Baker City Herald

Customers at Whole Foods Northwest markets in Portland will have an opportunity this weekend to meet some of the ranchers behind Country Natural Beef's kinder, gentler vision of raising cattle without hormones or antibiotics.

Vicki Foley, Whole Foods public relations specialist, said the visit will be a pleasant diversion from the ongoing dialogue over efforts to arrange a fair and neutral vote on union representation for workers at the Beef Northwest feedlot in Boardman, where cattle raised by Country Natural Beef ranchers are finished before the beef is processed and packaged for Whole Foods and other retail customers.

Foley said the ranchers' visits to Portland-area Whole Foods markets this weekend are designed to let customers learn how Country Natural Beef ranchers handle their cattle to make their beef a perfect fit for Whole Foods' all-natural philosophy.

The weekend visit is also an opportunity for ranchers to explain the CNB guidelines that specify how their cattle are handled at the Beef Northwest feedlot in Boardman the only feedlot in the nation that meets CNB's strict standards.

CNB ranchers and representatives of Whole Foods Markets also are scheduled to meet July 24 with officials from Oregon Ecumenical Ministries and Farmworker Ministries to discuss the union representation issue.

Boardman feedlot workers have been invited to attend the meeting to hear about CNB's proposal for a secret ballot election in which the workers can decide whether they want to be represented by United Farm Workers.

andquot;The Whole Foods people are going to attend to monitor progress on the issue,andquot; said Stacy Davies, a rancher and spokesman for Country Natural Beef.

Davies said CNB's plans, announced in June, to forge ahead with the union vote by the first or second week in July proved to be premature.

He said CNB has not set a timeline for the election andquot;to assure the vote is credible.andquot;

Davies said everyone involved in the issue, including Beef Northwest management, has agreed to abide by the results of a fair election conducted by secret ballot and administered by a neutral third party.

andquot;Beef Northwest is receiving these folks from Ecumenical Ministries, Farmworker Ministries and Whole Foods with open arms. They too have agreed to have the workers vote,andquot; Davies said.

The vote has not been scheduled, but Davies said CNB, Whole Foods, Beef Northwest and others are pushing for a vote to take place as soon as possible.

andquot;The CNB ranchers are behind it. We talk about it at our membership conference calls, and it has been determined by the membership that this is the best route to take,andquot; Davies said.

About 16 Baker County ranchers are among 70 ranching families in Oregon and a total of 120 in the West who raise cattle as members of Country Natural Beef.

The primary goal of the July 24 meeting is is to make sure Beef Northwest workers understand that CNB and Whole Foods representatives are insisting on a secret-ballot election, Davies said.

andquot;We wanted to make sure that the workers understand there is a separation between CNB and Beef Northwest, and they could vote pro union and there would be no repercussions,andquot; Davies said.

andquot;Any voting process that opens the door to coercion or perceived repercussions is not a valid process,andquot; he said, adding that a card check or petition system sought by United Farm Workers are not substitutes for a neutral election.

He said card check and petition systems could inhibit the true expression of the worker's wishes.

andquot;We want to make sure the workers know their vote will be kept secret,andquot; Davies said.

He also extended an invitation to UFW officials.

andquot;I would like to extend an open invitation to UFW to participate in the private ballot process. We would welcome it,andquot; Davies said.

He said the rancher members of CNB appreciate the fact that there has been no picketing or other pressure from UFW in the past few weeks targeting Whole Foods Markets or other CNB retail customers.