Roasting pigs alive & smothering the state in pig manure is fine for corporate farmers, says Iowa law, but errant individuals will be prosecuted. One was just convicted & sentenced.
DES MOINES, Iowa––Whatever happened to Jefferson Davis “J.D.” Hogg, better known as Boss Hogg, the insatiably greedy and unscrupulous villain of the 1979-1985 television series The Dukes of Hazzard?
Rumor has it that Boss Hogg since then has advanced from holding every political office and owning every property in the fictional Hazzard County, Georgia, to comparably controlling the entire state of Iowa.
Of course the television Boss Hogg was only a fictional character, played by Sorrell Brooke (1930-1994).
But lest anyone doubt that pork barrel politics have put the corporate equivalent of Boss Hogg firmly in charge of Iowa, from Clinton to Council Bluffs and Burlington to Spirit Lake, consider the top two agribusiness news items of June 30, 2022.
One of those news items on November 21, 2022 netted a farmhand three years on probation, while corporate offenders on many times the scale cannot be prosecuted at all.
Farm manager charged
In Early, Iowa, midway between Fort Dodge and Sioux City, Elana Laber, 34, whose surname was also spelled “Labor” in media accounts, was charged with two counts of livestock neglect and two counts of first degree criminal mischief.
The charges came after more than 1,000 dead and decomposing pigs were found in two confinement barns half a mile apart in rural Sac County.
Laber, held in the Sac County Jail pending posting of a $22,000 cash bond, in September 2022 accepted a plea bargain to one count each of livestock neglect and first degree criminal mischief.
“According to court documents, Labor will face a prison sentence that is not to exceed 10 years for criminal mischief and 365 days for cattle neglect,” reported Gage Teunissen for KCAU in Sioux City.
“The two prison sentences will be served at the same time for a maximum 10-year sentence,” Teunissen said. “Labor will have also to pay a total of $1,800 between the two charges, with a crime services surcharge of 15%. Court costs are still pending.”
On November 21, 2022, however, Sac County District Court judge Derek Johnson suspended the 10-year prison sentence and placed Laber on probation for three years. Laber is still to pay restitution in an amount yet to be determined.
Seven years on the job, but did not know what to do?
Explained sheriff Ken McClure, “During the investigation, law enforcement interviewed Laber, who was employed to maintain both sites.
“Laber first told law enforcement that someone had shut off the breakers that control the electricity the night before, causing the death of the pigs,” McClure said.
“It was determined after a veterinary inspection that the pigs had been dead for at least a week,” McClure continued.
“Laber later told law enforcement that she knew the pigs had been dead for a week, but did not know what to do. The pigs were in different stages of decomposition. They had no access to feed or water.”
Added McClure, “The pigs are owned by Corey AGR Inc., from Lytton, Iowa,” a local company that apparently evolved out of a livestock trucking business.
“The estimated loss is more than one hundred fifty thousand dollars,” McClure finished.
Available information indicates that Laber had managed pig barns for approximately seven years.
No prosecutions for killing millions of pigs & poultry the same way
Few animal advocates might dispute that Laber should be prosecuted, whether for a deliberate act or an egregious act of negligence.
But as Marina Bolotnikova narrated for The Intercept on April 14, 2022, “In 2020, Iowa Select Farms, the state’s largest pork producer, killed healthy pigs, who could not be slaughtered for food due to COVID 19-induced slaughterhouse closures, by sealing off the airways and pumping in heat: a practice called ‘ventilation shutdown plus.’
“The animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere revealed pigs screaming in distress for hours as they, essentially, roasted to death. Soon after, Iowa Select announced that it was discontinuing use of the method,” Bolotnikova wrote.
However, Bolotnikova reported, “New documents obtained through federal and state public records requests reveal that, far from being an aberration, the meat industry’s use of this gruesome method is still on the rise — abetted by government and organized veterinary medicine.”
Iowa Select Farms & Rembrandt Farms skate
Altogether, hundreds of thousands of pigs and millions of poultry have been killed deliberately in Iowa in recent years by most, if not all, of the biggest agribusiness corporations operating in the state.
Rembrandt Foods alone, of Rembrandt, Iowa, killed 5.3 million chickens in March 2022, to try to quell an outbreak of the H5N1 avian influenza.
