In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, dairying in New England was in crisis. Small farms were faced with a lack of demand for agricultural labor, according to Vermont Representative Peter Conlon, 53. Conlon, who was born and raised in Vermont, worked as a dairy labor specialist for ten years with Agri-Placement, a company that offers employee placement and support services for dairy farms.
“Americans have, by and large, walked away from doing this kind of job,” Conlon said. This has played out on many farms throughout New England and into the twenty-first century.
“It used to be that there was always somebody knockin’ on the door for a job — always, I mean constantly,” said Marie Audet, who owns Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport with her husband, Eugene. She manages the office side of the business — no small feat for a farm of over 700 mature dairy animals, categorized as a large farm operation in Vermont. Eugene, a “herdsman,” works daily with the cows.
Other members of her family occupy many different roles of the operation. Her nephew is a mechanic and works with tractors, her sister-in-law runs a day care for the children on the farm, and her son works with the baby cows.
“People just don’t stop in like they used to looking for work — it’s not happening,” Ms. Audet said. Her office walls are covered from floor to ceiling in framed photographs from years of cow show competitions. There are 29 employees in total at Blue Spruce Farm — nine of whom are part of the Audet family, although Marie tends to say that “it’s not a big farm; it’s a big family.”
“I think that’s important to know because you probably come here and see a large farm,” Ms. Audet said. “This [operation] was two people — and now there are 20 of us. We’re four generations. We want to continue working together but we need the business to be big enough to support all of our families.”
As domestic demand for farming jobs dwindled, small family farm owners — like the Audets — were left searching for help, says Conlon. Will Lambek, spokesperson and staff member of Migrant Justice (Justicia Migrante), a local human rights and food justice advocacy organization, contends that the dairy industry has been in severe distress for a long time now. U.S. dairy prices are tied to the global commodity market for dairy, which has meant wild fluctuations in prices that are based on world supply and demand. When milk prices drop below production costs, small businesses struggle to stay afloat and are often bought up by larger farms.
Over the past 50 years, this consolidation has caused the number of dairy farms in Vermont to decline significantly, from 11,000 in 1947 to 858 in 2015, according to an article published on Dec. 8 in Vermont’s Seven Days.
“Family farms have closed and larger, neighboring farms have had to buy them up,” Lambek said. “Because these larger farms can no longer sustain their business with just family employees. They need to look elsewhere to hire workers but they don’t have the capital to invest in dignified livable wages.”
According to Lambek, at the same time that global market forces and lack of domestic demand for agricultural labor were putting pressure on dairying in the U.S., forces of neoliberalism opened up the Mexican economy.
“Hundreds of thousands of rural Mexicans have been forced off of their land and then forced to emigrate to the U.S. to look for work,” Lambek said.
Word began to spread informally through the immigrant community, bringing a population of people, largely from Mexico, but also from other Latin American countries, to the Northeast, who were willing to supply labor. Tim Howlett, owner of Champlainside Farm in Bridport, has experienced this sort of network within the migrant community.
“These guys are really good,” Howlett said. “When they go home they usually give two months notice and they sometimes will say, ‘Hey, I know a guy looking for a job.’ If they can vouch for whoever is coming in, we say okay.”
“I’m here por la necesidad — out of necessity,” said Fide, 29, who has worked on a dairy farm in Addison County for seven years. “There are few jobs in my town and you can’t make a lot of money.” At one point, Fide returned home to Oaxaca, México, to work a job that earned him less than 25 cents an hour.
It was at this intersection of pressure and stress on dairying that the Audets began using Agri-Placement as an intermediary to find and vet workers. Supported and contracted through employment services, migrant laborers are crucial to the success of the entire dairy industry in Vermont.
“I want to say that in Vermont, the average person probably does understand how important immigrant workers are to dairy,” Howlett said. “I think that in the greater world where people can go weeks without even seeing a cow, they might not think twice about it. The milk is just in the store and that’s the way it works.”
Supply and demand for Vermont’s labor force still exists globally. The flow of migrant workers to the state does not seem to be slowing despite national xenophobia towards immigrants. But with increasing immigration enforcement at the federal level, the arrangement is being increasingly stressed.
“At the moment there is still a workforce, but that’s really being put at risk and there’s no substitute right now. There’s no clear alternative,” Lambek said.
Following the death of 18-year-old José Obeth Santiz Cruz, from Chiapas, México, on a farm in Franklin County in 2009, immigrant farmworkers organized to create Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante.
“His death was an unnecessary death that could have been prevented by proper training and acted as a catalyst for immigrant farmworkers to come together,” Lambek said.
Surveys of more than 200 dairy workers across the state found systemic and abusive violations of human rights. Workers were almost entirely left out of the picture of Vermont’s dairy industry.
“They wouldn’t leave their farms for months at a time because housing was on site,” Lambek said. Immigrants were working seven days a week with no days off, no sufficient breaks for meals or sleep, averaging 60 to 80 hours a week, and returning to unlivable, isolated and overcrowded housing.
