Feds could ICE-out dairy economy: Deporting workers would ‘devastate’ farms

ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont dairy farmers and farmworkers are in an increased state of alert as federal immigration authorities begin enforcing President Trump’s immigration policies. What the White House described as taking “the shackles off” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (known as ICE) and other agencies has resulted in shifts in policy that more aggressively target deportation of foreign workers — including farmworkers who have overstated their visas.
What would happen if migrant farmworkers weren’t here to milk cows, or feed them or clean out their barns?
From a purely dollars-and-cents perspective, it would have a huge impact on an industry that is a huge driver of the economy of Vermont and — to an even greater extent — Addison County.
“One of the challenges today and why everybody is so concerned is that were there to be either a mass deportation of workers or what might be more likely a mass exodus of workers where they feel threatened and they feel they need to move — that would be devastating to our farm economy statewide and in Addison County,” said Dan Baker, a University of Vermont professor in Community Development and Applied Economics.
For farmers on the state’s 868 dairy farms, this Hispanic workforce is irreplaceable.
“They keep the farms going,” said Bridport dairy farmer Cheryl Connor. “If we didn’t have migrant workers, we wouldn’t have dairy farms.”
Dairy cows bring more than just pastoral beauty to the Vermont landscape.
Dairy pumps an estimated $2.2 billion into the state’s economy every year — $1.3 billion directly from agriculture products (milk, cheeses and other by-products), $360 million in wages, and the rest in the multiplying affect of the dairy industry — everything from vet bills and grocery purchases to impacts on real estate and state tourism.
Dairy creates an estimated 6,000-7,000 jobs in Vermont and provides around $360 million in wages. Indeed, only two other industries surpass or equal dairy as an employer: grocery stores and computer/electronics manufacturing.
Over half the milk produced in New England — 63 percent — comes from Vermont.
Dairy occupies 15 percent of the state’s landmass at 900,000 acres.
And, in many ways, this vital and iconic industry rests quite literally in the arms of migrant workers.
Most of our dairy farmworkers are from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state near the border with Guatemala, Baker said.
Most send over half of their wages home to support family in Mexico and build toward a better life when they return.
Most are undocumented.
“Our estimate is that about 90 percent of hired workers in Vermont’s dairy industry are immigrant workers,” said Will Lambek, an organizer with the advocacy group Migrant Justice. “That doesn’t mean that all of them are undocumented, but the majority are. That’s our count from our years of working with dairy farms.”
Baker explained that the shift to the migrant, Hispanic workforce began about 15 years ago in response to an ongoing shortage of farm labor.
Local workers, said Connor, “love running equipment,” but don’t want to work in the barn milking cows, keeping them fed, shoveling manure.
While dairy farmers are all too aware of the importance of this migrant labor force, the state’s migrant dairy workers are equally important to non-farmers.
They provide the lifeblood of an industry that is near synonymous with the state’s landscape and central to the economic vitality of local communities.
Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in Addison County, which by the numbers is the state’s dairy leader.
Addison County is the state’s top county for all agricultural sales combined: $191 million a year, (others range from $12 million for Essex County to $190 million annually for Franklin County).
Addison County is the state’s top county for number of farms of all types and for acres in agriculture.
Addison County is also the state’s leader in milk sales — $132.1 million a year — and accounts for 26.2 percent of the state’s $504.9 million in annual milk sales.
(Franklin is a close second at $132.0 million a year in milk sales. Orleans is third with $77.5 million).
Though the leader in milk sales, Addison County is in third place for number of dairy farms, specifically, having 124 (first and second place go to Franklin (184) and Orleans (131), respectively.
Those 124 farms house 32,498 dairy cows (24 percent of the state’s 134,132 dairy cows), making Addison County a close second to Franklin County (35,736) in its size of herd.
Those 32,498 cows provide one easy handle on the value of dairy to Addison County’s economy.
In a 2014 study from the Agency of Commerce, analyst Kenneth Jones estimated that each Vermont dairy cow provides the equivalent of $12,500 in economic activity.
Using the 2015 herd size of 32,498 dairy cows, Addison County’s Holsteins, Jerseys and assorted dairy bovine bring the local economy an estimated $406,225,000 a year, from the combined impact of value of products sold, impacts of wages and profits as spent in the local economy, and wider benefits to tourism, real estate, etc.
Ag officials don’t have exact numbers for the current picture, but one researcher said the number of dairy farms in Addison County has dropped 5 percent to 118 today. That implies the economic benefit of dairy in Addison County is currently $385,913,750 a year (see a broader explanation in this story on addisonindependent.com).
ICE’s increased deportation activity has been seen across the country, including here.
Just last week in Burlington, Grand Isle dairy worker Cesar Alex Carrillo was arrested outside the Chittenden County courthouse en route to a hearing related to a 2016 DUI arrest. The hearing proceeded without Carrillo and charges were dismissed. However, Carrillo (who is married to a Vermont resident, has a young child and a baby on the way) is now in ICE custody in a New Hampshire detention facility facing deportation proceedings.
In a joint statement issued Tuesday, the Vermont Congressional delegation decried this and related arrests. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch said that they are “reaching out to ICE about the potential impact in Vermont of President Trump’s executive order calling for increased immigration enforcement.
“Instead of focusing on removing those people who pose a threat to public safety or national security, the Trump Administration is targeting all undocumented persons, including the people that help keep our dairy farms and rural economy afloat.”
While UVM’s Baker sees a big downside to the loss of Mexican farm laborers, he offers a caveat, emphasizing the resiliency of the state’s farmers.
“It would throw our farms into a crisis. I believe that our farmers are resilient and they will adapt,” Baker said. “But it will be extremely stressful and extremely difficult and some won’t be able to survive. But I do believe our farm economy will survive.”
Open Door Clinic Outreach Nurse and Nurse Case Manager Julia Doucet said that local farmworkers are reporting increased levels of stress and anxiety and are increasingly reluctant to leave the farm for groceries or other errands. The clinic has begun a new study documenting how the current climate is affecting workers overall. They’ve also begun teaching key English phrases such as “I would like to remain silent” and “I would like to call my lawyer.”
Just back from a visit to a local dairy farm, Doucet also emphasized that the cost to Addison County goes far beyond dollars.
“One of the farmers today said, ‘You know, what scares me the most is that they’re going to come and take these guys away.’ He said, ‘It’s not because my farm would stop dead in its tracks. It’s not because I would be losing income out my eyeballs. But because I care about these guys. They’ve been on my farm for three years, and they feel like family. And I’m terrified of losing my family.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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