A Journey Through Oligarch Valley, Pt 6: Cowschwitz (Exit 334)
Previously: Pt 5: Resnicks (Exit 253)
“That’s the smell of money.”
—John Harris, owner of Harris Ranch
It was an hour or two past noon, and once again I was driving north on Interstate-5. I was catatonic, my mind numb from two days of zig-zagging through the fields of Oligarch Valley.
Suddenly I was snapped awake with a jolt. The stench of fetid, rotting shit and urine hit my nostrils like a super-sized ammonia capsule. I look around the bleak, stark landscape: the freeway stretching out in straight lines ahead of me, the endless line of trucks lumbering in the right lane and a vast expanse of scorched dirt surrounding the highway. I’d been on autopilot and had no idea how long I’d been driving.
None of that mattered, though. The stench—the awful stench—was better than any visual landmark. I knew exactly where I was: Welcome to Harris Ranch, California.
Located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Harris Ranch is California’s largest beef “producer.” But around these parts, it’s simply known as “Cowschwitz,” a brutally efficient vertically integrated death camp, annually churning 250,000 cows into 150 million pounds of beef product. At any given moment, its open-air high-density feedlot is crammed with 100,000 head of cattle living out their miserable lives submerged knee deep in their own filth, fattened up for slaughter on a mountain of corn.
The lot is pressed right up against the freeway. Even at 80 mph, Cowschwitz is a gruesome sight. For a few seconds, you get a nightmare glimpse of a mass of filthy cattle huddled together—some standing, others lounging in their own excrement, their hides smeared with shit, piss and mud. Even from space, photos of the feedlot looks like a giant shit smear.
Harris Ranch wants you to think their feedlots all but replicate the happy bucolic existence of life out on the open range:
“In the feedlot, the cattle are cared for by cowboys who ride the pens every day to ensure the health and well-being of every animal in their care. Shade has been installed and all cattle are fed in large, well-maintained, outdoor pens that are equipped with an automated sprinkler system to reduce dust and cool cattle during the summer months.”
Cowboys? Yeah, I see two Harris Ranch cowboys when I drive around the feedlot for a closer look. They certainly do “ride the pens.” They ride them on their pickup trucks, wearing their cowboy hats. The two cowboys are talking across a razorwire-topped chainlink fence. They flash me a mean look as I drive by slowly. Maybe I’m some kind of eco-terrorist, like the mysterious animal rights activists who targeted Harris Ranch in 2012 by torching 14 transport trailers used to haul cattle to a nearby slaughterhouse.
And the healthy, cool cows? They are huddled together in a cooling sea of excrement. Most of them are black, some are brown and there are plenty of calves. It’s pushing 100 degrees now, but summer temps are consistently over that in Oligarch Valley. The sprinklers, which are meant to cool the cows, have turned the ground into a vast puddle of liquefied shit, piss and mud. In certain spots, this mass congealed into a bulging hillock allowing some cows to climb and wistfully look out at the world beyond the barbed-wire fence, periodically giving out a pitiful moo.
The view out from the shit mounds is not much better than what cows have inside. Right next to the feedlot is a gigantic pool containing tens of thousands of gallons decomposing, liquefied cow manure. It festers for a time before being shoveled out with a tractor and dumped on a plot of adjacent land. It’s a sludge processing operation next to a shit smeared feedlot. Flies buzz everywhere, and the smell is overpowering.
Living in this toxic danger zone— this giant disease incubator—it’s no wonder the cows have to be constantly juiced on antibiotics, creating an accidental R&D lab for antibiotic resistant superbugs. It’s hard to believe that this is where the beef for those tasty In-N-Out burgers comes from— but it does.
Harris Ranch is not a place you want your food to come from. Michael Pollan says seeing it firsthand is what prompted him to start researching and writing the great anti-agribusiness bible “The Omnivore’s Dilemma:”
“…driving down Route 5 in California and passing the Harris ranch … It’s a stunning landscape. I had never seen anything quite like that. Miles of manure-encrusted land teeming with thousands of animals and a giant mountain of corn and a giant mountain of manure. And a stench you can smell two miles before you get there. Most feedlots are hidden away on the High Plains. This one happens to be very accessible…”
Pollan credits Harris Ranch with inspiration, and Harris Ranch has returned the favor. Its owners—the Harris family—have done their level best to censor and quash Pollan’s work.
