Mendocino Talking: Els Cooperrider
by Dave Smith, September 4, 2014
[Author's Note: The Cooperriders, Allen and Els, along with their sons, Bret and Sid, owned and operated the Ukiah Brewpub for many years. Els talks about early life in The Netherlands during World War 2 where her parents hid Jews in their home and saved a Canadian pilot’s life, emigrating to California, her academic life, and her all-female rock band. Then she becomes an environmental activist here in Mendocino County working with Judi Bari, stops roadside spraying by CalTrans, heads up Measure H to create the nation’s first GMO-free county, and her family opens the first organic brewpub in America. - DS]
I was born during the last part of World War II, in a town called Oostvoorne, The Netherlands on the North Sea along the English Channel in 1944 during the Allied invasion and bombings of Germany. The anti-aircraft guns and German bunkers were set up on our shore to shoot down Allied planes, and we lived right there. A Canadian pilot was shot down over the town and got hung up in a tree, and before the Germans could get to him, Dutch people who lived nearby rescued him and brought him to my father and asked to hide him.
My father was a civil engineer who worked for the government overseeing the dykes and water ways. My parents took in not only the pilot but also jews who could not flee farther away and children whose parents had died. We had over 20 people hiding with us in this small house, but my father was able to switch houses with another family and we moved to a much larger, more isolated place back in the forest that had an underground shelter accessible through a hollow tree trunk where they could hide if we were visited. We lived there until the end of the war. Several books have been written about our experience and my parents were recognized by the Canadian, Israeli, Dutch and American governments.
My family, with 7 kids, emigrated to the Bay Area in the U.S. in 1957 when I was 13. My father was sponsored by the infamous Harold Camping, who was just a normal construction company owner at the time, but who later became the radio preacher who issued multiple failed predictions of dates for the end of the world.
I learned English in four months by assimilation and reading comic books, received a scholarship to study chemistry as a pre-med to the University of California in Berkeley while I was still in my junior year in high school. But while visiting a cadaver room at the UCSF medical center I lost my cookies. So, I needed to switch majors and got an undergraduate degree in Botany, and much later a graduate degree in Range Science, doing my research on Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.
Meanwhile, I had met and married Allen and our first son, Bret, arrived the day I graduated. A year later, Sid arrived. Eventually, Allen applied for a PhD program and was accepted at the State University of New York in Syracuse, and for his field work, we moved to the Adirondacks where I spent most days with my precious little boys. I loved being a mother.
One of the odd jobs I did while in New York was teaching Spanish, one summer, to the family of Cornelius Vanderbilt (C.V.) Whitney. As a member of both the Whitney and Vanderbilt families, he had inherited a substantial fortune and was a well-respected businessman. They had a huge estate nearby, and since I had taken Castilian Spanish for 6 years, I was hired to tutor mom, dad, and their three children before they were going to live for awhile in Barcelona.
Later, we moved to Fort Collins, Colorado to get my Master’s Degree attending Colorado State University. I worked 20 hours a week at one of the few labs in the world doing food habit (using scatology) research on herbivore poop, including fossilized samples. We would process the pellets, spread them out on slides, and we could tell what that animal had been eating by identifying plants by their trichomes, or pattern of plant hairs, which are never digested and are specific to each species of plant and identifiable with magnification. We also did forensics like what was on the under soles of the shoes of a murderer.
While living there, I started a country rock band with five women, though later guys replaced some of them. I was the bandleader, playing a pedal steel guitar which Allen had bought for me out of the blue because he liked the sound. I took lessons and then tried to join a band… but no one would hire me because, I was told, I was a woman and starting to gray. I was in my early thirties. One guy wanted me to dye my hair, and I told him he could go to hell. So I started my own band. It was a lot of fun. We had drums, rhythm guitar, bass, lead guitar, and my steel guitar. We were called Mother Country, and we played all around Colorado for 9 years. I also play mandolin, started when I was seven, piano, and accordion.
After I finished my Master’s degree, I worked at the School of Biomedical Sciences and Veterinary Medicine in neurology as an instructor and ran a lab for 5 years. Towards the end, we got some new post-doctoral fellows in and there was some stuff going on I didn’t understand because when I came in one morning, there had been some people there working late at night, which is not unusual for graduate students, but it is somewhat unusual for post-doctoral fellows. I found a cage with a bunch of dead rats in it. My major Prof came by and said to get rid of them… which is not a problem unless they have been injected with something hazardous, in which case they have to go into hazardous waste or else someone is going to get hurt. So I asked what was to be done to them, and he said “just get rid of them.” So I said, “Oh? Now I really want to know what was done to them.” He said they had injected them the night before and I asked with what? “We injected them with radioactive materials.” I said that was not possible… we don’t have a license to use them. He said “Nevemind.” I told him I would have to call someone because I wasn’t going to deal with radioactive rats. He told me to leave them alone and the guy who worked with them would take care of them. So the guy came in later that morning, put them in a bag, which is not how you deal with them, and I got upset with him. And in order to deal with his frustration, he had all these radioactive rats in this bag, squeezed it, and vented all the air in it right into my face. It turns out that what those rats probably died of was tritium… radioactive hydrogen which is a beta emitter.
