Land of Milk and Money: Inside the Wild World of Washington Dairy
Cows on Ruby Ridge Dairy.
He was on the night shift, alone, 9pm to 6am. He’d push feed to penned cows with a Cat front loader, then drive the loader down a dirt road and finish his shift milking. This night, though, Randy Vasquez—then a 27-year-old father, now buried for four years beside his grandmother in Mabton Cemetery, down the road from where he died—turned back toward the pens.
Lucio Torres, the Riverview Ranch Dairy day shift supervisor, got the call. Vasquez hadn’t showed up to milk. Torres went looking. When he found the loader submerged, a pair of wheels jutting from a manure lagoon, he called his boss. Then he dug.
Manure lagoons, in industry argot, contain animal farm runoff—water, urine, and feces washed from barns—until it can be processed into fertilizer and applied to farm crops when they are able to take it.
The night in February 2015 that Lucio Torres dug in the muck was cold and—in the stills included in the state’s “Fatality Narrative” slideshow—the farm lay snowless. This lagoon, at Riverview Ranch in Mabton, Washington, 180 miles southeast of Seattle, was not demarcated from the surrounding dirt, its surface a dark crust, whorled like quicksand.
Vasquez had driven his loader along a 15-foot-wide strip of dirt beside a cow pen, toppled into the lagoon, and asphyxiated on what the Yakima County coroner called “dairy wastewater sludge.” We do not, as the public, know how much methamphetamine was found in Vasquez’s system, since authorities declined to disclose the degree, but the coroner told the Yakima Herald that it was “definitely not enough to cause his death.”
Much of the dairy industry, at the time, viewed it as a stray accident, a grotesque oddity. He was impaired, he deviated from course. Riverview installed cement blocks around the lagoon. It had its fine reduced from $6,800 to $2,200. The following year two Idaho dairy workers drowned in lagoons.
After his death, Vasquez’s partner, Nubia Guajardo, became a spokesperson for United Farm Workers (UFW), the California-based union that for the last decade has fought for dairy workers’ rights. She and the union pushed for House Bill 2484, demanding tighter safety restrictions on dairies, though it did not pass. In Washington, UFW now focuses on dairies, like Riverview, that belong to the Northwest Dairy Association (NDA)—a century-old co-op of about 450 farms in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.
NDA’s milk goes to over 40 processors, but the co-op sends much to its wholly owned subsidiary, Darigold, headquartered in the Seattle neighborhood of Georgetown. Darigold is, with 1,680 employees, one of the biggest privately owned businesses in the state, processing the state’s second most valuable agricultural crop (after apples). Last year Darigold CEO and president Stan Ryan (older brother of Paul Ryan, the erstwhile Speaker of the House) announced that in the next decade the company plans to increase exports from 40 to 50 percent of its product, mostly in the form of cheese and milk powders.
When I met with Ryan—a scratchy-voiced man who rakes his graying hair into a distinctly political coif—in November, the co-op’s corporate communications director, Sarah Taydas, slid a sheet of paper to me, citing premium base insurance rates for workers’ comp in 2018. The numbers put risk in the livestock (cattle, pigs, horses) industry 69 percent higher than on dairy farms. Egg and poultry farming is 8 percent riskier.
UFW prefers other numbers. “Between 2015 and 2017,” reads its website, “injury rates at dairies were 121 percent higher than other Washington industries combined, the rate of significant injuries…was 41 percent higher at dairies than in other agriculture sectors.”
Those differing stats evince the industry’s current tribalism: some farm owners and the co-op on one side, the union and certain hired workers on the other. The tensions are running so high that one farm maintains UFW has declared “war.”
Labor advocates and journalists recounting the dangers in dairy often emphasize lagoon deaths as distillations of factory farm horrors. That dairy workers are literally drowning in shit puts a fine, metaphorical point on some other stories bubbling up in certain Washington dairies: disfiguring injuries, sexual harassment, and one battle that’s developed from a worker’s attempt to unionize into a nearly 10-year saga of havoc.
