The U.S. dairy system has shifted westward, and often it doesn’t look pretty: Instead of bucolic heartland pastures dotted with grazing cows, picture huge pens or sprawling open-air sheds where the animals are fed a high-protein, shipped-in diet and milked through metal crossbars. Conditions for workers in these big dairies are often little better than they are for the cows, as Rebecca Clarren makes chillingly clear in “The Dark Side of Dairies” in the August 31, 2009, High Country News.
Eighteen Western dairy workers died from 2003 to 2009, Clarren writes, “killed in tractor accidents, suffocated by falling hay bales, crushed by charging cows and bulls and asphyxiated by gases from manure lagoons and corn silage. Others survived but lost limbs or received concussions and spent days in the hospital.”
The majority of the West’s 50,000 dairy workers are immigrants, many of them living illegally in the United States. Dairy labor laws are lax to start with, and the workers’ tenuous status makes them especially vulnerable to egregious labor abuses, which Clarren vividly documents.
The story is enough to make you want to go organic and local, buying dairy products that come from a family-scale farm instead of a distant megadairy. If you do, check out the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Dairy Report and Scorecard to find one that treats its cows, its workers, and its land with respect.