What I should have done is call the police, but I went to my major Prof and told him what happened and he said it was nothing. I then reported it to the police, and to the radioactive control board. I filed a grievance, my prof got his hand slapped, and he fired me. So I sued them, they lied, and I lost… and a year later I got cancer. The Attorney General of Colorado defended them and I couldn’t afford to have a good enough lawyer. After that, with almost 25 years experience, I was blacklisted. I applied for 85 jobs and could not find work in my field anywhere, even at $4 an hour as a Vet Tech.
So I told Allen, we have to put this behind us and go on. I wasn’t willing to let it ruin my life. Allen said let’s do a plan. If we are going to do something else, we need to come up with a plan.
After I was fired Allen and I came up with a plan of what to do next. He was working in Denver where we did not want to live. We decided to that he would quit his job, sell our house in Ft. Collins and move to Mendocino County. Allen had opportunities to teach for the BLM. Allen’s folks had a little cabin off the grid we could stay in. We moved in late December of 1990. Allen started teaching and I found a job at Mill Creek Nursery.
Both of us got involved in forestry issues and joined the Mendocino Environmental Center (MEC). 1n 1995 Judi Bari asked me to be “Camp Mother” for Headwaters Base Camp in Humboldt County. About 250 people were camped and fed while they protested, did lock downs and tree sits. Food Not Bombs was doing the cooking with lots of food donations coming from everywhere. I had never done anything like it. We were allowed to camp in a County or State Park campground for two weeks at a time. So every two weeks we had to move the entire camp using UHaul trucks that I rented.
I remember pulling up to Williams State Park in my little camper and telling the ranger that I wanted to rent some campsites for two weeks. He got his map out and asked which campsite I wanted. I told him I wanted this particular large wing of the campground in my name. He said, “the whole thing?” I said yes. He said o-o-o-ok. I did that every two weeks for several months.
One time we were in the food line for dinner and when we got up to the food we realized that a pot of soup was spiked with marijuana. That was a strict no-no. If someone wanted to smoke in their tents, that was one thing… but feeding marijuana to everybody in camp was not going to happen. So a friend in line with me just picked it up and dumped it.
Thousands were arrested and handcuffed for trespassing including me. When the police decided to let us go, we were put in buses, and after dark they drove us for many miles out on Route 36 then stopped and told us to get off the bus. They drove off and left us stranded. That was my first real foray into civil disobedience.
In 1997 the MEC asked me to help stop CalTrans from spraying toxic herbicides on the highways. There had already been protests and grumbling. In response CalTrans set up an advisory committee from the community. I called Charles Peterson, who was our County Supervisor in the 5th District and asked him to appoint me to it, which he did. We as members of the committee demanded to know what they were spraying. So they opened up their books to us showing what, when and where they were spraying. With my background in chemistry and biology I found out what each of the chemicals did. Of course, RoundUp was just one of them. CalTrans justified using these chemicals to kill plants, because they don’t hurt people. There is nothing to worry about. It’s a biocide, but it doesn’t hurt people or animals or fish. But I discovered that there is only one atom of difference between a molecule of hemoglobin and a molecule of chlorophyll — our lifeblood and plant’s lifeblood — and that is the magnesium and the iron right in the middle. I had not known that and was just blown away. So I made a huge illustration with them side by side and showed it at one of our protests in front of the County Supervisors. I also produced a pamphlet that listed all of the herbicides they were spraying and next to it the two molecules, along with the effects of what these chemicals do, which I took from a Caltrans Environmental Impact Report. That made a difference. Soon enough I got word that I was being sued by Monsanto for putting out “false and misleading” information about their products. That just gave me more fuel. I printed out and distributed more of them. As it turned out Monsanto didn’t come after me because there wasn’t anything to come after me for. I was just stating the facts, not slandering them.
There were lots of people working on this project, not just me, and we were not getting anywhere. We had persuaded the Board of Supervisors to ask CalTrans to stop spraying, and we had protested around the county, but CalTrans ignored the Supervisors, so we decided we would have to engage in civil disobedience. I asked the group to please consider having the civil disobedience done not by the young whippersnappers among us, but just those who were old enough to be grandparents. I thought we would have more impact because so often young people are wrongly dismissed by the authorities as not having anything better to do, that they’re not productive citizens, they’re just being disruptive. Everyone agreed.
I offered myself for the second action and decided that one long straight stretch of Highway 101 before you go up the Willits grade that had good visibility was a good place to do it without anybody getting hurt. And I knew that CalTrans was about to spray that section.
On March 6, 1997 we set it up with supporters behind the fences with signs, on both sides of the freeway. Traffic was light. Sequoia and I were let off on the shoulder, crossed the highway to the median strip and stationed ourselves in the way of the oncoming CalTrans 5-truck spray convoy. When they saw us up ahead, they stopped. They soon started moving again, but we weren’t moving. So they slowed way down and pulled into the fast lane to go around us and continued spraying. For the next few months there was this lonely green patch on the freeway where we stood. Soon, two Highway Patrol cars pulled up and they told us to get in the front seats, I in one car, Sequoia in the other. Mine was a female patrol officer and she said to me, “Thank you for what you are doing. I don’t like to step in that stuff, which I have to do every time I pull somebody over, and then I have to go home. I’m going to take you back to all your supporters over there.”
