing when the suffocating stench will suddenly pour into their homes, neighbors may be at risk for respiratory and immune system ailments as well.
How toxic is this stuff?
Waste from factory farms is associated with a number of serious health impacts. A 2006 study published in Pediatrics found significantly increased asthma rates among children attending schools where farm odors were reported present more than once per month. A 2013 study associated pollution from North Carolina pig farms with spikes in neighbors’ blood pressure.
Yikes. What was it like for you while collecting footage in North Carolina?
When the wind is blowing in one’s direction, the stench can be truly overwhelming. There were several times I had difficulty breathing and, at some points, I felt as though I was about to vomit. The best way to conceptualize the experience might be to imagine someone forcing your head above a toilet that has not been flushed for days — that is what enters people’s homes without warning.
Sounds like this s***, literally, should be illegal. Speaking of illegal, do drones provide a way around ag-gag laws?
Drones get around some ag-gag laws, though they raise other legal issues, such as whether their use constitutes trespass.
Were you worried about getting caught in the act?
I was concerned about the potential reactions if factory farm operators spotted the drones. Someone in one of the facilities — who seemed to notice we were doing something, but did not appear to detect the drones — actually followed our car for miles.
Hmm, not cool. Since the site’s gone live, have you been criticized by the farming community at large for your use of drones?
No, not yet. The reason might be that they realize it would bring more attention to the findings of these investigations. Nevertheless, I have already come across an industry publication that discussed my project.
I see that as a good sign. Has Smithfield responded?
Smithfield provided the expected empty response that skirts the issues raised: “On our farms we strive to be good neighbors and respect the rights and property of those who live near our operations. We work closely with all of our farmers to meet strict environmental management policies that encourage continuous improvement and exceed most state and federal compliance standards.”
That says a lot (or very little) about “state and federal compliance standards.” On the subject of standards, what are some of the animal welfare implications of CAFOs, and did you encounter any actual animals while filming down south?
When I snuck through the forests near some of the dozen or so farms I filmed, I was close enough to see and hear the animals, which wasn’t pleasant and was in fact terribly tough for me. Pigs are extraordinarily intelligent animals, so it affects them severely to spend their entire lives in pens on slatted concrete floors, in overcrowded, windowless sheds. Most notably, many pigs used for breeding spend months at a time in “gestation crates,” which are enclosures so small that they cannot even turn around. This causes many to develop neurotic behaviors or to become unresponsive to their environments. You can’t imagine the insanity that happens here…
It’s tragic what they endure; not to mention they’re smarter than man’s best friend! Makes me exceedingly furious with Chris Christie. His recent veto (again) of S.1921 is unconscionable. Anyway, what is the greater goal of this ambitious drones project?
I think drones have the ability to expose the environmental destruction caused by factory farms in a way that nothing before ever has. There is significant potential in the continued use of drones.
Looking forward to more from you. In seeing a video like this, it’s easy to be grossed out and get upset. What can the average American do to help alleviate this problem? What actions can one take?
The number of animals raised on factory farms in the United States has begun to decline, significantly, for the first time since the dawn of factory farming. This is the result of people eating less meat. As people choose more vegetarian and vegan meals, and adopt vegetarian and vegan diets, the impact of these factory farms — on the environment, on human health and on animal lives — will continue to decrease. The ultimate power lies in the end consumer.
Video footage and screenshots courtesy of the filmmaker.