Photographer Arrested For Taking Pictures of Feedlots

aerial feedlot photo ag gag

National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz was recently arrested for taking aerial photographs of a feedlot in Kansas. He took the aerial photographs for a series on food issues that the magazine has scheduled for next year.

While he faces charges of criminal trespass, the Finney County attorney’s office has repeatedly clarified that the charges leveled against him have nothing to do with his photographs or the “ag gag” law Kansas has had on the books for nearly two decades. Rather, they say Steinmetz made the mistake of launching his paraglider from the feedlot’s private property and thus trespassed onto their land without permission.

In an age when the government has no qualms tapping your private cell phone calls and monitoring your internet usage without a warrant, this government support of a lack of transparency on the part of giant agribusinesses is both a little alarming and a tad hypocritical.

Finney County attorney Susan Richmeier defended the feedlot’s actions to reporters. She said:

There are trade secrets and security issues. What are they taking the photos for? To damage us? Sue us? Why is someone there? If someone is coming onto posted property—the question is why? Most of the feedlot guys would cooperate with any photographer. They just want to be asked.
(source)

If Steinmetz had not trespassed, but merely flown over the feedlot and taken photos, would he have violated any laws?

Susan Schneider of the University of Arkansas School of Law said,

A landowner’s rights do extend to the airspace above his/her property. But the airways can be analogized to a public highway. If one is traveling through the air for a legitimate purpose in a reasonable manner at a height that would not unreasonably interfere with the landowner’s enjoyment of his/her property, in conformity with relevant flight regulations, then it would not be a trespass.
(source)

Yet even if he had gone through proper channels and taken off from a nearby property with permission, it’s still possible Steinmetz would be facing charges under Kansas’ ag gag laws.

What are “ag gag” laws?

Coined by the New York Times’ Mark Bittman, the phrase “ag gag” refers to laws that criminalize the First Amendment right of investigative reporters, activists, and agribusiness employees to uncover the truth behind industrial agriculture’s food production methods. The goal of these laws is to allow agribusinesses to “completely self-regulate,” a prospect which should scare any of us who are aware of the deplorable and inhumane conditions within industrial food production.

Amanda Hitt, the director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign warned,

Ag gag laws … don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistleblowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistleblowing.”
(source)

So, what’s the real issue here?

According to Susan Schneider,

The real issue is transparency. Farmers, feedlot operators and processors are all producing a product to sell to consumers. And that product is perhaps the most essential product on Earth — our food. Anytime the industry complains that people should not take a picture of how our food is being produced, it casts all of agriculture in a bad light.
(source)

I couldn’t agree more.

How about you? Where do you stand on the issue of ag gag laws and food transparency?

(photo by dmbernasconi)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.

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36 Responses to Photographer Arrested For Taking Pictures of Feedlots
  1. Kario
    July 24, 2013 | 4:47 pm

    So sad. I applaud his efforts and wish that more people knew where their food came from and how it was treated. Sadly, so many don’t think they can afford local, organic, sustainable food (and they may not be able to), and the politicians are in the pockets of big ag. Until we do something about the way our politicians’ pockets get lined by big ag, big pharma, big business, I suspect it’s an uphill battle.

    • Jessica
      July 27, 2013 | 7:31 am

      Instead of agreeing that organic meats are expensive, one should ask, why is non-organic so cheap.

      • Chris
        August 17, 2013 | 4:23 pm

        It’s so cheap because it’s subsidised by the owners of the central bank, The Federal Reserve.

        Yes it Private and they don’t want a population with any brain cells.

  2. Lisa
    July 24, 2013 | 8:03 pm

    I have couple of questions in this case:
    1) Would the company have allowed Mr. Steinmetz to take pictures if he would have asked? Probably not.
    2) How did they know he was taking pictures?

    It saddens me every time I see pictures of a big feed lot and how these animals are treated for the sake of us having cheap food.

    I am not a vegetarian and believe we should eat healthy meat so even if you can only afford a little grass fed, organic beef, I think that is the most humane way to get our meat protein.

    If this company didn’t have anything to hide or had any concerns, pictures should have been the least of their worries.

    I hope this incident will not deter National Geographics from moving forward with printing their articles regarding food issues.

    • Ken
      July 25, 2013 | 7:59 am

      You’re almost right on the picture taking issue, they would not have let the photographer in without an appointment and on a restricted “tour”.