According to Fide, Migrant Justice has helped friends and coworkers get access to driver’s licenses, better pay, and housing despite their immigration status. “Here in this state, I know that there are organizations like Migrant Justice that can help many people,” Fide said.
He wants people to know that there are ways to get help and improved working conditions.
Although Ernesto and Jesús, two migrant farmworkers, may have the option to take occasional breaks during the workday or a full day off, they generally choose not to. And what would be the point? They are both here to earn money to support their families at home, not to build a permanent life in the U.S.
“I can speak for every immigrant here,” Jesús said. “No one is here on vacation. No one is here for any reason other than to work.”
And, Jesús reminds me, glancing down at his tall, mud-encrusted rubber boots, “Somebody has to do the dirty work so that milk cartons end up on grocery store shelves.”
Will Lambek believes that an incident in Franklin County last August between local police, ICE, and the two Mexican farmworkers was a clear instance of discrimination and in violation of the Fair and Impartial Policing (FIP) policy in place at the time. Despite this violation, the policy as a whole was very strong. According to Lambek, new changes to the FIP proposed by the Trump administration may create new loopholes that will make it easier for local law enforcement to justify collaborating with federal law enforcement.
In 2014, President Barack Obama ended the “Secure Communities” program, which upheld the random deportation of taxpaying, contributing community members who came to the U.S. illegally. Under the program, simple traffic violations were often catalysts for deportations. That same year, following the termination of “Secure Communities,” the Department of Homeland Security set guidelines intended to prioritize the deportation of people who are “threats to national security and public safety.”
In Vermont, the FIP was put into place to prevent police discrimination and profiling. Proposed changes would remove many protections for undocumented immigrants from the 2016 policy. They would allow local police to inform federal immigration authority — particularly active in Vermont because it is a border state — if they discover that victims or witnesses of a crime do not have legal documentation. Additionally, the new policy would allow police officers operating near the Canadian border to contact federal immigration authorities if they suspect someone has crossed into the U.S. illegally.
But Lambek and other activists returned from a hearing held on Jan. 24 feeling hopeful. The Committee on Governmental Operations said that it would consider legislation to push back the implementation date of the proposed changes to the FIP, saying that they would rather get it done right than get it done on time.
The isolation of undocumented workers is only furthered by fear and worry about the possibility of detention or deportation.
“I do get nervous when I go out, if I’m in a store or something and I see an ICE agent or something, I’ll try to leave pretty quickly and just come back here,” Fide said. “When I hear about people getting deported or arrested, I just hope it doesn’t happen to me. I think to myself, okay one more year and I’ll be able to finally go back home.”
For Ernesto, though, these worries have not increased noticeably under the new administration. Life in Addison County is “igúal.”
“It’s the same as it was before the new president,” he said. “I didn’t leave [the house] then and nothing has changed. Maybe it’s different for people who live in the cities. But not for me.”
“It does feel different now,” Jesús said, disagreeing with his coworker. “Maybe Americans haven’t felt much of a difference or had a change of heart, but immigrants have.”
Jesús continued: “There is more fear now. There has always been fear. We are illegals. We were illegals before and we still are. Whether we have a racist president or not, the fear was always present. But now we are more scared.”
In this state, losses of protection for undocumented immigrants, increased ICE activity, and collaboration with local law enforcement are changes that pose concrete threats to migrant workers, farm owners and Vermonters alike.
“The threat to their workforce is causing farm owners stress. When you look at organizations like the Vermont Farm Bureau and other lobbies, immigration is something that people are paying close attention to,” Lambek said.
But he qualifies that there are many different responses inside that framework. “Many farm owners voted for Trump,” he said. “They believe that undocumented immigrants should be sent out of the U.S. but they also want to protect their workforce. Political schizophrenia exists widely. People hold these contradictory opinions at the same time.”
Though some farmer owners align with Migrant Justice’s stance that a pathway to citizenship is needed, there are others who, according to Lambek, are hoping for an expansion of the H-2A visa program — a temporary form of documentation for seasonal workers. But dairying is a year-round industry.
“Temporary workers statuses tie people’s immigration status to them, which opens the door for abuse and exploitation. Migrant justice opposes any immigration bill that ties people’s specific employment to their immigration status,” Lambek said.
“One thing I want to say is there are a lot of people who come here to work,” Fide said. “There aren’t many opportunities to work where I come from and the jobs that exist don’t pay enough. We come here to work but we respect the law. This is not our country, so we know to respect the law. I think that it is really important for people to be able to get permits or visas to be able to come here and work. It is so important. Those who come here to stay are few. We come here to work and make money to support our families and then we go home.”
As turbulent as the situation for dairying and migrant workers appears to be, farmers and workers continue to wake up in the early hours of the morning to make the whole operation run.
“The day we take a break is the day the cow stops making milk,” Jesús said.
But early in the morning of Jan. 18, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement conducted a raid at a Days Inn Motel in Colchester, Vermont. This raid was the first of its kind in the state. Fourteen workers were detained and could be deported. The raid took place without any additions to immigration enforcement budgets. With an increase in funds and agents, such as what the Trump administration is proposing, ICE would have the power to undertake many more similar sweeps across the state.