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October 2006
Farm Fallacy
The Satya Interview with Eric Nicholson


Cow at Threemile Canyon Farms.
Photo courtesty of United Farm Workers

Many people hold an idyllic view of farms: sprawling acres of pasture, full of peaceful cows and glistening produce. Yes, Old MacDonald had a farm…but then he sold out—to the factory.

Located just west of Boardman sprawls Oregon’s largest factory farm and the world’s largest dairy, Threemile Canyon Farms. The 93,000-acre farm employs between 300 and 350 full-time workers, and is home to over 55,000 dairy cows. Dean Foods, owner of Silk Soymilk and Horizon Organics, buys milk from Threemile Canyon for its Meadow Gold brand. ConAgra purchases potatoes from Threemile Canyon for processing to supply McDonald’s.

Threemile Canyon prides itself as being a leader in sustainable farming “bringing valued products to customers, while treating the land, people and animals with respect,” as their corporate website puts it. However, the company has been facing environmental complaints for its emissions and is considered the third largest polluter of ammonia in the country. Furthermore, a report from the Humane Farming Association documented cruel and inhumane treatment of cows and calves on the farm. Threemile Canyon’s workers are not treated much better, exposed to the pollution and animal abuse, and subject to threats, sexual discrimination and minimum wage violations.

The United Farm Workers of America (UFW), a labor union evolved from unions founded by César Chávez, Philip Vera Cruz, Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong, has been supporting Threemile Canyon employees in tackling concerns regarding the welfare of workers, animal abuse and air pollution. After years of struggle, in late August, Threemile Canyon signed a historic agreement with the UFW pledging to allow workers to decide if they want a union free of threats or intimidation. Threemile has since been violating this agreement and circulating anti-union petitions.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with Eric Nicholson, Pacific Northwest Regional Director for the UFW and Threemile Canyon Campaign Director, about what it’s really like for the workers and animals at Threemile Canyon.

Can you talk about your campaign against Threemile Canyon Farms?
Threemile Canyon Farms is 93,000 acres and home to the world’s largest dairy, with 55,000 cows. They also grow several thousand acres of potatoes, onions, mint and other crops, including organic crops.

United Farm Workers has been out there for the last three and a half years supporting workers employed at the farm. The workers have faced a whole series of issues, from minimum wage violations, illegal deductions in paychecks, sexual discrimination, threats and intimidation toward workers who speak out, health and safety violations, a whole range of environmental concerns and animal abuse. You name it and we have seen it on this farm.

Can you discuss in detail what conditions are like for workers?
This is industrial agriculture. Workers are trampled in the process of producing the large amount of milk and crops. There have been numerous workplace instances, where workers are threatened and told they will not be rehired if they seek medical attention. They are working upwards of six days a week, 10-14 hours a day only to have money illegally deducted from their pay. I was talking to a worker a couple days ago and he was telling me that he has to work 10 days, 12 hours a day, before he can take two days off. These workers have families. You have to ask, when do the workers have time be parents or spouses, go to the kids’ soccer games, church, whatever? And you have to remember, this all takes place under the context that if a worker speaks out about anything, they will be fired. Right now there are several lawsuits against the farm in support of workers who have been unjustly fired.

Can you talk about the firing of Daniel Sepulveda?
Daniel was fired a couple years ago when a supervisor drove up in a truck and tried to write him up for a bogus charge. That’s something we have seen repeatedly at the farm, they give out these disciplinary tickets for no reason, and if you accumulate so many of them, it is grounds for discharge. So when Daniel refused to sign the ticket, the supervisor got mad, threw his truck in reverse and ran over his foot. Daniel screamed, obviously injured, but the supervisor just looked at him, laughed and drove off. Daniel was left alone to look for help. He was finally taken to the hospital, where the doctor took him out of work to allow his foot to heal. When he was finally in a condition where he could return to work, he was promptly fired for intentionally sticking his foot under the truck. This is the type of thing we see over and over again.

And to add insult to injury, this farm was created with the generous assistance of Oregon. They provided $30 million in private activity bonds to help get this farm up and running. And then you and I and all federal taxpayers are providing subsidies for the farm in slightly over $200,000 a year! It is outrageous.

What about sexual discrimination against women?
We noticed there are no women working at the dairy. So we began asking about it in the community and realized a number of women had indeed applied for jobs but had been turned down. We supported six women in initiating a lawsuit in 2004 against the farm for sexual discrimination. They prevailed in 2005 and won a settlement of just under $200,000. As part of the settlement the farm acknowledged that they did not hire women and pledged to do better.

Less than a month later, one of the farm’s owners comes onto the site, gathers all the workers around and starts complaining about all the money he had to pay in this settlement. He continued to say that he has no use for women at the farms, they are only good in bed and he has no intention of ever hiring them as workers. Twelve very brave workers signed sworn affidavits and we filed them in court. Of course those workers then became targets of retaliation for holding the owner accountable for his sexist comments. Right now there is a second sexual discrimination lawsuit filed against the farm.

