Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Thursday, May 2 @ 4:21 p.m. / Animals

[UPDATED] Humboldt County Sheriff Investigating Alexandre Family Farm Following Animal Advocacy Group's Report on 'Deception, Cruelty and Animal Abuse'

Expectant cows mill about the maternity barn at Alexandre Family Farm's main dairy near Fort Dick last week. | Jessica C. Andrews




Update at 4:11 p.m. Friday: Alexandre Family Farm's certification with Regenerative Organic Alliance has been suspended, the organization's executive director told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Friday.

However, the farm's suspension is not due to the Farm Forward report nor the Atlantic article outlining alleged abuse at the Alexandres' dairy, Elizabeth Whitlow, Regenerative Organic Alliance executive director, said via email.

"The suspension of Alexandre Family Farms' certification status was based on findings in an audit report, unrelated to the Farm Forward exposé," she said. "As part of the ROA's official process, the suspension enables further investigation of the operation. This process is still underway."

These audits involve on-farm inspections, Whitlow said. The Regenerative Organic Certified standard relies on third-party verification, she told the Outpost.


Original Post:

The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office has launched an investigation into whether animal abuse allegations against Alexandre Family Farm holds any weight.

The investigation comes about three weeks after the animal advocacy group Farm Forward released a report accusing the Alexandres of “systemic deception, cruelty and animal abuse.”

The investigation is in its infancy, HCSO Special Services Sgt. Tony Gomes, who leads the livestock division, told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Thursday. One thing the agency is trying to determine is whether the alleged abuse occurred at the Alexandres’ operation in Del Norte County or in Ferndale, he said.

“We take any animal neglect or animal abuse cases seriously,” Gomes said. “And when [Farm Forward’s] information came out, an investigation needed to be started.”

A spokesperson for Alexandre Family Farm stated they were unaware of the HCSO’s investigation.

“We have been targeted as part of an ongoing campaign by an animal rights activist group that is questioning the validity of humane farming certifications and whose stated goal is to end dairy farming,” said Sharon Egan, chief marketing officer for Alexandre Family Farm. “We are guided by a deep care for our animals as well as protocols established by experts in the treatment of farm animals.”

Alexandre Family Farm is certified organic through the USDA and California Certified Organic Farmers and is a certified regenerative organic dairy. The farm undergoes surprise audits and inspections by the USDA’s National Organic Program and works with animal nutritionists, local veterinarians and “national experts in organic animal welfare who visit our farm on a regular basis,” Egan said.

Farm Forward’s executive director, Andrew deCoriolis, says his organization’s aim isn’t to end dairy farming. In fact, he said, Farm Forward advocates would like to see more farmers implement the measures Alexandre Family Farm founders Blake and Stephanie Alexandre say is a hallmark of their operation.

Founded about 15 years ago, Farm Forward seeks to end factory farming. The organization has worked with companies including Blue Apron and Unilever to raise their animal welfare standards, according to deCoriolis.

Much of the work for the last several years has to do with reforming USDA regulations on labeling. In 2021 and 2022, Farm Forward led an investigation into whether animal products that were advertised to consumers as being antibiotic free, which led to a class action lawsuit against Whole Foods Market.

According to deCoriolis, Farm Forward’s report on Alexandre Family Farms, titled “Dairy Deception: Corruption and Consumer Fraud At Alexandre Family Farm,” is the organization’s first investigation into organic dairy operations.

“This isn’t something we sought out in any way,” he said. “I had heard for years that these problems may potentially exist, but what made this kind of thing possible is the fact that when we did the investigation around antibiotics and found antibiotics in cattle and beef sold in Whole Foods, the publicity in that story convinced whistleblowers to reach out to us.”

The first whistleblower reached out to Farm Forward in December 2022. According to a timeline of Farm Forward’s investigation, organization representatives doubted the allegations at first. But the allegations kept coming along with hundreds of video and photographic evidence taken over a span of about five years in some cases, deCoriolis said.

The photographs featured in Farm Forward’s report show a skip loader allegedly dragging live cows across concrete and gravel, a cow that was allegedly dehorned as a mature adult before being sold at auction and a cow that was unable to stand or walk left out in the pasture for two weeks until “someone bothered to shoot her.”

