Grow Finish Unit Takes on “Ruthless and Insatiable” Industrial Ag

by Jeremy Chen

  • Review
decorative header image from Volume VIII Issue 1 · Spring 2022

On June 24, 2020, from my house in rural Grinnell, Iowa, I saw a billowing plume of dark smoke rising nine miles away. I later learned that the smoke came from a farmstead where an enormous fire was raging. There, the county sheriff and his deputies were in the midst of a seven-hour stand-off with Dwaine Bauman, a U.S. Army veteran armed with a shotgun, who was upset that a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation—a CAFO—had been issued a permit to move into his neighborhood.

CAFOs, according to the Sierra Club 1, are industrial-sized livestock operations which house anywhere from hundreds to millions of animals. The animals in CAFOs are most often dairy cows, hogs, or chickens. Most often in our region CAFOs are massive, windowless buildings where livestock are confined in boxes or stalls for at least 45 days or more per year, in an area without vegetation. The quantity of urine and feces from even the smallest CAFO is equivalent to the urine and feces produced by 16,000 humans.

In Iowa, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) freely issues CAFO permits—for operations housing fewer than 2,500 hogs—without site visits, input from neighbors, or any say from the county supervisors (who can only deny permission if the farm operation’s Manure Management Plan does not meet the requirements). This is what had set Mr. Bauman off. One of his neighbors, seeking the extra income a CAFO would bring in, had decided to build one in Mr. Bauman’s neighborhood, despite the adverse effects this was likely to have on the neighbors’ property values and quality of life, as well as the damage it could potentially cause to the ecosystem.

Image from Grow Finish Unit courtesy of John Gerrard. To view a website that includes the artist’s simulation, Enter this URL in your browser:

Image from Grow Finish Unit courtesy of John Gerrard. To view a website that includes the artist’s simulation, Enter this URL in your browser:

Mr. Bauman launched his protest by setting fire to two vehicles, 100 bales of hay, and the rental house he was living in. The county sheriff’s department got involved after one of Mr. Bauman’s family members reported that he was acting strangely with a gun. The sheriff and deputies arrived and tried to talk to him, but when he discharged his shotgun into the ground the sheriff backed off, blocked roads, and waited out of sight. Friends implored the sheriff to let them speak to Bauman in person and de-escalate the situation but, intending to protect them, the sheriff didn’t allow this. Law enforcement later arrived in force with an armored vehicle and tactical gear. 2

While one might argue with his methods, at bottom Dwaine Bauman simply wanted to have a voice in what was happening around him. His protest has inevitably brought back to my mind an artwork titled Grow Finish Unit by Irish-born artist John Gerrard, which Grinnell College’s Faulconer Gallery hosted in 2015, the year Rootstalk began publication. Today the issue of industrial-scale agriculture—with CAFOs providing one of the most egregious examples of its effects–is as big as it ever was, making this call-back examination of Gerrard’s work appropriate.

“With Grow Finish Unit, Gerrard set out to comment on the ruthless and insatiable system that industrial agriculture has become, prioritizing profits over people and the environment, constantly creating more waste, and demanding more land, more hogs, more feed, and more sacrifices from those living in proximity to CAFOs.”

Using software simulations, Gerrard creates meticulously crafted generations of reality that are astonishingly real as they elapse over time. His works document the agri-industrial landscapes of the American Great Plains, in recent years examining such subjects as the Dust Bowl, our dependence on petroleum, and the overuse of nitrogen in agriculture.

With Grow Finish Unit, Gerrard invites us to contemplate a ruthless and insatiable system that industrial agriculture has become, prioritizing profits over people and the environment, constantly creating more waste, and demanding more land, more hogs, more feed, and more sacrifices from those living in proximity to CAFOs. The work might protest with resignation, the system’s exploitation and alienation of the essential workers who process (slaughter, cut, pack, and distribute) the meat, eggs, and milk these facilities produce.

