The Dark Side of Dairies

Every day, agricultural workers risk their lives to produce America’s milk


| March-April 2010


Learn where to find a responsible, humane dairy at  utne.com/dairies  

YAKIMA COUNTY, WASHINGTON—At first, there was neither pain nor fear, only an unfamiliar warmth flooding his chest. Then he remembered the cow and her kicking back leg. Then he realized how hard it was to see.

He woke up lying on the dusty floor of the dairy where he works. It was 4:30 in the morning, and he had been at work since 5:00 the night before. The sweet and putrid smell of cow manure laced the air. As he waited half an hour for his boss to come to take him to the hospital, he pressed a towel to his face, stared at the blood pooled on his white T-shirt. His head felt as though it might burst. He told himself that it was only a cut, but he had never felt pain like this before.

Later, he learned that his face was broken in three places. The doctors put a metal plate beneath his left eye. Now, four years later, he explains in Spanish through a translator that the plate is slipping. His eye burns, especially in the heat. He can’t see well without glasses.



He is afraid to tell his story without the shield of a different name, so let’s call him Gustavo. Like many of the immigrants who work in dairies in the western United States, he lives here illegally. He thinks about how easy it would be for his bosses to fire him and replace him with one of the other immigrants who come here daily looking for work. He has three young children and a wife to support, as well as his parents and siblings back in Peru.

“It’s a job with lots of risks. If I had papers, man, there’s no way I’d be working in a dairy. But in this town, this is the best job I can get,” he says, sagging into his kitchen chair, exhausted after his 12-hour shift. When he smiles, a quick, almost apologetic smile, his left eye looks slightly lopsided. A jagged purple scar mars the base of his cheek. “Every worker I know says they’ve been kicked or stepped on by a cow. It’s common. But one day [the cows] might break your bones, or maybe even kill you.”

Charles N Rutledge_2
4/15/2010 9:40:24 AM

I am a small organic Dairy Farmer in northern Wisconsin. I want to affirm almost everthing in this article. Dairy farming is the most dangerous form of agriculture. In my area, I have had a friend die because he fell down an upright silo, and we have had a child die when a large round bale of hay fell on him when he was playing in a hay stack. Every milker gets kicked and stepped on from time to time. Most of the time this does not require medical attention. This is due to the fact that on my farm, no one works more than three hours at a time milking cows. My wife and I milk 65 cows right now, and have two partime milkers because we are in our mid 50s and can't do it all ourselves. I also work full time off the farm as a trucker so that my wife and I can have health insurance. The real solution to these problems is not worker unions ( note: it is illegal for small dairy farmers to unionize by federal law) but " consumer unions" where people buy their milk directly from the farmer. This way all the money goes to the farmer and not to the middle man ( our current system is one where all dairy farms, including the big ones, are slaves to the dairy processors, the chains are government regulations)This way the farmer has enough money to pay fair wages, treat the cows the way they deserve, and the farmer doesn't have to work off the farm to get health insurance. Please get the whole story at: realmilk.com


Charles N Rutledge_2
4/15/2010 9:39:56 AM

I am a small organic Dairy Farmer in northern Wisconsin. I want to affirm almost everthing in this article. Dairy farming is the most dangerous form of agriculture. In my area, I have had a friend die because he fell down an upright silo, and we have had a child die when a large round bale of hay fell on him when he was playing in a hay stack. Every milker gets kicked and stepped on from time to time. Most of the time this does not require medical attention. This is due to the fact that on my farm, no one works more than three hours at a time milking cows. My wife and I milk 65 cows right now, and have two partime milkers because we are in our mid 50s and can't do it all ourselves. I also work full time off the farm as a trucker so that my wife and I can have health insurance. The real solution to these problems is not worker unions ( note: it is illegal for small dairy farmers to unionize by federal law) but " consumer unions" where people buy their milk directly from the farmer. This way all the money goes to the farmer and not to the middle man ( our current system is one where all dairy farms, including the big ones, are slaves to the dairy processors, the chains are government regulations)This way the farmer has enough money to pay fair wages, treat the cows the way they deserve, and the farmer doesn't have to work off the farm to get health insurance. Please get the whole story at: realmilk.com


John Munson
3/1/2010 1:09:04 AM

Ironic that the day my copy of UTNE Reader arrived in the mail last week, two more union activists were fired at Ruby Ridge Dairy in Pasco, Washington. Dick Bengen says they were behind in their work, although they had always done a good job before. The workers have no doubt they were fired for their support of the union, just like the ten other workers the Bengens fired, all union supporters. And in our system of laws, there is not much protection for these men who produce the food we eat every day. They have been systematically excluded from the labor laws that protect other workers, and they are subject, many of them, to imprisonment and deportation for the crime of coming here to work. What is going on at Ruby Ridge, indeed, what UTNE Reader has described in "The Dark Side of Dairies" is tip of the iceberg. We need to change this.















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