The Satya Interview with Eric
Cow at Threemile Canyon Farms.
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
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
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
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
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.
For more information and to take action in their campaigns visit www.ufw.org.
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