The Fruits of Family Trees

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Your Continued Consideration


To Whom It May Concern at Tyson Foods:


I am following up on my previous letters of January 10, February 27, March 15, April 20, May 15, and June 7. To reiterate, I am a new father, eager to learn as much as I can about the meat industry, in an effort to make informed decisions about what to feed my son. Given that Tyson Foods is the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, your company is an obvious place to start. I would like to visit some of your farms and speak with company representatives about everything from the nuts and bolts of how your farms operate, to animal welfare and environmental issues. If possible, I would also like to speak with some of your farmers. I can make myself available at just about any time, and on relatively short notice, and am happy to travel as is needed.

Given your “family-centered philosophy” and recent “It’s What Your Family Deserves” advertising campaign, I assume you’ll appreciate my desire to see for myself where my son’s food comes from.

Thanks so much for your continued consideration.


Jonathan Safran Foer

The Whole Sad Business

WE’VE PARKED SEVERAL HUNDRED YARDS from the farm because C noticed in a satellite photo that it was possible to reach the sheds under the cover of an adjacent apricot grove. Our bodies bend the branches as we walk in silence. It’s six A.M. in Brooklyn, which means my son will be waking up soon. He will rustle around in his crib for a few minutes, then let out a cry — having stood himself up without knowing how to get himself back down — then be taken into my wife’s arms, into the rocking chair, against her body, and fed. All of this — this trip I’m making in California, these words I’m typing in New York, the farms I’ve come to know in Iowa and Kansas and Puget Sound — affects me in a way that could be more easily forgotten or ignored if I weren’t a father, son, or grandson — if, like no one who has ever lived, I ate alone.

After about twenty minutes, C stops and turns ninety degrees. I can’t imagine how she knows to stop right here, at a tree that is indistinguishable from the hundreds we’ve passed. We walk another dozen yards, through an identical grid of trees, and arrive, like kayakers at a waterfall. Through the last bits of foliage, I can see, only a dozen or so yards away, barbed-wire fencing, and past that the farm complex.

The farm is set up in a series of seven sheds, each about 50 feet wide by 500 feet long, each holding in the neighborhood of 25,000 birds — although I don’t yet know these facts.

Adjacent to the sheds is a massive granary, which looks more like something out of Blade Runner than Little House on the Prairie. Metal pipes spiderweb the outsides of the buildings, massive fans protrude and clang, and floodlights plow weirdly discrete pockets of day. Everyone has a mental image of a farm, and to most it probably includes fields, barns, tractors, and animals, or at least one of the above. I doubt there’s anyone on earth not involved in farming whose mind would conjure what I’m now looking at. And yet before me is the kind of farm that produces roughly 99 percent of the animals consumed in America.

With her astronaut’s gloves, C spreads the harp of barbed wire far enough apart for me to squeeze through. My pants snag and rip, but they are disposable, purchased for this occasion. She passes the gloves through to me, and I hold open the wires for her.

The surface is lunarlike. With each step, my feet sink into a compost of animal waste, dirt, and I-don’t-yet-know-what-else that has been poured around the sheds. I have to curl my toes to keep my shoes from being left behind in the glutinous muck. I’m squatting, to make myself as small as possible, and holding my hands against my pockets to keep their contents from jingling. We shuffle quickly and quietly past the clearing and into the rows of sheds, whose cover allows us to move about more freely. Huge fan units — maybe ten fans, each about four feet in diameter — come on and shut off intermittently.

We approach the first shed. Light spills from under its door. This is both good and bad news: good because we won’t have to use our flashlights, which, C told me, scare the animals, and in a worse case could get the entire flock squawking and agitated; bad because should someone open the door to check on things, it will be impossible for us to hide. I wonder: Why would a shed full of animals be brightly lit in the middle of the night?

I can hear movement from inside: the hum of machines blends with what sounds a bit like a whispering audience or a chandelier shop in a mild earthquake. C wrestles with the door and then signals that we should move to the next shed.

We spend several minutes like this, looking for an unlocked door.

Another why: Why would a farmer lock the doors of his turkey farm?

It can’t be because he’s afraid someone will steal his equipment or animals. There’s no equipment to steal in the sheds, and the animals aren’t worth the herculean effort it would take to illicitly transport a significant number. A farmer doesn’t lock his doors because he’s afraid his animals will escape. (Turkeys can’t turn doorknobs.) And despite the signage, it isn’t because of biosecurity, either. (Barbed wire is enough to keep out the merely curious.) So why?

In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.

As it turns out, locked doors are the least of it. I never heard back from Tyson or any of the companies I wrote to. (It sends one kind of message to say no. It sends another not to say anything at all.) Even research organizations with paid staffs find themselves consistently thwarted by industry secrecy. When the prestigious and well-heeled Pew Commission decided to fund a two-year study to evaluate the impact of factory farming, they reported that
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