But if Big Ag has its way, those civilians will soon be criminals.

"It's a huge embarrassment to have investigation after investigation where your employees are beating animals, kicking them and throwing them," says Sweetland. "I think they're sick of having to make excuses for themselves. One way to stop it is to make it illegal to do these undercover investigations. They refuse to fix the problem, which is this inherently cruel system."

New Mexico state senator Cliff Pirtle is wary of the reporter on the phone. The Republican dairyman can trace his family's farming roots in this country back to the 1700s. He can't comprehend how people like him — once viewed as the salt of the earth — are now being framed as agents of misery.

Scene from Country View Family Farms
Mercy For Animals
Scene from Country View Family Farms
“One of my colleagues called it ‘pulling carpets,’ because they stuck to the bottom of the cage,” says Cody Carlson of how chickens were kept at Rose Acre Farms.
Samuel Zide
“One of my colleagues called it ‘pulling carpets,’ because they stuck to the bottom of the cage,” says Cody Carlson of how chickens were kept at Rose Acre Farms.


Watch the undercover animal cruelty videos that spurred Big Ag's censorship crusade.

In February, Pirtle introduced a bill that would outlaw undercover videos in his state. But a strange thing happened between last year's legislative successes and what was supposed to be 2013's triumphant tidal wave.

The ag-gag movement began to self-destruct.

Measures attempting to criminalize activists' activities in states from New Hampshire to Minnesota, Pennsylvania to Indiana, have either stalled or died.

While Big Ag has attacked, activists have gathered allies.

After Tennessee's law passed the legislature, country singer Carrie Underwood tweeted: "Shame on TN lawmakers for passing the ag gag bill. If Gov. [Bill] Haslam signs this, he needs to expect me at his front door. Who's with me?" (Haslam vetoed the bill last week.)

In New Mexico, Pirtle tried to sell his measure under the mantra of property rights. But it's hard to convince consumers that they're best served by less information. His proposal sunk.

The bills have faced resistance on multiple fronts. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that they violate the First Amendment's promise of freedom of speech. Unions like the United Farm Workers claim the laws could cloak unsafe working conditions. The Consumer Federation of America worries they might be used to cover up safety problems in the nation's food supply.

Making matters worse for the ag lobby, Underwood has been joined by celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Katherine Heigl and Emmylou Harris.

Farmers' frustrations are exacerbated by the fact that many of the activists are essentially calling for an end to eating meat. At the close of every Mercy video, for example, the narrator urges viewers to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet. Why would anyone blame agriculture for fighting back?

"These groups want to put an end to meat consumption in this country," says Emily Meredith of the Animal Agriculture Alliance. "The goal of the videos is to repulse the meat-eating public."

Adds Lou Nave of Tennessee's Farm Animal Care Coalition: "The animal-rights organizations don't think we should use animals in any way."

As Pirtle sees it, America is no longer on speaking terms with its chief source of nourishment.

"I think 100 years ago, the majority of people were one or two generations off the farm," he says. "They would understand the great sacrifice animals make for us to survive. Very few people understand what it takes to get food from the farm to the table. We understand the sacrifice they make to sustain life."

Take those tight gestation crates used for sows. They're designed not to make pigs crazy, but to keep mothers from accidentally suffocating their children, says Tony Bolen, a Wisconsin veterinarian. "The mothers lay on a lot of piglets if they don't have them," he explains.

Moreover, there's little science to suggest that cows seek room to roam. "Cows aren't that social, where they want to go and explore," says Bolen. "The average cow will lay down eight-plus hours a day. They just eat and lay down."

What the public doesn't understand, he says, is that only stupid farmers abuse their animals. The unhappy or unhealthy produce less milk, lay fewer eggs and have fewer babies.

"Most of the farmers, they're treating them right," adds Bolen. "And the animals are pretty much happy, or the farmers aren't making money."

The problem for agriculture: Those "most" seem to rarely show up on film.

In 2011, "Jane" went undercover at a Butterball turkey farm in Shannon, North Carolina. By this point, catching abuse on film was almost routine.

Her hidden camera showed workers stomping birds and bashing their heads with pipes. "We don't need to torture our food before we eat it," she says.

Mercy offered the tape to police. The cops responded by raiding the place with arrest warrants.

They would end up with five convictions. The case also showed why activists are leery of handing over footage before their investigations are complete.

Among the convicted was Dr. Sarah Jean Mason, director of North Carolina's Animal Health Programs, who had seen the tape after police went to the state seeking advice about how to proceed. Mason pleaded guilty to leaking word of the impending raid to Butterball a week before it took place.

"Pete" encountered the same sort of governmental duplicity while undercover at a Vermont veal slaughterhouse. Workers kicked and prodded downed calves with electric probes, pouring water on them to heighten their pain.

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