According to deCoriolis, the whistleblowers were people who had concerns about “what the Alexandres are doing” and could back their claims up with evidence and additional information.

“From my perspective, the whistleblowers and who they are are less relevant than the information they provided us,” he told the Outpost. “In any kind of context like this, we’re not going to rely on just the word of what someone says about an operation.”

Two veterinarians independently reviewed the evidence whistleblowers submitted to Farm Forward. One vet wanted to be anonymous, deCoriolis said. The other is Dr. Gail Hansen, who chaired the advisory board at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and is the Washington DC representative for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

Farm Forward’s report also coincided with an article in The Atlantic by Annie Lowrey, who noted that while visiting the Alexandre’s main dairy in Crescent City, Blake and Stephanie Alexandre “questioned the motivations of the whistleblowers, speculating that they were disgruntled former employees and associates… .”

Though hesitant to speak with the Outpost on the record about Farm Forward’s allegations, Stephanie Alexandre called the organization’s report a malicious attack.

Alexandre said their employees were also shocked at the allegations in Farm Forward’s report.

“We trust our employees so deeply,” Alexandre said last week. “There’s no bad actor here. We have a great culture and team right now and it’s sad that we have to show them that this happened, these pictures, as if we’re questioning their character.”

According to Vanessa Alexandre Nunes, inspectors with California Certified Organic Farmers, or CCOF, accredited through the USDA's National Organic Program, along with other certification agencies visit the farm annually. Sometimes they conduct surprise investigations. Last year, the CDFA paid a surprise visit to Alexandre Family Farm for an inspection that went really well, Nunes said.

A nutritionist and a veterinarian inspects the Alexandres’ animals every two months, Nunes said. They also receive visits from animal welfare auditors, she said.

“They’re walking through all the hutches, they speak Spanish, they’re even looking at indicators of animal health,” Nunes said. “Like the hocks on the cow and if their hair has rubbed off. That means maybe there wasn’t enough bedding. Making sure there are no broken tails.”

Inspectors also take note of how the cows behave, if they’re relaxed or if they’re scared of humans, Alexandre said. One example she gave for how relaxed their cows are involves their Bucket Calf Program, which pairs Del Norte youth with one of their calves.

The children spend the summer working with their calf and then have an opportunity to show them at the county fair in August. Many have gone on to participate in other agriculture programs for youth, according to Alexandre.

“We show all the kids the maternity barn where they’re all sitting around the perimeter,” Alexandre said. “Vanessa and I are miked up and talking to the kids and they’re all watching. We almost have to walk through sitting cows because they’re just so calm about people being around them.”

Alexandre Family Farm also offers self-guided tours at their main dairy on Lower Lake Road in Del Norte County, though they ask people to stay around the maternity barn and the milk barn.

According to deCoriolis, Farm Forward didn’t reach out to the Alexandres prior to making their report public.

“We don’t think there was any value in doing so,” he said. “If they had shown a total willingness to overlook both the standards of the programs they’re part of and a willingness to deceive the public, it’s not my job to ask them nicely to change their practices.”

DeCoriolis said Farm Forward’s goal is using its report to push the Alexandres and other similar operations to make changes. The issues Farm Forward outlines in its report may not be unique to the Alexandres, he said.

DeCoriolis also addressed a part of the report stating that a whistleblower had complained about animals being mistreated to USDA National Organic Program staff in October 2022.

The whistleblower stated that the Alexandres were selling cows that were ill, severely lame and grossly mistreated, but the whistleblower received no response, according to Farm Forward's report. About 11 months later, in September 2023, the USDA conducted an investigation and found no violations, according to Farm Forward’s report.

DeCoriolis said he believes there USDA NOP staff did not conduct a “meaningful investigation.” He also stated that the NOP is understaffed, which he said was admitted to the whistleblower.

“My hope would be publicizing these kinds of issues will give leverage to the NOP to change its practices,” DeCoriolis said. “We have reason to believe there can be changes.”

According to Alexandre, she and her family have received tremendous support from industry colleagues as well as the vendors that buy their products and sell them to consumers.

“They are giving us their love and encouragement," she said. "They tell us, 'We've been to your farm. We know your integrity and we're here standing with you.'"


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