  3. Liz oke
    July 25, 2013 | 3:21 am

    It always amazes me that in the land of the free, if you believe that, you can carry a gun but are not allowed to know what’s in your food, ie GMO, or know how it’s produced. In Gypt recently, they voted in their first ever democratically elected government. This government set about doing exactly the same as the previous dictator, and the people took to the streets to kick them out of power, demanding what they were promised at the elections. It’s about time here in the west, our governments took notice and delivered on what the ordinary person needs and wishes, and not enforce laws to protect agri business, bigpharma and big money. What has happened to this photographer is a world wide disgrace, only things that should never happen are kept hidden. America, you should all be worried.

    • Hannah J
      July 25, 2013 | 10:26 am

      Soon you won’t even be allowed to carry a gun… it’s just sad. the second amendment has such a bad rap ever since the tragic shootings that happened last year. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. A gun wasn’t first used in Boston, a bomb was. Are bombs illegal? Yes. So then how’d he get one? The criminals will get guns no matter if they are legal or not. Sorry for the rant. But, you are right. It’s sad when a owning a gun is legal(currently, anyways…) but knowing what’s in your food isn’t. Why do you think they hide things in the ingredients?

      Like “natural flavors” and “spices,” we ALL know there’s more to it than that!

      Check out my blog at:
      dreamingofperfect.weebly.com

  4. Ken
    July 25, 2013 | 7:57 am

    I can’t agree more, they don’t want us to know their “trade” secrets which are no more than dirty little (and I use that term loosely) secrets. You’ll never eat big-ag meat again after watching the “Forks Over Knives” documentary. Always buy local and organic!!

  5. carol
    July 25, 2013 | 8:22 am

    Well, I guess a picture is worth a thousand words, do you see any grass any where in the photo? I drove across country a few weeks ago, and I smelled a feed lot 2 blocks, before I even saw it,didn’t know what the smell was, until we were upon it.Made me want to cry, if you have never been past one, every one should see one for their self,unbelievable!!!!Poor cows, peeing,laying,standing, with out room, all herded together, and just on the other side, was a nice field,no, not for them, the smell was nauseating, and you could still smell it, two blocks past.I mean, these cattle, were side by side,no room to even walk.I will NEVER, EVER, eat beef again, unless it is grass fed.

    • Glenn
      July 26, 2013 | 10:22 am

      I see Acres and Acres of grass. Grass that the cut and bail probably 3 times a year to feed the cattle. My uncle always had like 15-18 cows and you could smell that two miles away too, especially when he spread it. That’s two miles, not blocks. If you could only smell it two blocks away then WOW they are doing and exceptional job at waste management.

  6. Scott @ The Healthy Eating Guide
    July 25, 2013 | 8:27 am

    “Most of the feedlot guys would cooperate with any photographer. They just want to be asked.”

    What a ridiculously naive statement.

    • Glenn
      July 26, 2013 | 10:26 am

      Obviously I can’t speak for them all but I have actually asked on two occasions and gotten access the same day. I grew up on a farm and my whole family either did farm or still does, so my last name helps because the family is known. We used to have two big mega farms within short driving distance and you could get in really easy. Just ask permission instead of being a criminal.

  7. Leah G
    July 25, 2013 | 8:35 am

    That is SO foul. We have jerseys and dexter cattle and I have a deep love of the animal and all it provides. Feedlots should be illegal. It is disgusting that people continue to support such an awful industry. I bet they are the same people who send money for the animals at the shelters. Does no one get it? The sheer amount of feces that must pile up and be trudged through by these animals makes me sick.
    As for the airspace issue. Ha…I live in the mountains on the border of NC, TN, and GA. What do I get? Weekly flyovers by military jets so close you could almost touch them. It terrifies my children and animals. I have no recourse.

  8. Milla-shi
    July 25, 2013 | 8:35 am

    Maybe North Korea isnt that bad after all. At least they dont pretend they believe in free speech.

    • Glenn
      July 26, 2013 | 10:27 am

      The 1st is Freedom of the press, not freedom to trespass. As for North Korea….LOL, go for it, let us now how that works out.

  9. Carla
    July 25, 2013 | 9:00 am

    Makes you wonder what they’re hiding? Trade secrets, BAH! I’ve learned enough about CAFO’s to make the decision not to support them by raising my own food at home. If you can’t grow your own you can support your local farmers by shopping at Farmers Markets and patronizing your local butcher shops.

