The odor knocks visitors off balance the moment they walk in the battered front door of HKY Farm. It's not so much a barnyard smell as a noxious combination of manure, ammonia and death that intensifies as one moves toward the barns.
Next comes the sound of dozens of sows screaming and thrashing at their cages at the arrival of visitors and the prospect of food, a noise so loud and unsettling that a farm manager puts on ear plugs as he enters.
Inside, HKY Farm looks like a Third World prison for pigs.
Dozens of dead piglets are dumped in piles or encased in pools of manure beneath the floor, having drowned there after falling through a hole. Dead hogs remain in their cages, discarded and stiff in walkways or rotting in pens as other pigs gnaw at their carcasses.
Many of the 1,800 or so pigs that are alive are emaciated, crippled or covered with open sores, having been poked by jagged iron bars from broken cages or fallen through slats that separate them from the manure pits below.
The nursery, heated to protect the piglets, is swarming with flies, and the "sterile room" where food and medicine are stored includes yet another pile of dead pigs stacked in front of a refrigerator and bags of pig feed.
Then there's the manure. It's piled in mounds in cages and concrete pens where the animals live, dripping down the walls and floating as particulate matter in a fetid brown haze that permeates the buildings.
"You've heard of hog heaven, haven't you?" said Robert Baker, an investigator for the Humane Farming Association, speaking through a paper air mask as he walked through the farm. "What this is, is hog hell."
Baker and other critics believe HKY represents all that is wrong with so-called factory farming, from polluting the environment with dangerous gases and manure to treating animals inhumanely.
The owner of the farm, Garry Young, contacted after the visit, blamed the problems there on irresponsible employees.
"Those guys that worked there, why would they want to not clean up things?" Young said. "We were after them and after them to clean things up."
But critics say HKY is hardly unique among the thousands of large hog farms that have sprung up in the past decade as family farms have given way to indoor facilities, known as concentrated animal-feeding operations, or CAFOs.
In a petition filed in November with the South Dakota attorney general's office, for example, the Humane Farming Association, a non-profit animal-rights group, alleges that the Sun Prairie Rosebud operation, a 96,000-hog facility on a Sioux reservation, is especially bad.
Broken air, manure systems
Although the facility is just 4 years old, the petition alleges that Sun Prairie's ventilation fans and manure-flushing system are broken, creating air so foul that respiratory problems are common among employees. Meanwhile, sick and dying pigs are left in pens to be cannibalized by healthy ones or beaten to death by employees, the petition says.
"I don't think these are isolated instances," said Gail Eisnitz, chief investigator with the Humane Farming Association. "It doesn't really matter what they look like on the outside, but the death rate inside is just unbelievable."
Greg Fontaine, the acting chief executive officer of Sun Prairie, denied the allegations, saying his facility routinely tests the air quality and maintains and repairs the flushing systems. He also denied that the hogs were mistreated.
"I've found no facts substantiating any of the allegations that have been made," Fontaine said, explaining that he immediately investigated the claims. He attributed the complaints to disgruntled employees and to animal-rights activists who skew facts to promote an anti-factory-farm agenda.
A spokeswoman for the South Dakota attorney general's office said the investigation is ongoing but declined to elaborate.
Proponents of large-scale livestock farming argue that HKY Farm is an exception. While there are some irresponsible players in any business, they say, most farmers maintain clean and efficient farms.
"Our margins are extremely tight," said Dave Roper, former president of the National Pork Producers Council. "If you have an operation that is run that way, that person is not long for the business, just based on the economics."
Indeed, an impromptu tour of a factory-style hog farm in Mineral, Ill., found much different conditions, with healthy-looking animals, clean pens and relatively mild odors.
"It's just like anything else--if it's clean and nice, everything works better," said James McCune, the farm's owner.
Young, HKY's owner, said he plans to close the farm because it no longer is profitable and he already has removed sows. But he maintained that the farm is not in such bad shape.
"I didn't think it was," said Young, a local businessman who bought the farm in 1987. He also owns another pig facility and a feed store. "Anything that was sick we gave shots and tried to do what we could that was right."
Young's son Bryan, who occasionally works on the farm, added, "When they raise hogs outside and they have to sit in the weather when it's 40 below, that's more cruel than when they are inside a building."
Young said he does not visit the farm very often because of "biosecurity" concerns--people can spread disease to the pigs. He said employees are supposed to shower in the front office before they enter the pig barns to prevent disease.
Despite the poor health of some of the pigs, they routinely are sold to local packinghouses, HKY's former manager said. After a case of mad cow disease was discovered last year in Washington state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned sick and crippled cows from the human food chain, but no similar rule applies to pigs.
Manager invites watchdog
The former HKY manager, Joe Suing, said he became so disgusted when his repeated requests for additional help were ignored that he called the Humane Farming Association and invited its representatives to visit the farm before he quit, which he did on Feb. 20. The association, in turn, invited a Tribune reporter.
"All my life I've wanted to be a hero," said Suing, 48, who drove a truck before coming to work at HKY Farm last May. "I'm kind of a gutsy [guy], you know. But I never thought I'd be saving the life of hogs."
Suing, who grew up on a farm, said he tried to become a pig farmer before being forced out of the business by declining market prices in the mid-1990s. He started as an assistant at HKY Farm but was the only paid employee after the previous manager quit Nov. 1. His girlfriend, Kim Lambie, helped out for free because she felt sorry for Suing and the pigs.
During a visit in early February, Suing said maintenance at the farm often was neglected because he spent so much time dealing with crises, from barns flooding in the dead of winter to piglets escaping from broken pens and falling into the manure pits.
Suing, wearing soiled green coveralls and knee-high rubber boots, said he hadn't had time to properly discard of many of the dead pigs that lay scattered throughout the facility. He said he left a dead sow stuck in her cage because he couldn't budge the corpse without help.
"This place needs to be leveled," Suing said. "My big mistake was I never took a tour of the place before I started."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times