Editor’s note: Due to death threats received by the Conklin family, a photo has not been included. Conklin was recently cleared by a Union County grand jury in an animal-abuse case involving his farm and a video released by Mercy For Animals.
OCJ: What is your family’s history in the dairy Industry?
Gary: The business started in 1919 marketing all types of livestock. Over time the business evolved into just Holstein heifers and cows. Up until 1990 a large part of our sales were from public auctions. Since that point it has been primarily private treaty sales.
OCJ: Will you please describe your dairy operation?
Gary: We broker close up and fresh Holstein heifers. We freshen out 1,000 to 1,200 first calf heifers per year. Many of our customers prefer to acquire fresh heifers. But, we do have some that prefer to buy springing heifers 30 to 60 days from calving.
OCJ: When did you first see the video compiled by Mercy for Animals?
Gary: On the afternoon of May 25, 2010, I was traveling in Ohio when I received a call from a reporter asking for my comments regarding the YouTube video that had surfaced. Upon arriving home in the evening I immediately watched the video and felt absolute devastation and disbelief over the horrific abuse being shown by one of the company’s former employees.
OCJ: What was your initial reaction?
Gary: I immediately notified the Union County Sheriff’s Department giving them a heads up to the situation and asked for their presence on the farm Wednesday, May 26 at 6 a.m. Billy Joe Gregg arrived on the farm where he was escorted in and immediately terminated. It was at that time the Sheriff’s Department began their interrogation, which ultimately led to the arrest of Billy Joe Gregg.
OCJ: Why was Billy Joe Gregg hired on your farm?
Gary: Billy Joe was hired in early November 2009. He lived near by, was attending a local community college and was looking for a job. He was raised on his family’s dairy farm in Michigan and was familiar not only with dairy cattle but with the equipment used on a farm. He also had an extensive farm background, worked on several other farms and was an Iraqi War veteran.
OCJ: Can you explain the footage that reportedly shows you “kicking a downed cow”?
Gary: That heifer had just calved and was compromised from a health standpoint. She was weak, and if she continued to lay down there was the chance she would lose feeling in her legs, and they would become atrophied. Chances of her survival diminished the longer she was down. In Grand Jury testimony all veterinary experts testified that actions taken were not only appropriate but necessary for the well being and survival of the cow. Unfortunately, the videotape put me in between two beatings, making the immediate action taken shown to look abusive.
Additionally, the undercover videographer in his signed statement indicated that he had never witnessed me abusing any animals and that I was not aware of the abuse committed by Billy Joe Gregg. Also, further statements revealed the undercover videographer was in contact daily with organizations supporting his undercover abuse investigation. At no time was the abuse of farm animals brought to my attention, or that of the Humane Society or Sheriff’s Department. Had that been the case, and reports of the first signs of abuse been brought to our attention, immediate action would have been taken against both employees and it would not have developed into the devastation that so greatly affected our reputable business, my family and an entire community. Abuse and filming continued for an additional three weeks until it aired on the Internet.
OCJ: Strong police action prevented your farm from reportedly being demolished by animal rights activists on Memorial Day. What was that like?
Gary: The Union County Sheriff’s Department indicated from heavy activity on the Internet that animal rights activists from all over the country were scheduled to arrive on the farm with the intent to destroy Conklin Dairy Farms “piece by piece.” Given the level and number of threats to our farm, family and community officials, in an effort to protect people and property, law enforcement made the decision on how to handle the situation. They were doing their jobs based on the high level of threatening activity to all who were involved in the investigation.
OCJ: In hindsight, what recommendation would you give other farmers for their protection against animal rights activists?
Gary: Given the events that affected our family farm these past few months I offer the following recommendations:
A. Develop an employee handbook, which would cover in detail employee job descriptions, animal handling practices, animal health protocols, general company policies as well as consequences for violation of those policies. This process would include the employee signing off that they have read the handbook and know they will be held accountable to those policies.
B. Establish and review with all employees the animal abuse policy, which states any animal abuse is intolerable. If you witness abuse of any animals by a company employee it is to be reported to farm management immediately. The result in failure to make that report would be termination of employment. Policies are posted throughout the farm operation facility.
C. Put in place a policy that states the use of cameras and recording devices without the written permission of management is strictly prohibited and, if done, all pictures and recordings are property of the employer.
D. As the agricultural and dairy industries continue to change, management must be diligent in updating and changing policies as they affect operations, then effectively communicate those changes with all farm staff.