  10. Mahatma Muhjesbude
    July 25, 2013 | 9:39 am

    As long as the human species keeps ignoring the reality that they can’t afford to keep breeding without valid purpose like there is no tomorrow in the belief that the government will take care of their then generically disregarded offspring, the populations, now reluctantly admitted to be really approaching 8 billion, will continue to need and demand the cheapest available foods. As the population bomb fuze gets shorter and the water, land, and climate resources diminish, a severe tipping point is coming soon, to a theater–or feed lot–near you.

    And as it becomes cheaper and more volumetric to grow plant protein on grazing land than feed quality beef cattle, Feed lots will soon resemble the factory chicken and turkey death camps where they’re injected with arsenic to help ‘plump’ them along to where they eventually vacate your intestines.

    As masses of insatiable consumption obsessed people spiral out of control in obesity and disease and lose respect for themselves in terms of self reliance, discipline, and honest health concerns, what makes anybody really think they’ll give two shits about how they treat your next hamburger when it was still walking? When humanity is finally totally corrupted, Do you really believe they will be humane to our lesser organisms?

    • Rick Martisius
      July 25, 2013 | 1:42 pm

      So are you saying we can all live on a vegetarian plant protien diet? Just clear cut the Amazon for more Monsanto Soybeans? We cannot live without animals and meat. I will purchase from farmers with good stewardship practices that care for their animals and understand that these animals have a divine purpose to bring life to the human race.

      • Mahatma Muhjesbude
        July 25, 2013 | 3:44 pm

        No,Rick, i am not saying we can or should live on an all vegetable protein diet. (Although some would, lol!) and there are many in the dietary and medical profession who do say that more than one serving of red meat per week just about guarantees future intestinal problems…?
        My point is that good agricultural LAND will suffer the trade off value in terms of commercial crop v. grass/hay feed for cattle. So you will see less healthy beef production as factory CAFO feed lots emerge and become more profitable/cost effective than free range grazing. Here in Central WI there’s a big protest ongoing against CAFO operations. (they like this area because the water is so good)

        So yes, Rick, enjoy your meat animals from good animal breeders with good stewardship practices…while you still can, as it will get more expensive for them to compete.

        As far as living without animals and meat, well, there are some of us who live mostly off fish and vegetables and nuts and the occasional organic chickens or turks. I was mainly referring to beef in terms of comparative cost effectiveness in the production margins, pound for pound of protein.

        You are right about Monsanto. I think they’re out of clear-cutting now and into weather control for more illicit profit. Check out ‘why are they spraying/ haarp’ on u-tube.

        But yes, some wealth Arab oil interests are trying to take over the Philipines so that they can clear cut vast amounts of jungle for food production. And not much of it will be for beef production. Also aquaculture is booming in many of these third world countries now. It’s also more cost effective space-wise, than attempting to fertilize baron land or clear heavy jungle.

        So after ‘They’ trick us all to buy gold which the G will ban and confiscate in any upheaval, it would be a very prudent investment to pick up a couple rural acres in an area with good water as a serious future investment.

        • Glenn
          July 26, 2013 | 10:32 am

          news flash…Fish is meat.

          • steve
            July 27, 2013 | 10:58 pm

            It’s FLESH/muscle, but the history of ritual / how the word is used shows that ‘meat’ and ‘fish’ mean different things.

            Biological function and the use of animals in human culture aren’t the same thing.

  11. nyfarmer
    July 25, 2013 | 9:39 am

    We are graziers. Paraglider hobbyists fly over our farm in the summer. However, as a property owner, I would not want people using my land to set up and launch. I would also like to add thhe trspassing can lead to bad things. Several years ago, trespassers spiiked a group of our heifers, causing them to run in panic through a fence. One heifer named Carmen broke her leg. With no hope of setting it, our vet shot Carmen. It is always better to ask first before entering a farm

    • Glenn
      July 26, 2013 | 10:16 am

      I’m a Camp Ranger and part of my responsibility is the security of 700 acres. Trespassers have stolen and vandalized and I have even been shot at by a man poaching deer. Trespassing is SERIOUS and if he indeed trespassed to launch the glider then he is in the wrong and should pay the consequences AND personally apologize. If he had permission to launch from another property and didnt scare the animals then he will and should get off. Both were stupid in the first place when in this day and age I can get a satellite and nearly read the license plates on the vehicles. Farm is stupid thinking that people cant get pictures and he was stupid for not just getting the Satellite picture instead of getting himself charge.