Dick Bengen bought into his first dairy in 1972 outside Bellingham, the college town 89 miles north of Seattle. He farmed 76 acres with 60 cows. He and his wife, Ruby, were raised on dairies. But by the early 1990s they were finished with the state’s west side. City people, he says, snatched up 20-acre lots for country homes, paid inflated prices, drove up land values, and hampered agrarian rhythms. Soon enough, the interlopers were saying Bengen couldn’t “haul manure anymore because there’s going to be a wedding or a barbecue.” Bengen sees this trend in stark, ontological terms. “Urban and rural,” he told me over the phone. “The whole map is red except around cities. And their reality—I’m not saying they’re right or wrong—but their reality is completely different than rural reality.”
So he and Ruby looked for new places to farm. Maybe Michigan, maybe Argentina. They settled on their own state (Argentina’s politics seemed iffy) and bought a plot of land northeast of Pasco in 1999. They left the 700-cow facility in Bellingham, and moved their dairy—now named Ruby Ridge, an NDA member farm—east in 2006. That mirrors a larger shift in Washington dairy. Whatcom County, which includes Bellingham, was once an epicenter. In 1986 it packed 480 dairies into its quilt of verdant pasture and berry farms. By 2016 that number was under 100. Dairy cows now concentrate in the Yakima Valley on increasingly large farms—partly a product of volatile dairy prices. Milk prices hit a soaring high in 2014, netting farms around $24 per hundred pounds of milk, then plummeted in 2015 to $15, where they’ve held.
But regulations, Bengen says, are the greatest strain. Monitoring for manure contamination, for example, will often cost similar amounts across business sizes. A bigger operation can absorb that cost. Small farms get snuffed out. Nationally, over 90 percent of dairy farms have closed since 1950, though the number of cows has remained reasonably constant. (Notably, Washington State’s Department of Ecology defines Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations as farms with more than 200 cows, and exempts those below that marker from certain regulations.)
When the Bengens moved with their son to Pasco, 215 miles southeast of Seattle, banks wanted them to go bigger: 4,000, 5,000 cows. But they expanded to only 2,000, the most they could grow while maintaining the feel of a small dairy, a place that treats cows as individuals and knows its 40 or so employees by their first names.
Three years later, in 2009, Margarito Sauceda Martinez, one of those 40 employees, was fed up with the dairy’s working conditions. He claims he wasn’t getting breaks or pay for all the hours he worked. So, according to court filings, he approached UFW, wanting the dairy workers to form a union.
On July 15, 2009, the Bengens fired Martinez. Three days later they fired another worker, a third the day after that, and a fourth on July 21. Arturo Sepulveda, a UFW organizer, came to the dairy and discussed workers unionizing. The next day Sepulveda returned with Erik Nicholson, UFW’s then-organizing director for the Northwest. Here the stories diverge. What happened next—if you are to believe either narrative—is the stuff less of boilerplate wage disputes and appropriate break times than a bovine take on Goodfellas.
“It was an ambush. I felt unsafe,” Nicholson said of his initial meeting with the Bengens. “They were very hostile. There were people lining up outside. This wasn’t a collaboration.”
Most employees wanted to unionize, maintained Nicholson in a court declaration, but Ruby Ridge wouldn’t recognize union cards and instead hired “anti-union consultants” to try to suss out union sympathizers.
On August 12, Martinez and 13 other Ruby Ridge employees filed their initial complaint. It states that the plaintiffs hadn’t been receiving breaks and that Dick and Ruby Bengen “intimidated, coerced, and harassed workers in an attempt to prevent the workers from exercising their rights to organize a union.” The four July firings, it says, were retaliatory. It asks for the unpaid wages, along with damages to fired workers for their “emotional distress, anxiety, and fear.” In July 2010, an amended complaint claimed the Bengens fired nine more workers.
The workers’ declarations evoke a nightmarish scene. “The water that we drink is the same water that is used to wash the cows’ excrement and the dairy’s corrals,” stated one plaintiff, Jesus Perez. Another: “Mr. Paulino, who is one of their people, this man carries a knife and pokes the cows when they don’t want to enter in the stalls... This man has the cows all cut-up.” Another: “We even put up with racist remarks from Dick, the owner of the dairy, like stupid Mexicans or fucking Mexicans.”