In 2009, the company shut down a talk Pollan was scheduled to give at nearby Cal Poly, considered to be among the best public universities in the country. The university has a big ag program and Harris Ranch is a major donor. Harris Ranch executive David Wood, who also happens to be a Cal Poly alum, threatened to pull further funding if Pollan was allowed to speak. The harassment doesn’t end there: Wood ordered one of his assistants to talk to Cal Poly professors and gather intel on their ideas about agribusiness. He then sent a long email to the dean, naming professors whose ideas about farming he considered to be out of line with Harris Ranch interests, and ordering that at least one of them be immediately fired.
His angry email—which was saved for posterity by the Washington Post—is pretty shocking and is worth quoting at length. Notice how Wood practically pops a brain aneurysm when a professor mentions that taxpayer-funded water underwrites the agribusiness operations of Oligarch Valley farmers:
‘In a recent (09/14/09) phone conversation Mike Smith had with Rob Rutherford in the Animal Science Department, Mike asked Mr. Rutherford to define a “sustainable” beef production model. Mr. Rutherford used “grass-fed” and “organic” systems as examples. When asked specifically whether or not a “grain-fed” production system like that employed by Harris Ranch could be defined as “sustainable,” Mr. Rutherford responded that “grainfed” production systems were NOT sustainable, that corn should not be fed to cattle, and especially not in large-scale animal feeding systems.
‘Mr. Rutherford then had the audacity to offer Mike an entirely unsolicited opinion that water should have NEVER been provided to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. As Harris Ranch operates one of the largest farms in this region, Mr. Rutherford implies Harris Ranch should not be farming! He went on to offer that this acreage should be converted back to the native forages once found there. In other words, Mr. Rutherford believes that roughly two million irrigated acres in California that feed both the nation and the world should be out of production. Imagine for a moment what California would look like if those farmers and their employees— many of whom were educated at Cal Poly—were put out of business. The social and economic dislocation, as well as the impact on the nation’s food supply, would be enormous. How can a faculty member at the university take that position? ‘I have shared Mr. Rutherford’s opinions with a number of Cal Poly graduates, donors, and others in the ag industry. They are uniformly shocked, and have each questioned whether the university in fact continues to support agriculture. They have likewise questioned whether they should continue to support the university.
‘Dr. Baker, please assure me that the views held by Rob Rutherford are NOT the norm among the faculty in the Animal Science Department at Cal Poly. Can you provide me with any assurance this man’s personal views are NOT being taught to the students that attend his classes? Can you explain to me why Professor Rutherford is the only faculty member in the department teaching Issues in Animal Agriculture, which is a required course of all Animal Science students? ‘I understand the constraints the university faces with tenured faculty. This “academic freedom” issue was described in a recent (09/18/09) phone conversation between Mike Smith and Dr. Thulin. In that conversation, Dr. Thulin commented that there was almost nothing he could do as department head regarding Mr. Rutherford. I disagree, as I do NOT believe Mr. Rutherford has the academic “right” to teach Issues in Animal Agriculture. I believe Dr. Thulin should remove Mr. Rutherford from teaching this required class and replace him with a professor who will offer a balanced perspective to students. …As if Mr. Rutherford’s own words were not enough, his required texts “Fast Food Nation” and Omnivore’s Dilemma for his class (with no text having countering views) further confirm that he brings a bias to his teaching.’
Cal Poly complied with the wishes of Harris Ranch. Pollan never did speak at the university. As for professor Rutherford? Well, he wasn’t fired, but he was taken off the “Issues in Animal Agriculture” class that he had created and taught. The class was changed from being a required course to a simple elective, which meant that Cal Poly’s curriculum no longer required exposing agriculture students to the serious problems and dangers that filthy, diseased industrial meat camps posed to society. For a tax-deductible donation of $500,000, Harris Ranch got to control what it taught at a public university, making sure that its business practices would never be questioned.
The censorship and the suppression of an award-winning work of journalism was so blatant and callous that even usually meek Los Angeles Times felt compelled to launch an oped attack on Harris Ranch:
“The university should be ashamed of its attempt to squelch an antiagribusiness message to placate a donor… California restricts billboards along rural freeways, but there’s a spot on Interstate 5 near Coalinga that’s a better advertisement for vegetarianism than any Madison Avenue genius could ever devise. It is Harris Ranch, an 800-acre feedlot and meatprocessing operation whose smell assaults passersby long before the panorama of thousands of cattle packed atop layers of their own manure appears. Some critics have dubbed the place ‘Cowschwitz.’”