  12. Reuben Lumpkin
    July 25, 2013 | 9:51 am

    If everyone could see the deplorable conditions our poultry is raised in they would never eat chicken again. Raised in their own feces, youm, kfc.. here i come!!!???

  13. Courtney
    July 25, 2013 | 9:56 am

    This is sad, but I’m optimistic. I think the fact that National Geographic is covering it says something. We are making progress, even though it’s slow. My local farmer’s market has boomed in the last year alone, and people have heard of Monsanto! A decade ago this wasn’t the case. The media does try to squelch the truth, but people are becoming more aware. There will always be those people who just don’t care where their food comes from, and almost brag about it like it’s cool, but almost everyone I talk to in my daily life (from diverse backgrounds) seems to be aware of the problem plaguing our food system, and they’re all making small changes. We have to start somewhere.

    Thank you for posting this.

  14. Lin
    July 25, 2013 | 1:51 pm

    Feedlots should be shutdown through laws of animal abuse. Organic IS expensive. I have a very low income and try my best to eat organic but simply cannot afford meat very often. I honestly believe the high prices would be vastly lower if government listened to the people, got rid of GMOs and CAFOs like other more intelligent countries and instead clamped down on pesticides and insectides which would result in a LOT more organic food on the market. Maybe my grandchldren will get to see it … if it isn’t too late already.

  15. Kathleen
    July 25, 2013 | 2:26 pm

    Hey Photographers!

    No need to get into this kind of trouble. Speaking from experience, here: there are scads of private pilots in Colorado, Kansas, and neighboring states, any one of whom would have been more than happy to fly you over those reeking feedlots to take your photos. Any excuse to give the plane a workout!

    Next time: stop by the FBO’s (the businesses who own the hangars and rent the ‘parking spaces’ for planes) at the nearest tiny airport and ask them how to post a “want ad” for a good samaritan pilot.

    Not that aerial photography shows what’s worst about CAFOs: that they produce inferior quality meat, with a near-complete loss of natural omega 3′s in the beef, require antibiotic abuse, and are inhumane for the cattle. What, of this, is visible from the air?

  16. Tom Davis
    July 25, 2013 | 2:39 pm

    Open up Google Earth. Go to Garden City, Kansas. Just south of the city, west of the 83.
    https://plus.google.com/116608717409895303393/about?gl=US&hl=en-US&ved=0CA0Q2QY&sa=X&ei=w37xUdnAJKqQiQKEwYCICQ
    Did they arrest Google too?

  17. Dan Sloane
    July 25, 2013 | 7:57 pm

    But it is OK for the FDA to fly drones over us and count our cows and other livestock? We all need to be Breitbarts and take pictures and post them and give them to news reporters (who probably can’t print them anyway but)and expose to the public what is going on. Talk to anyone who will listen, read labels, buy local only, support small farmers and gardeners and CSA’s. Boycott mansanto and demand GMO labeling. The next generation is counting on us whether they know it or not. I am a Dr. who has had it with big gov’t , big pharma, big ag and just about anything big!

  18. Valerie Martin
    July 26, 2013 | 5:41 am

    Our food system sickens me just as it sickens all of you and I have an honest question. I’m not asking sarcastically, I honestly would like tips. How can I buy organically with a family of four where one person doesn’t eat but maybe two vegetables and is very picky about all food, one person will tolerate vegetables but only in small doses and one steak bought from the farmers market might eek out a three ounce portion for all four of us? If I buy two steaks, that would cost me as much as half my meat budget buying it in a store. I really want to buy organic/local I really do, but to feed a family of four (or more when visitors are around) I just don’t see how it’s feasible. Kristen maybe this is something that you could do a post on?

    • Jen
      August 1, 2013 | 6:27 pm

      If you have the space for a large freezer, and can save up for the initial cost, the most affordable way to purchase grass fed, organic meats is from local farmers, in bulk. It’s MUCH cheaper than paying for individual cuts at the farmer’s market.

      My family of 4 purchases 1/4 of 100% grass fed beef for around $650, or $3.87/pound hanging weight. I always ask for all the bones (for stocks and soups), and organs, so I’m using everything. I’ve seen grass fed beef bones online selling for $8/pound. Ridiculous!!! We pay $3.87 per pound for filet mignon, other various steaks and roasts, ground beef, organs and bones.