The chief difference between what Laber allegedly did, perhaps by accident, and what Iowa Select Farms, Rembrandt Foods, and many other companies did on purpose may be simply that none of the corporate executives responsible for roasting millions of animals to death in their own filth have been arrested, charged, or indicted, let alone convicted.
Charges against investigator dropped
But Direct Action Everywhere investigator Matt Johnson was arrested, charged, and prosecuted for his undercover exposé that brought the Iowa Select Farms pig massacre by “ventilation shutdown plus” to light, and for rescuing a sick two-week-old piglet he named Gilly on one of his undercover missions.
Johnson was accused of burglary, planting recording devices, and trespassing at a food operation, all alleged offenses created by the current Iowa “ag gag” law, which was rushed through the Iowa state legislature after the previous Iowa “ag gag” law was found unconstitutional in January 2019.
“The day before Johnson’s trial, all charges against him were dismissed,” reported Bolotnikova for The Guardian. “An earlier set of charges pertaining to Johnson’s ventilation shutdown investigation had already been dismissed in January 2021, a few days before trial, because Iowa Select Farms didn’t want to testify.”
Wright county assistant prosecutor Joe Corrow filed to dismiss the charges “in the interest of justice,” Bolotikova said, after the state of Iowa “filed a motion arguing that showing ventilation shutdown would ‘appeal to the jury’s sympathies and arouse their sense of horror, and only serve to confuse the issues.”
Fertilizer & the Iowa Supreme Court
Elana Laber, the lone defendant in an Iowa “ventilation shutdown” case, on November 1, 2020 gave a five-star review to Farmer’s Co-op Fertilizer in Remsen, Iowa.
What fertilizer has to do with Boss Hogg domination in Iowa was noxiously evident in the chambers of the Iowa Supreme Court on June 30, 2022.
The Iowa Supreme Court consists of seven members, six of them appointed by Republican governors.
The Iowa Supreme Court, by a vote of four to three, “reversed a longstanding precedent that allowed landowners to sue for damages when a neighboring hog farm causes water pollution or odor problems that affect quality of life,” summarized Associated Press reporter David Pitt.
Plaintiff met the tests
A 2004 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, Pitt explained, held that “a portion of Iowa’s law providing immunity to livestock farms from neighbors’ nuisance lawsuits violated the inalienable rights clause of the Iowa Constitution.
“It also found neighbors could sue if they had lived in the area long before the farm began operating, had sustained significant hardship, and did not benefit from the nuisance immunity granted to the livestock farm.”
Landowner Gordon Garrison easily met all of those tests.
Garrison “bought 300 acres of land in Emmet County in northwest Iowa in 1972, built a home there in 1999, and was disturbed in 2015 when farmer Jay D. Moore built a 4,000-pig operation about half a mile away,” Pitt recounted.
Pig farms prevail over right to enjoy property
Garrison testified that he could smell pig manure from the Moore farm “more than 100 days of the year, sometimes all day, and it caused him to experience nausea and dizziness that forced him to stop working outdoors. Other neighbors supported his complaints,” Pitt wrote.
Garrison “also complained of water pollution caused by manure spread on adjacent farm fields,” Pitt continued.
“Garrison sued in 2020, calling the hog farm a nuisance. A district court judge dismissed his lawsuit in May 2021 and he appealed.”
However, when the Garrison case reached the Iowa Supreme Court, Justice Thomas Waterman wrote for the court majority that “protecting and promoting livestock production is a legitimate state interest, and granting partial immunity from nuisance suits is a proper means to that end.”
Explained Pitt, “The court said judges must use a rational basis to review future court challenges — a standard that will be difficult to overcome because it presumes state laws are passed for the benefit of the public,” as opposed to the starkly evident reality that many laws, especially at the state level, are passed for the specific and immediate benefit of favored industries.
Property owners may continue to sue farmers, Pitt wrote, “when the damage results from a farm’s failure to comply with a federal or state law or regulation, or when the farmer failed to use prudent and generally accepted management practices,” a get-out-of-jail-free card for farmers resembling the exemption of routine agricultural practices from anti-cruelty laws.
What this means is that Laber can be prosecuted because “ventilation shutdown” in response to a disease outbreak is a “generally accepted management practice,” but doing it for some other reason or simply by accident is not.
Finished Pitt, “Iowa is the nation’s leading pork producer with 23 million pigs, most kept in large confinement buildings that collect nitrogen-rich manure from the animals and use it to fertilize fields.”