That December, Nicholson and Darigold senior vice president Steve Rowe met with both sides’ lawyers, hoping to reach a settlement. UFW declined the farm’s offer. Ruby Ridge’s lawyers said if the workers didn’t drop the lawsuit, they’d sue back—both UFW and the dairy employees.
The Bengens filed their countersuit in February 2011. By that time the opposing plaintiff list had grown to 25. The Bengens claimed workers were fired for wrongdoing, and they sued UFW for interfering with the business, for civil conspiracy, for defamation.
Their story—alleged in court documents and corroborated in part by other employees, like Maria Del Carmen and Alfredo Ricardo—unfolds like this: In spring 2009, Dick and Ruby Bengen started to notice some of their employees acting out, staying on their cellphones for up to an hour, racing around recklessly on farm equipment, ignoring safety protocols, falsifying time sheets. Some cows came down with milk fever (a calcium deficiency). Milk production dropped. Then a Darigold fieldman stopped by the farm and told Dick that the company heard Ruby Ridge permitted animal and worker abuse.
The Bengens say they saw Margarito Sauceda Martinez pull his car over by the barns. He “opened his trunk and proceeded to fill it with grain,” reads Ruby’s declaration. Other documents accuse him of filching liquid soap, towels, raw milk. When 11 cows died, the Bengens fired another worker who allegedly hadn’t been properly feeding animals. They booted two more for violating instructions. One of them, Miguel Espiritu, had an overhang collapse on him, pinning him in a loader’s cab. The Bengens claimed they reprimanded him at the time for endangering himself.
Then Sepulveda showed up from UFW. He said the next day he would return with Nicholson so the Bengens could sign an agreement saying UFW now represented all their employees. Dick posted a notice stating that the union would be there and workers could ask questions.
Reportedly when Nicholson arrived the next day, he was peaceful and they went over the agreement. But the Bengens didn’t want to sign without a lawyer and say Nicholson grew upset, combative. Employees had gathered outside to learn about the union. Nicholson allegedly hurled the agreement on a chair. On his way out, one court filing says, Nicholson yelled, “We will be back to get you, this is war!”
If the Bengens felt bullied previously, with their allegedly freewheeling, disobedient staffers, now they had what sounds like a mutiny. Dick’s declaration claims union parties said people would get tens of thousands from UFW for joining the union or the lawsuit. Workers supposedly pushed cows through a lane and let the herd trample two animals to death. They purportedly stole fuel, further falsified time sheets, diverted non-potable water into a tank and ruined 5,000 pounds of milk.
Someone allegedly left a message on Ruby’s cellphone: “You fucking bitch, you are going to die.” She filed a report with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. “Mrs. Bengen played the recording for me,” the report included in Ruby’s declaration reads, “and I could clearly hear a male voice calling the victim’s name and adding the word dead or die in Spanish, muerta more than once.” Another employee allegedly called her puta (whore). Dick fired him. Five more quit.
Workers loyal to the farm claim they saw Jesus Perez pull a screwdriver from his apron and stab cows. Dick and Ruby say they watched him on a video monitor hitting an animal. They found the cow with “bloody puncture wounds on her leg.” They photographed the injury and fired Perez.
Alfredo Ricardo, one of the laborers who filed a declaration in support of the Bengens, said workers passed along messages, things like, “Whoever is helping the old man”—meaning Dick Bengen—“is going to pay,” and, “We will get you with a shotgun.” Later as Ricardo drove home from work, he noticed “a dark vehicle, either a Dodge Stratus or something similar with tinted windows.” It pulled onto the road in front of him, driving maybe five miles per hour. If he tried to pass, it sped up. Then when he was behind it, it’d slow back down to five. He’d try again, but the car did the same thing. They got to the freeway and—finally—it took off.