      We also purchase 1/2 a pastured, organic pig, and 10 – 12 organic, pastured chickens each year. The price for all of this (beef, pork and chicken), per year, is around $1200, or $100 per month for meat for a family of 4. Actually, I usually stretch it longer than a year, so that makes it even less expensive.

      It’s been so long since I purchased meats any other way (5 years), that when I see the prices of individual cuts of grass fed, pastured, organic meats, it’s shocking. We would never be able to afford to eat this way if we didn’t purchase in bulk.

  19. Valerie Martin
    July 26, 2013 | 5:43 am

    Oh and I’m the only one in the house gluten and dairy free. No one else will even consider it.

  20. Jason Harrison
    July 26, 2013 | 9:41 pm

    I’m surprised at the comments that a plant based diet is unreasonable. Or somehow impossible. Many cultures around the world have survived, and been healthier, than North Americans on the “Standard American Diet”. You can look at a vegan diet from an ethical standpoint, economic, environmental or personal health.

    But dismissing it because you are of the opinion that it’s impossible demonstrates amazing ignorance.

  21. Andrea
    August 14, 2013 | 8:14 am

    “A landowner’s rights do extend to the airspace above his/her property. But the airways can be analogized to a public highway. If one is traveling through the air for a legitimate purpose in a reasonable manner at a height that would not unreasonably interfere with the landowner’s enjoyment of his/her property, in conformity with relevant flight regulations, then it would not be a trespass.”

    I wish I had known that little tidbit when we had our horse farm in Colorado, because the constant small plane traffic over our heads due to the plateau we sat on being a favorite location for every flight instructor at the local airport drove me absolutely batty.

    However, I somehow think this would have not gone so well for us even if we had known, since the airport (as a proxy for the instructors) and its corporate clients had infinitely more resources than we did, had we thought to pursue it. :-/

    It’s no secret that governments – local, state and federal – are in bed with the corporations they “serve”, and agribusiness is among the coziest of relationships. Some days I think there’s no hope of fighting back, but the next morning I wake up charged and ready to renew the effort.

  22. Marianne
    August 15, 2013 | 3:22 pm

    While I am quite aware that every news story, no matter how much factual information it may include, will always have a bias I was disappointed about the way this particular story was presented. The headline is “Photographer Arrested for Taking Pictures of Feedlots” when, in fact he was not arrested for that at all. He was arrested for trespassing on private property. But that piece of information does not lend itself to the writers bias so it was changed.
    I am enthusiastic about the prospect of a respected publication like National Geographic doing an in depth story on the CAFO industry in this country and hope detrimental it is to the animals, us and the Earth. One thing I would hope they might take into consideration is something my grandmother told me and has proven to be a priceless piece of advise: “In anything you do, always keep you hands clean.” In other words if you are going to undertake the monumental task of “outing” ( in this case) the feedlot industry, your methods of information gathering must remain beyond reproach. That way you can NEVER be discredited or accused of dishonest tactics.

  23. Brittany
    August 23, 2013 | 6:06 pm

    I find it interesting that everyone seems to have a pro-organic, pro-grassfed point of view, when the logistics of feeding a population of almost 313 million in the United States on an ever-shrinking amount of arable land just don’t add up. EVERY DAY in the United States 3,000 acres of land are lost to developement. On quality pasture you’re looking at 2-4 acres PER COW. On shitty, dry land pasture in the west you could be looking at 40 acres PER COW!

    Some of these feedlots house 4,000-5,000 head of cattle. Can you imagine the amount of acreage that would be necessary to sustain that many cattle?
    Most feed lots are finishing operations, in which the cattle are ‘finished’ (i.e. fattened up) for the last 3-6 months of their lives before being shipped to the processing plants. They are not raised from calfhood on a feedlot.

    My father works as a manager at one of the neighboring county feed lots in Kansas. The cattle are not ‘mistreated’. Mistreatment and ill-care of a product does not equate to an economically sound business practice. The pen riders specifically look for cattle that are ill and remove them from the herd for treatment. Typical feedyard deaths are less than 2% of cattle.

    You may also forget that agriculture is a livelihood for many people. Even a so-called ‘factory farm’ employs a significant number of individuals-fathers, mothers, brothers, neighbors, all trying to make a life for themselves and their families. I would encourage you to actually speak with a farmer or rancher before jumping to conclusions on how your food is raised and treated.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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