Death on a Dairy Farm: The Human Cost of Cheap Milk


Here in Vermont, there has been no shortage of heart-wrenching evidence that this country’s dairy farmers face a financial crisis of epic proportions. Last August, I attended an auction where a farm that had been in the same family for 144 years—six generations—was sold off during the course of a single day, tractor by tractor and cow by cow due to low milk prices.

My neighbor, Henry, a small operator who works 365 days a year to tend about 55 Holsteins, stopped beside the road to chat the other day. In order to make it through the winter, he told me he needed to sell some of his animals. But even though he is asking only $500 a cow, about a third of the usual price, he’s found no buyers. “Everybody’s as broke as I am,” he said. “I don’t know what I am going to do.”

Then, at about 4:00 in the afternoon of December 22, José Obeth Santiz Cruz, a 20-year-old youth from Las Margaritas in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, died after becoming caught in a manure removal conveyer inside the barn of the Vermont farm where he worked. Because he lacked documentation, it took more than a week for officials to determine who he really was, how old he was, and where he came from.

Vermont likes to market itself as a verdant, wholesome state with picturesque black and white Holstein’s grazing on hillside pastures. But the postcard image hides an ugly truth. Santiz Cruz was one of 1,500 to 2,000 immigrant workers, most lacking legal papers, who toil invisibly behind the scenes in the Vermont’s beleaguered dairy industry, working 80-hour weeks and living in total isolation, often sleeping in the very barns with the cows they tend. “Vermont’s dairy farms depend on migrant workers,” said Brendan O’Neill, coordinator of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project. “But there is no dignity in performing important work for that amount of time and having to hide yourself, never seeing the light of day. These people live and work in the shadows.”

Even when mourning the death of one of thier own, the workers stayed in the shadows. Santiz Cruz had 80 extended family members and friends working on nearby Vermont farms, but according to O’Neill, they feared gathering to hold a memorial service for the youth because of the possibility of prosecution and deportation. It was left to a handful of workers’ rights advocates to hold a quiet candlelight vigil in his honor.

As a further grim reminder of how dispensable laborers are to modern agribusiness, there is some question about how the young man’s remains will be returned home for burial—an effort that could cost as much as $10,000. The Vermont Workers’ Center has started a memorial fund and is working with the Mexican consulate in Boston and the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to get the body back to Las Margaritas.

The story of  Santiz Cruz is worth thinking about the next time you stand in front of the dairy case at your local market. Despite their colorful labels depicting happy cows and bucolic red barns, those inexpensive bottles and cartons come to us with an incalculably high human price tag.

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  1. Nani says:

    This is such an awful picture of a life we don’t want to look at, and it is happening not only in the dairies but in agriculture across the country, as we know and hear about continuously. What can we do to push for change? Is not buying milk from Vermont farms the answer, in this case? I live in California, buy milk from Strauss or Clover and shutter to think that there may be similar situations arising here, and yet we think of these cows as being coddled and cared for in the pristine hills of Marin . I wonder if that is so.

  2. Mitzi says:

    Has it not always been thus? From the indentured servants of colonial times to slaves (in North and South before the Civil War) to sharecroppers to modern migrant workers, farmers have always had to use the cheapest possible labor, because people want the cheapest possible food and fiber. Farmers are faced with an impossible situation. They are simply not paid a survival wage (not a “living wage”- a survival wage) for their product. Even the “wealthy” farmers of thousands of acres of corn in the midwest hide the family junker car behind the shiny new combine bought with borrowed money. The subsidy check often goes straight from the government to the banker. And somebody usually works off-farm to pay the taxes. What to do to push for change? Find a local farmer or small cooperative selling the product for what it is really worth, and pay that price if you can. Otherwise, if you have the space, you might want to get a cow while you can, and help the farmer in a different way.

  3. Bix says:


    I appreciate your stories. I appreciate you sharing what you know. The more we know about how our food is produced, the more likely it is things can change.

  4. Jay Coburn says:

    One of the solutions is to stop buying dairy products from Dean Foods and other huge conglomerates. While small family dairy farms go down the tubes, Dean Foods has made record profits. You can log on to to find out their brands in your area.

  5. jeff says:

    I run a large dairy farm in the southwest. I know on my farm we treat our worker’s and cows with the up most respect. Our worker’s work 8 hour days, breakfast break, lunch break and days off. Our cows always are in comfortable conditions. Fresh feed, clean water, all current vaccinations, and clean corrals. We never hit or yell at our cows. A comfortable cow will produce more milk, verse’s a cow under stress. So we focus strongly on cow comfort. Also worker’s work better in a relaxed enviroment. So just cause a farm in vermont or wherever do things wrong doesn’t mean we all do. I milk 2000 cows 3x’s a day. I treat all 25 worker’s with respect and all 2000 cow’s as if they were the family’s dog.

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