Benjamin Manuel Gonzales and other workers in the milking barn at the Cow Palace in the Yakima Valley.
Kris Holland/Yakima Herald-Republic

The dark side of dairies

A broken system leaves immigrant workers invisible -- and in danger.

  • Benjamin Manuel Gonzales and other workers in the milking barn at the Cow Palace in the Yakima Valley.

    Kris Holland/Yakima Herald-Republic
  • A worker at Veiga Dairy in Sunnyside, Washington, hoses down the concrete pad after milking.

    Andy Sawyer/Yakima Herald-Republic
  • Arturo Sepulveda (left), an organizer for United Farm Workers of America, talks with former workers from Ruby Ridge Dairy. Sepulveda and his co-workers successfully unionized the Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Oregon, one of only two unionized dairies in the West.

    Rajah Bose
  • Miguel Espiritu, Jose “Gordo” Miranda and Armando Herrera (pictured from left), were among the workers who say they left or were fired from Ruby Ridge Dairy in Pasco, Washington, after they tried to organize a union.

    Rajah Bose

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(Click here for a state-by-state list of injuries, with links to original accident reports and investigations)

Consuelo talks about Miguel's exhaustion from the 12-hour night shifts, how thin he had become, how he mourned the death of a good friend and co-worker who suffocated at the dairy two years ago when a stack of hay bales fell on him. As she speaks, she holds a picture of Miguel with their two kids. Their 6-year-old son Frank has Miguel's warm, serious eyes. Miguel, who was originally from Michoacan, Mexico, moved to the Yakima Valley with his parents and seven sisters in 1988. He was supposed to receive his papers to become a citizen any day, Consuelo says, and as soon as he did, they planned to get married. Miguel thought his boss was a good man, but he wanted to find a better job once he was legal.

"It gets harder every day. I miss him," says Anna Diaz, Miguel's sister. "My parents wanted to give us a better life. They thought it would be better for us here. He had the whole world ahead of him, but he didn't make it that far."

It's hard to determine responsibility for such tragedies; the work itself is inherently dangerous. Miguel Diaz's boss, Tony Veiga, says he is careful at his dairy, holding the state-required monthly safety and training meetings in both English and Spanish. He has an accident-prevention program, also required by law, that instructs workers how to use chemicals safely, how to administer first aid and how to report unsafe conditions. And after 31 years in business without serious incident, he's mystified by the two recent deaths on his farm.
"I don't know why they happened on this place, as careful as we are, but things do happen in life," says Veiga. "None of us are risk-free. We take risks every day when we go drive down the road or get in a plane. Employers do their part, and employees have to do their part as well."

Inside the concrete milking parlor at the George DeRuyter & Sons Dairy in Outlook, Wash., men with almond-colored skin scramble between the rows of cows, hooking and unhooking udders to milking machinery. Outside, glacier-encrusted Mount Adams rises far to the west, and strains of mariachi music float on the midmorning air from a nearby radio. In the narrow hallway that connects these worlds, third-generation Yakima County dairyman Dan DeRuyter fills a soda machine with Pepsi for his employees, shouting above the grinding motor of the mechanical milking machine.

"I take a huge interest in my guys. If they get hurt, it bothers me," says DeRuyter, whose Dad, George, started this dairy in 1986 with 1,000 cows. Today, they milk 4,600. To protect his 40 workers from getting kicked, he has them milk the cows from the rear through metal crossbars. Taking care of workers makes good business sense, DeRuyter explains: "If you have too many injuries, your (insurance) rates will go up, which is the last thing we need right now." (Dairies can pay as much as 25 percent more in industrial insurance premiums the year following an accident.)

In the past year, a number of forces have affected the price dairymen receive for their milk, causing it to drop from $19 per 100 pounds last June to less than $9 this summer. The European Union voted to subsidize continental dairy products, and Australia and New Zealand emerged from a several-year drought to flood the market with milk just as the general economy plummeted and foreign demand decreased. The cost of production, particularly of feed, has remained high, so most dairies in the West are losing about $100 per cow per month, according to MacDonald, the USDA economist. In the past year alone, the DeRuyters have borrowed over a million dollars from the bank.

"It's like getting kicked in the teeth every single day," says DeRuyter, leaning against the wall. "You wake up in the middle of the night wondering how you're going to pay this off. I'm not sure we can handle these prices for another year."

He's heard grim stories about his peers in California — the farm foreclosures that have happened this summer, and the two suicides that followed. In June alone, 60 dairies in Idaho, Washington, New Mexico and California "retired," turning 44,000 dairy cows into hamburger, according to the National Milk Producers Federation. The Western United Dairymen estimates that 10 percent of California's dairies, big and small alike, will close within the year. Nationwide, it could be more like 15 percent, according to Peter Hoekstra of Genske, Mulder & Co., an accounting firm that handles 450 dairies nationwide. "There isn't a dairy in this office that is showing a profit," says Hoekstra. "These are good people, family farms, not corporations. Some of them have been in business for generations and they're just going to go away."

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