The last line of Dick Bengen’s June 2011 declaration reads: “I have suffered fear, emotional distress, mental anguish, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of enjoyment of life, anxiety including heart palpitations, sweats, headaches, body aches and pains, weight loss, tooth and gum pain and inflammation, and sleep disturbances.” Ruby’s declaration ends nearly identically, the same order, the same symptoms, adding only “stomach and digestive disturbances.”
I asked UFW’s Nicholson about this version of events, the “war,” the sensational brutality and extortionist tactics. Harassment claims, he said, were “outrageous, baseless.” As to the initial meeting? “To allege that we went in hostile, that’s patently absurd. And counter to what we’re about.”
Cesar Chavez grew up as a farmworker in Arizona and California. In 1962 he founded the National Farm Workers Association, which in 1971 reformed as United Farm Workers, fighting for collective bargaining rights. Chavez had a flair for effecting social change through grand symbolic gestures. He organized strikes and boycotts against agribusiness, protesting its use of pesticides and the effects on worker health. He flew over fields in a plane and shouted rallying cries. And he fasted: 25 days in 1968; 24 days in 1972; 36 days in 1988.
In March 1989, 30 years ago this month, he gave his first major address following the final fast at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. “Miserable wages and working conditions. Sexual harassment of women workers,” he said, as if speaking to present concerns. “When farm workers organize against these injustices they are met with brutality and coercion and death.”
In the union’s early-1970s prime, membership totaled around 80,000. But in the 1980s, the union declined. By 2018, UFW claimed around 10,000 members. Last September, Gerawan Farming, California’s largest stone fruit grower, which employs some 3,000, ousted the union.
In 2009, in concert with its court filings, UFW began a public campaign against Ruby Ridge. The union spoke to papers, recounting the wage disputes. In 2011, with a crowd of around 50, plaintiffs and organizers marched into Northwest Farm Credit Services (NFCS), accusing it of lending $13 million to Ruby Ridge and asking it to hold the Bengens accountable for their labor law violations. Later Martinez, the lead plaintiff, dressed up in a cow costume and waited outside the NFCS stockholders meeting at Spokane’s Historic Davenport hotel.
One story, disseminated in email and to journalists, claimed Dick Bengen carried an “anti-union rifle that he uses to scare workers into line.” According to his declaration he had a gun but not for threatening employees. “Guns are a necessity on the dairy for pest control,” it reads, “and for the unfortunate moments when we have to put a cow down.” The allegation is one of the more shocking made by UFW, and Bengen included the email in his declaration as evidence of defamation. If that’s the case, it’s an unfortunate accusation for the owner of a dairy that shares its name, Ruby Ridge, with a 1992 Idaho standoff between white separatist Randy Weaver and the FBI, which left Weaver’s wife, son, and a U.S. Marshal dead.
And Bengen can speak ominously. When he presented a “Virtual Farm Tour” at the 2016 World Dairy Expo, he described a sign he kept in front of his Bellingham dairy, something to keep the government off his property, more vivid than “No Trespassing.” During the presentation his grandson sat beside him, sunglasses perched on a trucker hat. Bengen wore black and white plaid and pinched the bridge of his nose to dredge up the language and recited the sign from memory, appearing rather proud as the audience and his grandson laughed: “If you do not have an invitation or an appointment, you’re trespassing.... We consider our lives and our livelihood as one and the same... If we perceive your visit to be a threat to either, we will take what we consider appropriate action. Thank you, the Bengens.”
Last year, with the trial looming, UFW revved up its campaign. In the interim, 13 of the 25 plaintiffs had been dismissed. The updated lawsuit for the remaining 12 no longer claimed retaliation. UFW dubbed these workers the Darigold Dozen. Darigold prickles at the appropriation: “Neither Darigold nor NDA is part of that litigation.” And the company avoids the conflation of farm with brand: “Darigold is NDA’s wholly owned subsidiary. Darigold does not directly own nor control any farms.” NDA does, however, audit its farms. Ruby Ridge, the co-op says, is a member “in good standing.” But Dick Bengen seems to have no qualm about aligning himself with Darigold. “It’s a co-op so I’m an owner,” he told me when we discussed Darigold’s branding.