Gerrard’s visually stunning simulation depicts a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) near Elkhart, Kansas, functioning in real time. The CAFO depicted in Grow Finish Unit is designed to contain thousands of hogs. The simulation, which was started in 2008 and has been running ever since, displays a computer-generated sun faithfully rising and setting in real time on a functioning CAFO, and follows relationships between humans, architecture, hogs and a landscape that is deceptively invisible.

Grinnell College’s Faulconer Gallery was an appropriate venue for Grow Finish Unit. When Gerrard was researching the project, he visited a Polk County Facebook server farm in Altoona and a Poweshiek County liquid egg production CAFO unit near Malcom with a capacity of nearly 20 million chickens. Like many other rural locales, Poweshiek County—where the College is located–has been impacted by the exponential growth of CAFOs. Gerrard became fascinated by these contemporary monumental production systems, made visible in the rural landscape by their unassuming architecture.

The visually hypnotizing effects of Grow Finish Unit are generated on a video monitor screen by gaming software on hard drives. The entire artwork, like the system it depicts, seems sealed. But Gerrard’s constructed reality simulation and the lived reality in Poweshiek County are terrifying shadows of each other. Gerrard’s compelling virtual reality focuses on, yet segregates, the relationships that tie a small rural community to its land and ways of life and the world economy. The simulation describes a nearly lifeless and inhumane system devoid of sustainable ways of living. Eventually, in this system, even profit will not be sustainable. In Grow Finish Unit sustainability doesn’t matter; the virtual sun will rise and set over the banal CAFO building in perpetuity, as long as the computer functions and there is electricity to run it.

It’s possible to think of the industrialized rural landscape around me as a late reflection of a misguided utopian idea that seamless market efficiency, production, and profit ought to be the goals of our farming system. However, these utopian economic goals ignore the real costs and dystopian impacts on life and land. Inside Gerrard’s gleaming CAFO building, the piglets grow into hogs that magically turn into meat for global tables— but primarily in America and China. Through “vertical integration” the local farmers don’t own the animals or the buildings, but maintain both for the absent global corporation, which sets their compensation with thin margins. Farmers who sign on with these corporations to host CAFOs are caught in a conundrum. Pressed by corporations with their eye on the bottom line and consumers who have become accustomed to low prices, they are forced into making decisions that negatively impact the local land, air, water, real estate, economy, culture, and community. Huge global corporations like Smithfield or Tyson drive the local land use, the labor and work conditions, and the profits that largely leave any state from which they extract resources, leaving behind lasting negative environmental and human impacts for local communities to reckon with in the future.

Dwaine Bauman inflicted his physical damage on property. Thankfully, no human life was lost, and no one was seriously hurt during the incident.. As the fires burned, Bauman was eventually taken into custody by the sheriff’s office and charged with second-degree arson and intimidation with a dangerous weapon. He was held in the Poweshiek County jail on a $250,000 bond.

The landowner, despite his loss, did not intend to press charges. Bauman’s friends regret that a different law enforcement intervention and de-escalation didn’t occur for a usually peaceful man who reached a tipping point of frustration and anger that drove him into uncommon actions in order to be heard.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Of course, Dwaine Bauman’s violent actions were ineffective. The larger system continues undisturbed with the backing of the state, corporations, Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Pork Producers, and other big players in the food and farming system. Perhaps, to them, Bauman is an outlier, just an unstable war veteran who needs mental health services or prison time. Bauman’s voice and the voices of others who protest civilly against the inevitable remain sealed off by systems that collude in the destruction of Iowa’s natural resources and quality of life. CAFO production and exponential expansion continues unabated across Iowa and the Midwest. Likewise, Gerrard’s simulation quietly continues undisturbed in perpetuity. While a simulation may be sustainable, the reality is not. Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.




About Author Jeremy Chen
Portrait image of author Jeremy Chen.
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Chen
Jeremy Chen is an artist and educator based in Grinnell, Iowa. He holds an MFA in Printmaking with area specialization in Sculpture from the The University of Iowa. He currently teaches at Grinnell Collegewhere he is a Senior Lecturer in Studio Art and chair of American Studies.