PLAIN CITY, Ohio — The large wheat fields leading up to Gary Conklin’s Union County dairy farm are tall and bearded, the green plants quickly turning gold — a sign of maturity.
In a few more weeks, it will be harvest time — a time for big equipment to roam the fields — separating the chaff and the dust from the grain.
In this rural, central Ohio community, farmers and farm businesses, friends and neighbors are hoping for another form of maturity — a kind that will give the man they know and the industry they value a fair representation.
Conklin and his farm have been in the national spotlight in recent weeks, after a pro-vegan animal rights organization released four weeks of undercover film to local law enforcement, showing a now-fired employee committing severe, intentional abuse to dairy cattle.
All of the state’s major farm and dairy organizations have condemned the actions on the video, and so have its producers — Mercy For Animals.
Where they differ is how the video is being used, and how and why it was made.
MFA is using it to portray the state’s livestock farmers as animal abusers and what it believes are “factory farmers” incapable of self-regulation.
Based on the video, MFA encourages consumers to “ditch cruelty, ditch dairy,” adopt a vegan diet, and also sign the Humane Society of the United States’ petition to require “certain minimum standards” to the newly created Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.
On the other side, Ohio farmers say the video is a false representation of what they do.
Speaking during a dedication ceremony June 11 at the cooperative down the road from the Conklin farm, David Thorbahn, chief executive officer of Select Sires — a world leader in bovine genetics — reminded those attending to support due-process, and respect the rights of local officials and farmers.
“The man who committed these heinous acts is in jail and it looks like he’s going to be there for a very long time,” Thorbahn said. “It’s up to the investigators and local law enforcement officers to determine the facts through due process.”
Thorbahn said it’s important to remember the intent of those who produced the video, and the job of the law, which relies on due-process and factual investigations to make its conclusions.
He condemned the actions of those who are “providing terroristic threats to our individuals and citizens of Union County,” and said such actions “take public officials away from doing their jobs.”
Daniel Hauff, director of investigations for Mercy For Animals, the organization that produced the undercover film, was aware that some threats had been made against locals, and cautioned concerned citizens against such actions.
“We understand that people are angry and we have asked everyone to let law enforcement do their jobs,” he said.
A common sentiment at the Select Sires dedication, and among farmers in the community, is that the video has been used for the animal rights agenda, and does not reflect the true nature of dairy farms locally, or across the state.
Several Union County farmers, speaking off-record, said the Conklins are not the kind of people the video producers are portraying them to be.
“Livestock farmers in the state of Ohio (as a whole) are very good individuals in caring for their animals and to perceive that everybody isn’t is a false statement,” said Union County Commissioner Charles Hall.
He has known the Conklins for years and said they have practiced good animal husbandry for generations. Although the actions on the video are wrong, Hall said “it’s really a very misleading representation” of the Conklins, of Union County and Ohio’s agriculture.
He has a small grain farm of his own and can’t help but question the context of this video’s release. While coincidences do occur, he said it was interesting the president of Humane Society of the United States was in Ohio at the time the video was released, and that it was released near the end of a signature-gathering campaign in the same state.
“This kind of action seems to me to have been brought about at a time that seemed to favor certain organizations that are attacking farm animals across the country,” he said.
Mercy For Animals said it did so to protect animals and the public.
“Our main concern was making sure that Billy Joe Gregg was off the streets, that the public was protected and that these animals were protected,” said Hauff.
Union County Commissioner Gary Lee, who operates Lee Farms, a 2,500-acre grain farm, said he’s bothered over the amount of time it took for these apparent acts of cruelty to be reported.
“At what point does the person doing the video taping have the moral responsibility to stop what he saw that was happening?” Lee asked. “I couldn’t do it.”
The legal investigation continues, and many of the basic questions in this case still remain unanswered. Until they are, locals say they will stand behind the law and the work of their officials.