Many people are taken aback to find out that in the U.S. it is legal for agriculture employers to deny workers their right to unionize.
As of now, Threemile Canyon has steadfastly turned down workers’ rights to unionize in spite of the fact they have signed documentation indicating the United Farm Workers Association as their representatives. There is a lot of silence in pretty much all states except California. There is nothing that binds an agriculture employer to negotiate with or preclude from negotiating.

That’s so unfair. And isn’t it true that the workers are forced to take part in animal abuses happening on the farm as well?
Humane Farming Association actually did an investigation of the farm documenting a number of issues. I don’t pretend to be an expert on that front, but I can tell you what I know. When we first got involved with the farm, workers had two major complaints, one was how they were being treated and the other was how they were made to treat the animals.

There are two types of cows on the farm—Holsteins and Jerseys. As you know male cows do not produce any milk, and while the Holstein male calves can be sold for beef, there is no market for the male Jerseys. So the supervisors force the workers to separate the male Jerseys from their mother at birth and are told to go smash in the heads of the calves with a mallet. The workers were disgusted and outraged by this practice but were once again told that if they didn’t do it they would be fired.

Also when a cow gets mastitis and the udder gets infected, workers are made to slice off the infected teats with a razor—no anesthesia, no nothing. The workers hate it. And just watching the cows being milked to death—there is a big carousel that the cows are put on and they are dropping dead. The workers are simply horrified and if they complain they will be fired.

After their investigation, the Humane Farming Association put out a report calling for criminal charges. The supervisors started circulating a petition denying animal abuse, telling workers they better sign it if they want to keep their jobs. That is just a part of the shenanigans.

You are also targeting Dean Foods. Why is that?
We have talked about how state laws don’t mandate employers to do anything, so our only option is to make our demand to consumers. We find out who is buying the milk and produce at the farm and demand that they hold their supplier accountable. That’s what we are doing with Dean Foods. They buy an enormous quantity of milk from Threemile and market it under the Meadow Gold brand. We tell consumers that they have a responsibility; we make sure consumers are aware of the connection and hold Dean Foods accountable.

Ironically, Dean Foods also owns Horizon Organic Dairy. There have been complaints against Horizon regarding the treatment of their animals and workers too. Many people believe special terms such as “organic” and “natural” imply better standards for farm workers and animals. What do you think?
That’s ridiculous. I have seen horrendous conditions on organic farms. The only thing that organic means is that they use a less toxic array of pesticides. And they do use pesticides in organics, some of which are harmful to workers. Threemile is marketing organic produce as well! Trust me, they are not what people expect of organic farms.

Threemile’s size has also caught the attention of the environmental community. Can you comment on that?
The environmental side is the amount of cows in a limited area producing the equivalent waste of a city of about 1.2 million people. Yet while a city would process its waste, here it is simply dumped into two lagoons and it sits. The farm also releases [over] 5.5 million pounds of ammonia into the atmosphere each year, which is more than double all of the industries in the state of Oregon combined. Threemile Canyon is the third largest polluter of ammonia in the United States! And so the environmental community, rightly so, got concerned and there have been studies explaining that the ammonia emissions may very well be contributing to acid rain in the nearby gorge.

We also looked at the fact that before ammonia goes up into the atmosphere it goes into workers’ lungs. And what is the impact there? I asked NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to come out and do an investigation. There have been no studies on the long-term exposure to low levels of ammonia. I do a lot of work on pesticides on the national level and traditionally the assumption is that if you have a large exposure to pesticides perhaps one time, that’s when you get the negative impact, the consequences. But we are seeing more and more it is the daily low dose exposure that can be more harmful and the concern we have is that we know ammonia is not good on the respiratory system. What is going to happen to workers’ lungs 10-15 years from now? Are we going to have the dairy worker’s equivalent to black lung or brown lung disease? That is something we are really keeping our eye on. It is simply unprecedented to keep this number of dairy cows together. We don’t want our members to become the guinea pigs for the industry and no one is watching to see that their health is taken care of. When I go out to the site, I tell you, my nose gets stopped up, it starts running and I look at the cows and see large amounts of mucus coming out of their nostrils. I kind of feel like I am in the same boat.

What do you hope to achieve with this campaign?
We want to empower workers to have a say in their workplace. We see the best way is through a union contract. We hope to have provisions so women are not discriminated against, workers can speak out without being fired and to keep a close eye on environmental issues.

What are ways people can help?
The biggest is adding your voice to put pressure on the companies buying products from the farm and holding them accountable. If you are not yet signed up on our UFW alert, please do so. But the best thing to do is really educate ourselves about the food system. As you mentioned, many of these labels fall silent when it comes to the treatment of animals and workers.

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