A few months ago, a dozen members of the California state assembly representing the Oligarch Valley sponsored an “ag-gag” that would make it crime to expose illegal activity by agribusinesses farms and slaughter houses. The legislation didn’t get passed, but the attempt was not a surprise, considering that over a dozen states have similar laws on their books. Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas have “food libel” laws that hold food critics civilly liable for disparaging food products and agricultural commodity. One victim of “ag gag” was Oprah Winfrey, who defended herself from an epic attack by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Texas. The association sued her for libel after Oprah said on her show that mad cow disease could “make AIDS look like the common cold.” Ultimately, the beef industry lost their lawsuit, but not before Oprah had to spend a fortune defend herself. She vowed never to criticize agribusinesses ever again.
It’s pretty obvious that businesses like Harris Ranch want people to know as little as possible about how the beef is really made. And so it’s doubly weird that the Harris family decided to build a McUpscale steak joint just down the highway from its fetid feedlot.
No, really. In the 1980s, Harris Ranch built a huge steak restaurant and a high-end hotel and spa practically next door to their death camp. You can’t quite see the feedlot from your room, but if the wind is blowing in the right direction, you sure as hell can smell it. The restaurant, the hotel and the hotel’s outdoor pool are enveloped in a hazy cloud of fecal matter.
Harris Ranch boldly markets the Harris Ranch Restaurant as a gourmet wonderland, where beef enthusiasts can come to enjoy fresh, wholesome beef right off the farm. “We’re true to the farm-to-fork concept,” is how Stephanie Papagni-LaPlante, Harris Restaurant’s marketing director, described it to San Diego’s Union-Tribune.
Papagni-LaPlante is clearly very, very good at her job: business is booming. Michael Pollan wrote Omnivore’s Dilemna with the idea that if people knew how and where their food was made, they’d change the way they live and eat. But Harris Ranch suggests the opposite is true:
“Harris Ranch Restaurant serves 500,000 pounds of beef every year. On a good weekend, it’ll serve 20,000 people, with the price of an entree hovering around $14. Harris Ranch also sells for million gallons of gas from the two gas stations the company has out front. On holiday weekend, the restaurant is filled to capacity.”
And just look at the Yelp reviews:
Altoni Leen C. from San Leandro, CA:
“Despite the foul smell outside, the ambiance and the food inside were awesome!”
Patricia L. from Torrance, CA:
“You know the stinky part of the freeway with the cows? We’re gonna go eat there!” Well, Harris Ranch isn’t stinky. But I thought it was funny when my boyfriend said that."
With rave reviews like that, I had to try out the Harris Ranch Restaurant for myself. It’s about 3pm when I pull into the half-full parking lot. I pull up next to a Tesla charging station and slowly, bravely open the door of my rental. Luckily, the wind is blowing true and I’m upwind from the feedlot, barely able to detect the stench.
I tried getting in touch with a rep from Harris Ranch before I stopped for visit, hoping that someone would join me for lunch and a chat. But no one ever got back to me, so I have to eat solo.
I push through the glass doors. Inside, the restaurant is maybe threequarters full. The waitress puts me in a booth, offering a seat facing away from the window… “so you don’t have to look at the gas station,” she says, sweetly.
The restaurant bills itself as a place for beef aficionados, but no one— not the server or the manager—can answer a basic question about their signature “Restaurant Reserve” dry aged prime rib steaks: how long are they aged? “Hmmm, I know that. Hold on, let me look at my cheat sheet…”
I order the 8oz dry-aged prime rib and a Diet Coke, for $29.95. I’m trying to blot the images of shit and misery burned into my brain, but I’m distracted by the strong neon blue haze coming from above the computer order terminal. It takes me a while to realize I’m looking at a fly zapper because I had never seen one this large. The beef isn’t the only thing that comes straight from Harris Ranch’s feedlot in large quantities. The shit flies are local, too.
Finally the famous steak arrives. I cut into the bloody meat, fork a chunk into my mouth and grind down. I don’t know if my mind is playing tricks on me, but I swear a faint odor of fetid shit clung to the meat. I shuddered as the juice squirted out of the meat with every bite. My steak came with a bowl of tortilla soup, steamed carrots and a side of yams. And soda refills at Harris Ranch Restaurant are free of charge.