UFW generated a hashtag, #GotAbuse. Press releases claim over 90 percent of the state’s dairies supply Darigold (NDA estimates around 70 percent are member farms). UFW added Starbucks to its list of adversaries, asking protesters to demand action from the coffee giant. The company, the union claims, is a major Darigold customer, and since it has a penchant for righteous value statements, it ought to look hard at its supply chain. “While we are not a part of this litigation, we join others in our industry in encouraging these parties to resolve their differences and reach a solution as soon as possible,” Starbucks told me in an email. UFW has also asked Costco, Albertsons, and Kroger to help stop what Erik Nicholson calls Darigold’s “carnage.”
Whether they join or ignore the campaign, many of those companies do monitor their supply chains. Presenting at the World Dairy Expo, Bengen complained about corporations hiring third parties to check on his farm: “We’ve been audited in the last year and a half by McDonald’s, Costco, Fred Meyer, Safeway…. It’s a real pain in the rear. The way things are going I fear that our customers, regulatory agencies, and the likes are going to be checking our closets and our bedrooms before we know it. Thank heaven for the Second Amendment.” He got another big laugh.
In September 2018, dairy workers, supporters, and UFW personnel such as Indira Trejo, a Tacoma-based campaign coordinator focused on dairy injustice, picketed outside Darigold headquarters. They began a five-day fast, protesting the company’s treatment of employees. That same week Trejo, Nicholson, and three workers—Miguel Cuevas, Yolanda Carrion, and Maria Gonzalez—stood before Seattle City Council and pled their case: the firings and injuries and sexual harassment, the wage disputes. Trejo choked up as she mentioned the manure lagoon death of Randy Vasquez. The council unanimously passed a resolution in support of Washington dairy workers.
I met with Trejo, Carrion, Gonzalez, and two other women—Matilde Saucedo and Josefina Luciano—a few weeks later at KDNA, a Spanish language radio station in Granger, a town 27 miles from Yakima. In a small, beige meeting room we sat around a plastic folding table. Saucedo said she fell while working on a dairy and claims she was fired after she struggled to do her job. Carrion said she’d had coworkers show her porn, try to kiss her. She said she was fired after she spoke up.
Luciano loved her job at Highview Inc. milking cows. An experienced worker, she says she noticed a safety flaw: As the cows entered the milking parlor, they’d get agitated. She says she told her boss. In April 2017, as she moved cows into the parlor, one kicked her face. She lost 11 teeth and says she nearly drowned in her own blood. She went to Harborview ER in Seattle. Nearly two years later, she still suffers the consequences. A scar bisects her upper lip. Two of her front teeth remain missing, others are stubs. At 35 she has arthritis in her neck, numbness in her hands. Panic attacks, vertigo, migraines.
“I’ve fallen into a severe depression,” she said. “I take medications but they don’t help.” Through tears she held my gaze and stated her support for the Dozen. The iris of her left eye was missing a small crescent. A few days later UFW posted a video of Luciano reading a letter to Starbucks, begging the company to uphold its values.
Later, Highview’s president, John Koopmans, told me in a statement that Luciano “fit right in” on the dairy. Staff reviewed safety protocols with her and watched her in the milking parlor: “It was evident right away that she knew what she was doing.” But according to the statement, the dairy had “no recollection or record of her complaint” about animals getting agitated.
After the injury, the state inspected the dairy. The inspector wrote that Koopmans’s son, the dairy’s vice president, said he “suspected the employees in the milking parlor were prodding the cows with sticks to get them to enter the milking stalls. By doing so this aggravates the cows.” Luciano told the inspector employees used a PVC pipe to prod the cows in the ribs. The state found no violations and did not fine the dairy.
At the radio station in Granger, Maria Gonzalez spoke to me the longest, in expressive flurries. In 1993, she left Guaymas, Mexico, and her job in a factory making cables for cars, and moved to Arizona. She worked in the fields there, picking melons, baling cotton. After 20 years, she moved to Washington, hearing from friends that dairy work paid well and offered a year-round paycheck. She, her husband, and her adult daughter took jobs at dairies. Her allegations about her work on various dairies veered from abject comedy—she fell into a hole wet with manure, and when her husband tried to pull her out, he slipped in too—to solemn gravitas: how a coworker would stand behind her leering as she worked; how a supervisor told her she had dementia if she forgot a process; how she was fired at dairies after complaining about harassment from workers; how she, too, went without water, without breaks, as the Ruby Ridge plaintiffs allege they did.
