Ohio dairyman shares what happened after undercover video changed his life
Ohio dairy producer Gary Conklin has a strong handshake and a warm smile and is determined to stay in business.
He's also a guy that was nearly ruined by three minutes and 44 seconds of videotape that was shot undercover at his farm as one of his hired men abused a down cow.
Conklin spoke to a group of farmers and townships officials last week at an event in Madison that was sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin about how an animal welfare group's actions changed his life.
His farm, it turns out, was a "tailor-made" situation for the cyber attack he experienced.
His Conklin Dairy Cattle Sales, LLC is a business that buys, raises and freshens 125 Holstein heifers each month and milks them for three of four weeks to get them started before they are sold.
Conklin and his wife made the decision long ago not to live at the farm because it's on a busy state highway and they didn't want their kids exposed to the traffic hazards, so they live in town.
Because of the business he's in, Conklin said he travels a lot and delegates much of the management of the operation to others.
He thinks he may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time to get targeted for the undercover video. He's just down the road from Select Sires where the animal rights group infiltrator, Jason Smith, tried to get a job.
Many of Conklin's neighbors later told him that the man tried to find work on their farms. It just happened that Conklin needed an extra worker because the farm had fence to build and pens to pitch out.
Smith gave a number of references that Conklin checked out; but he later learned that there were all bogus - animal rights group members that were standing by to give Smith the fake referrals, Conklin said.
In the 30 days he worked at the farm, Smith shot 20 hours of video, mostly of Billy Joe Gregg, another worker, including his abuse of animals on the farm. It was later edited to several minutes and changed to make it look as if Conklin himself was involved.
What galls him now, says Conklin in his soft-spoken way, is that the person who was there because he ostensibly cared about animals knew abuse was going on at the hands of Gregg and did nothing for several weeks. He believes that delay was so more salacious video could be gathered.
"But 99.98 percent of the video he shot shows a clean, well-run facility."
The abusive actions of Gregg were mainly filmed when the two men were alone at the farm, he said.
But he admits that it was "egregious. It's very, very bad. I was heartbroken when I saw what he was doing."
In the later hours of the video it seems as if Gregg knew Smith was taping his actions, he said. "Those two became very good friends and it was a very, very bad combination."
Once the edited video hit the internet, Conklin's life changed. The first he heard about it was when a reporter called him for a comment, which he declined to make.
The dairy producer began making calls - to the sheriff's department, his attorney and his staff. Then threats started coming in so he had to disconnect his telephone service.
Early the next morning he terminated Gregg's employment and hired security for his home and the farm and hired a public relations firm. Those specialists advised him not to speak to reporters or allow them on his farm until the investigation was complete.
"It was the best $10,000 I ever spent," he says.
The farm was investigated by the county's health department, humane society, sheriff's department and Ohio Department of Agriculture while animal rights activists (he calls them terrorists) planned a Memorial Day protest at the farm.
Conklin's family moved to an undisclosed location because of threats and officials guarded the properties. He was stationed at a command center with federal and state Homeland Security officials, who were following communications of the group's members.
Farm scene surreal
The farm where he grew up was a surreal scene of 200 officers carrying assault weapons and riding in armored vehicles.
Their home was regularly patrolled by officers with night-vision goggles and AK47s and they hired off-duty officers to safeguard the farm. "We had a lot of nights with very little sleep."
With the immediate crisis handled, Conklin soon learned of threats that were being made to local officials handling his case, his attorney and to members of boards on which Conklin served. He also learned that his friends in the community supported him.
His cattle sales business was not affected at all, he said. But the dairy plant where they sold their Grade A milk refused to take it after the incident because they were threatened with boycotts and repercussions from animal rights groups.
For eight weeks the milk was picked up by a hog farmer (who didn't pay Conklin) and fed to his pigs.
After that Conklin switched to Grade B and was able to sell his milk into that market, but at a lower pay price.
After a five-week investigation by a grand jury and a panel of veterinarians, Conklin was cleared. Gregg was charged with animal abuse and sentenced to seven months in jail.
Gregg, an Iraq war veteran also faces some weapons charges. Smith admitted to participating in the abuse and testified that Conklin was not there at the time the abuse happened and didn't know it was going on.
In the aftermath, Conklin updated the farm's employee manual to cover more extensively the humane handling of animals.
But even now - nearly two years on from the incident - Conklin said he gets calls from people who think it just happened last week. Members of the state Legislature there get similar calls wanting action against him.
But from their friends and colleagues "it has been nothing but support" and the support from agriculture was "enormous," he said.
When they consulted their attorney about possibly recouping some of the financial losses caused by the incident they found that there was little chance of getting any money in a lawsuit, so they didn't pursue it.
Still, he says he never thought of throwing in the towel.
"We're less than 10 years away from being in the cattle business for 100 years and we're going to get there. We're going to get there on our own terms."