As I walked out of the restaurant, I noticed a flyer hanging discreetly on the wall. It was a legal notice warning patrons that the restaurant’s water supply had failed California’s drinking water standards because of high levels of “disinfection byproduct.” But don’t worry. The sign said: “This is not an emergency.”
The Harris family fits right in in Oligarch Valley.
Harris Ranch was started almost a century ago, with the original Mr. Harris growing cotton, pumping oil and raising cattle the old fashioned way: by letting them roam the range.
Today the company is run by John Harris. As a third-generation trust-fund farmer, John oversees a diversified agribusiness operation, which includes the feedlot, slaughter house, restaurant and hotel, a bunch of gas stations and a horse-breeding business. The company also grows more than 30 crops, including lettuce, tomatoes, melons, oranges, lemons, almonds and pistachios.
John commutes to work by airplane from a “French chateau-style house” on the banks of the beautiful Kings River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The house is decorated by his wife, who decked out their digs with “18th-century English and French Chinoiserie furniture, as well as copies of the Trelliage murals at Schonnbrunn Palace.” A profile of John Harris in California Country Magazine, the propaganda arm of the Farm Bureau Federation agribusiness mega-lobby, describes John Harris as a “California success story with diversity and drive as boundless as the vistas just off the interstate.” Among his earliest triumphs was overcoming the “immense challenge” that high estate taxes placed on the family following the death of his father.
Harris Ranch has taken in millions of dollars in farm subsidies. Among his friends in Oligarch Valley is the esteemed trust-fund farmer Stuart Woolf, whose family operates the “biggest farming operation in Fresno County.” Stuart Woolf frequently pops up in alarmist, sobstory news coverage about how hard it is being a farmer in Oligarch Valley.
Mr. Woolf appeared on 60 Minutes a few years back posing as a struggling farmer being put out of business by big government elitist, who cut off his water supply because they cared more about the environment than they did about patriotic Americans toiling to feed the country. Sure, the Woolf clan already got enough water to supply a city 150,000 people for year nearly cost free, not to mention the $8 million in federal crop subsidies. But that’s all beside the point: Stuart Woolf wanted more, and for a small struggling farmer he sure had a lot of moxie. In 2008, he showed up in D.C. and threatened a congressional subcommittee that he’d move his family’s farm to Spain or Turkey, hell, even commie China. He’d do whatever it took to survive if the federal government didn’t give him more free water pronto:
“I have to look at where I’m going to spend my next dollar, and right now I can’t stand up in front of my family and say it’s going to be south of the Delta—that I’m going to recommend buying more land or expanding plants. I don’t want to put more chips on the table with that level of risk. We may look at opportunities in Turkey, for example, but we’re anxious about political instability.”
Stuart Woolf was disgusted with big government, but he has nothing but praise for his buddy and business partner John Harris.
“I’m lucky,” Stuart told California Country Magazine. “With John, I have a great friend, partner, mentor and leader. John is a very approachable, normal kind of guy with a great sense of humor.”
Yep, John’s a real great guy, very approachable—unless of course you happen to be the female farm serf who, in the 1990s, was repeatedly raped by one of his trusted foremen. In 2005, after years of litigation a jury in a federal court found Harris Ranch liable for the repeated rape of a former female employee. Her supervisor had repeatedly driven her out into the fields and raped her, then threatened her with a gun and warned her not to tell anyone about it. She reported this to her supervisors, but instead of taking action against the rapist boss, they bullied and harassed her.
The abused woman was represented by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal law enforcement agency that investigates workplace abuse. It was the first time the agency took a sexual-harassment case against an agribusiness employer to trial. Approachable John Harris said the lawsuit was a big-government conspiracy and an “extortion” racket. John told the Wall Street Journal that he was singled out because “they” considered Harris Ranch “a deeppocketed employer.”
John Harris is not a man to let that kind of aggression stand. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the lawsuit and defending his rapist foreman against a diabolical Mexican woman bent on robbing the Harris family. In the end, a judge found Harris Ranch guilty and ordered John to pay the woman $1 million. “We are very disappointed. We thought we had an excellent case,” he said. That’s John Harris: a great sense of humor up to the end.
Editor's Note: This article also appears in NSFWCORP: A Long Fucking Story, an oral history of NSFWCORP including interviews with former writers and previously out of print long-form features.