In 2015 she took a job at DeRuyter Brothers Dairy in Outlook, formerly an NDA member farm with 5,000 cows. In April, when pushing cattle into a milking lane, she says one pinned her against a gate, injuring her back. She went to the doctor and says the dairy put her on light duty. Then, she says, one of the other employees—who we’ll call “Jacob”—began to harass her. “At first he’d tell me cute stuff,” Gonzalez said in Spanish as UFW’s Trejo translated, that she was beautiful, that her pants were pretty. She says she complained to her supervisor, purportedly Jacob’s brother-in-law, who did nothing. After the accident, Jacob tried to rub her back, saying he wanted to make her feel good, she says, so she asked to be transferred to milking parlors to escape him. But she claims he kept showing up. He knew “I would be by myself by the filters,” she says. “He would take the opportunity to touch me, whatever he was able to do.”
The supervisor reportedly put Jacob on the same milking shift as Gonzalez. She says he grabbed her butt, groped her, pulled her hair, and when she pushed him away, he raised his fist in threat. Allegedly, he bragged about his power as a gang member, his access to knives and guns.
By July 2015, Gonzalez says she was in so much pain from the back injury that she left work again. She returned in September, and they tried to put her back on a shift with Jacob, she claims, after she’d already complained repeatedly that he’d touched her. She says she was willing to work with anyone but him. They called her back later that week, she says, and told her she didn’t have a job.
She went to another dairy and one of her coworkers urged her to get a lawyer. Gonzalez’s daughter, then 21, still worked at DeRuyter, Gonzalez says, and Jacob was harassing her too. The lawyer called the company. Within days, Gonzalez claims, Jacob was fired. In May 2018, Gonzalez settled out of court for $100,000, citing sexual harassment, retaliation, lost wages, and emotional distress. DeRuyter Brothers sold in 2017. Its former owners, Jake and Genny DeRuyter, did not respond to requests for interview.
As I sat in KDNA, listening to their stories, each of the other women broke down crying. Gonzalez said she had cried two nights earlier when a young woman being harassed on a dairy called her on the phone, waking Gonzalez up in the middle of the night. Such calls happen often enough, since her case has been publicized. “Señora Maria, Señora Maria,” the voice said. “No se que hacer. Yo no aguanto este muchacho.” I don’t know what to do. I can’t stand this guy.
Talking to me, Gonzalez did not cry. She rose in her seat. She said she was still afraid. But she could stand in front of anyone now and tell them what’s going on.
That night I met Trejo at a McDonald’s in Prosser. She says she conducts many of her UFW meetings in the playroom there. It was empty when we entered and, absent of children, it did take on the tone of a large office, secluded, silent. We sat beside the ball pit, at a short table with butcher paper stretched across its surface.
Jesus Perez—the man accused of sticking Ruby Ridge cows with a screwdriver—arrived not long later. He wore a green jumpsuit. His hair was clipped short. He’d just gotten off work at another dairy and he pulled up his pant leg, showing Trejo a long scratch on his shin, grinning. In the photo for the Darigold Dozen campaign he stares down the camera, steely, defiant, arms crossed over his chest, but here in a child’s seat, he kept his body angled toward Trejo. Because he was still engaged in the Ruby Ridge case, he answered my questions in brief bursts.
He has continued to work in dairies. Since Ruby Ridge, he’s gotten breaks everywhere he’s worked. He’s seen what he considers only “normal accidents,” like people falling. I asked why he liked to work on dairies.
“Los animales,” he said.
Perez said he deals with the lawsuit about once a month, over what recent filings claim was $5,500 in missing wages. He acted less outraged than weary. Only when Trejo supplied a question—what does retaliation mean to you?—did his speech summon the indignation of his court declaration, reassume the pulse of the political absolute, the picket line. “She knows that everything we claim is true,” he said of Ruby Bengen. “I don’t know if she’s just being racist or vindictive.”