It’s amazing when you think about it… most people won’t speak up or protest because there will be repercussions. People don’t use the power they have because they are afraid. And they are afraid for a good reason… because they have to bring home a paycheck. They need to pay their mortgage… they need to put food on the table. So we are all held hostage by that. But when a person does break that mold, it’s so refreshing. I’ve kept my mouth shut plenty of times to keep my job. The older I get, the more I speak up because I realize we are all being held hostage. We have so much power and we aren’t using it. We are all afraid. I find it amazing that people don’t know what their power is. If we rose up we could transform this country in no time.
The next day, Rick Knapp, who was the director of CalTrans District 1 was very upset by that action and announced that they were suspending all roadside spraying in Mendocino County because they were afraid that somebody was going to get killed… and they haven’t sprayed since. I found out later that it is more expensive for them to spray than to mow anyway.
In 1999 our son Bret asked us to help him start a brew pub. He had helped start 2 others and now wanted to do his own, so our family got together and made a plan. We wanted a brew pub in either Ukiah or Willits, it had to have a lot of wood and a lot of green. I added that it had to be organic or I wouldn’t do it. Bret said we couldn’t do it organically because there wasn’t any organic malt. But by the time we opened there was. And we became the first certified organic brewpub in the U.S.
We got in touch with the West Company, read Small Time Operator, went to the EDFC for a loan, and another from the Small Business Administration, got all our licenses. Then we had to get all the permits and start remodeling. It was a tremendous amount of work and frustration. We were certified organic by CCOF. The Ukiah City Planning department had a bet going that we’d be out of business within a year. Ukiah Brewing Co. & Restaurant opened 18 months later. I found a bar that had been in the Palace Hotel. Most liked the design and cozy ambiance. We had to learn on the job. We started out with a way-too-complicated menu, way too many dishes. We eventually had to slash the menu, get rid of dinner, and just serve pub fare. And we finally started making a profit.
Eighty percent of independent restaurants close during the first year, and the remaining restaurants will have an average five-year life span. Running a restaurant is an incredible amount of work. I “broke down” a total of 54 organic beef carcasses. When we first started, we had to make our own organic mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard because they weren’t available yet. It requires a lot of dedication. You hardly get any time off, especially mentally. We survived and flourished for almost 12 years, but it wasn’t easy. It was an incredible experience and it was great working with our kids. We must have done something right. Would I do it again? No. And after 12 years it was time to let go, so we sold.
It was 2001 while lamenting the GMO food coming into our grocery stores and the local Co-op without being labeled as such that the idea for the best way to stop GMOs was, as I said, “… just to outlaw the damn things.” And that’s exactly what we did. Janie Sheppard, Ron Epstein and I put together a County Ordinance, Measure H, and was passed by citizen’s initiative on March 2, 2004, making Mendocino County the first jurisdiction in the United States to ban the cultivation and production of genetically modified organisms. Our group, “GMO FREE MENDOCINO” was a grassroots effort by local farmers and environmental groups, and was opposed by the largest food distributors and chemical companies in the nation: Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical, among others.
We wanted this to be a people’s action that we all owned. We recruited 8 leaders throughout the county who knew their area. They were willing to gather signatures, advertise for their own area, and get people to the polls. That model empowers people. There is no hierarchy, no command center. We were coordinators between the areas, but each area did their own thing.
We wanted this to be a positive campaign, not a negative campaign, which is difficult for some people to grasp… because what some people want to do is respond to attacks. As soon as you start doing that you are allowing others to frame the issue and you are just responding in kind. We wanted to talk about the positive aspects of being GMO Free. Any time you put an initiative on the ballot, the vote has to be “Yes.” That’s the only way you get an initiative passed. So we didn’t want people starting to say “No on GMOs.” That’s a dead end. Our slogan was “Vote Yes for a GMO Free Mendocino.” That has a much lighter and brighter feel to it. There is a future in that. There were all kinds of negative accusations from the BioTech Industry, and we were being told by some on our side that we just had to respond to them. But we never did. We stayed positive and it made a difference.
In December 2003, we hired Doug Mosel to coordinate the campaign and he did an outstanding job. I became more of a spokesperson. We were getting an incredible amount of attention from all over the world. It was a harrowing schedule, and it was fun. A lot of people took part in the campaign. Among others. our core group also included Allen who was treasurer; Laura Hamburg was our Media Advisor: Sid Cooperider did all our advertising and computer work. Steve Scalmanini was our Secretary. Our fundraiser was Katrina Frey. She was so wonderful and so good at it, raising over $145,000. That was the most money raised by any campaign of any kind in Mendocino County. Monsanto and their buddies from outside the county poured $700,000 to fight it. We won with 57% of the vote and a lot of our citizens were educated about GMOs.
As Jim Hightower quoted me, “They had the money, we had the people.”