I asked him what he thought of the lawsuit after all these years.
“I’m tired of it,” he said in Spanish, as Trejo translated. Then he directed his comment toward her. “Once you call me, I’m tired of it.”
She laughed. “I call him a lot. They are tired,” she said. “It’s been going on forever.”
Milk, more than any other commodity, is rich with symbolic baggage. An omen of biblical bounty. Something absolved from slaughterhouse horrors. Happy cows produce more milk, I’ve been told again and again. Milk is wholesome. It is pure, all cool fat and sweetness, and as white as the Washington farmers (Dutch, Norwegian) who’ve produced it for the last century. It is—from grassland to pulpit—pastoral.
Or it was. As agriculture has changed, cows have moved from pasture into pens, and farms have expanded. Factory farm efficiencies and failings have been well-documented. More nebulous is the shift’s effects on people. Some farmers who worried largely about animals’ health now employ large staffs. Last year in its website’s “About Us,” NDA had three sentences in bold (while I was writing this article, NDA removed them): “They had pitchforks. They had pride. They had no days off.”
For business owners maybe that’s a noble ideal. For migrant workers, going to dairies because they want year-round work, such romantic bootstrapping might prove less tenable. A farm grows. A single worker’s significance may thin. Yet agriculture’s perilous margins remain. Farmers themselves are under immense stress. A CDC study of 17 states (not including Washington) found that in 2015 the male farm manager suicide rate was 32.2 per 100,000, compared to 13.9 for the general population. In 2012 the farmer rate was 44.9. Last year governor Jay Inslee signed House Bill 2671. It investigates the problem’s local scope. To think some farmers under strain might drive their employees beyond the limits of small rules, might not promote adequate break time, is hardly a leap.
Though what exactly happened on Ruby Ridge Dairy 10 years ago isn’t clear. Both narratives trade in absolutes. The Bengens, Dick told me, are straightforward people. We were talking about the lawsuit and why he felt he couldn’t speak to me about it. Lawyers, he thought, were too tricky for people like them. “We don’t deal in gray,” he said.
When I first heard about this case, it seemed simple, maybe because immigrants are perpetually maligned, or because I knew Cesar Chavez righteously fasted decades ago, or because Cesar Chavez’s name rings nobly through history—forget that in 1973 UFW created a “wet line” (like the epithet) along the Arizona-Mexico border to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering and breaking strike lines. Forget that Chavez’s last fast was an act of penance as much as protest. He believed he had not done enough and so punished himself before god and the media. That cast a fine saintly light, swapping a man for a pure silhouette. But it also had doctors worried for his survival, and he died five years later, potentially of an arrhythmia caused by his penance.
The Ruby Ridge case has dragged on for nearly a decade. At the time of press it is scheduled to go to court on May 22. “A six-week trial,” a Franklin County clerk told me, amazed at the scope of the thing, its reams of court filings.
On September 10, 2018, parties convened in a Pasco courtroom for a partial summary judgment, and a case that had unfurled into accusations of cow stabbings and rifle threats and purported gross emotional strife on both sides distilled back down to one of its small, original disputes: whether the workers on Ruby Ridge received adequate 10-minute breaks.
“The employer failed to meet the requirements of the Administrative Code for providing those uninterrupted 10-minute rest breaks,” Superior Court judge Cameron Mitchell said at the hearing. Ruby Ridge’s lawyer argued that the decision was unconstitutional, that Mitchell was applying a contemporary reading of the law retroactively, that the law was so vague that the Bengens might have easily interpreted it differently. But it was to no avail. Mitchell ruled in favor of seven of the plaintiffs, Margarito Sauceda Martinez and Jesus Perez among them.
At the end of the hearing, Mitchell addressed the gathered parties. The courtroom’s windows, he said, were filling the room with light. “I apologize if I’m squinting at you. It’s not that I’m upset or anything. I’m just having a hard time seeing people’s faces with the bright lights behind you there.”