Labor tops dairy concerns: Local farmers tell Rep. Welch their frustrations with federal policy

MIDDLEBURY — Congressman Peter Welch arrived in Middlebury last Thursday ready to hear county dairy farmers’ ideas for improving the next farm bill — in particular ways to fix the current farm bill’s underperforming program to help the dairy farmers survive plunging milk prices.
But the price of milk and the Margin Protection Program’s failure to help Vermont’s dairies wasn’t at the top of anyone’s talking points.
Instead, farmers assembled at the UVM Extension offices shared with the Vermont Democrat other, more pressing concerns about federal farm policy.
Top of the list: farm labor.
The first and most pressing issue raised by the farmers was the threat to foreign-born dairy workers from President Trump’s far more aggressive approach to immigration policy. Most of these workers are undocumented, and federal immigration policy provides no legal pathway for foreign workers that meets the long-term, 365-days-a-year needs of Vermont dairies. And barn work no longer interests local workers.
“The Mexican workers are here because there’s a void,” said Brian Kemp, who manages Mountain Meadows farm and is president of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition. “American workers don’t want to milk cows.”
A lot of farms could only last three days to a month without these workers, offered Kristin Quesnel, whose family runs Perry Brook Farm in Shoreham.
The assembled farmers praised the Hispanic work force as knowledgeable and hard working.
“They are some of our most valuable workers ever,” said Phil Livingston, who farms in New Haven. “These guys have worked here a long time, and they know as much about managing dairy cows as some of us do because they’ve just invested so much of their time and energy. They’re smart individuals and they’re very invested in their jobs and they’re —”
“They’re proud,” said Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport.
Livingston continued, “They’re as proud of putting out quality milk as we are, and they know how to work.”
Farmers also commented on how much of the migrants’ income gets sent home to their families in Mexico. University of Vermont researcher Dan Baker has found that most send more than half their wages home to support their families.
For many local farmers of French-Canadian heritage, the concerns of a migrant/immigrant labor force, the risks and rewards of having to go elsewhere to seek better opportunity, still hit very close to home.
Farmers expressed concerns that workers can’t travel back and forth to see their families, without threat, and, with the increasing pressure of possible deportation, are living with constant dread and anxiety.
“I wish Donald Trump could have been in that room with me to hear those farmers describe their Mexican labor,” Rep. Welch said in a follow-up interview with the Independent.
Thursday’s conversation, said Welch, “redoubles my energy to advocate for immigration reform.”
Welch said the farmers “made it loud and clear” that they’re “extremely threatened by an overreach against migrant labor … They very clearly stated this whole immigration crackdown is creating an enormous amount of anxiety on the farm for the farmer and also for the Mexican labor.”
But even more moving, said Welch, was the human dimension to the current anxiety around farm labor.
“Very powerful to me just on a human level was the concern that these farmers have about the well-being of the folks who work on their farms.
“They’re noticing the lives of the people who are milking their cows. And those lives are filled with integrity and honor and commitment to family. It’s obviously hard for a father to be away from his wife and his children. And the farmers see it.
“They weren’t emphasizing the inconvenience and the threat to them. They really were considering on a very human level about how hard it is for these guys who are working so hard to be constantly looking over their shoulder wondering if they’re going to get picked up.
“And you just wish in my job that some of the people who are so aggressive on this across-the-board, sweep-’em-up dragnet, could have a chance to see what our farmers in Addison County see: that it’s good people, working hard, wanting to get ahead.”
Next in importance to farmers was water quality.
Farmers and others in related professions at the meeting stated unequivocally their commitment to Lake Champlain cleanup and to following through on the state-mandated farming practice required by Vermont’s 2015 Clean Water Act.
But what farmers wanted the Congressman to understand was both the importance of federal funding to lake cleanup and the ways that federal regulations can get in the way of farmers using federal funding effectively.
Many of the changes in agricultural practice and infrastructure needed to keep phosphorus out of the lake are expensive — sometimes running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, they said. And while all of these changes take a hit on a farm’s bottom line, many don’t add a penny to a farmer’s pocket.
Farmers also discussed how criteria for funding through many of the federal ag programs — especially specifics for implementation — are too restrictive. Rather than specifying how a farmer needs to solve a problem (down to the stones in a grassed waterway), why not specify the required result and let each farm parse the specifics depending on its own terrain and circumstances? This, the farmers suggested, would be a better use of federal dollars and make federal ag spending more efficient and more effective.
“We need more flexibility,” said Jonathan Chamberlin of Bourdeau Brothers in Middlebury.
“The focus should be on the end result, which is no erosion,” said Audet.
Another water quality-related concern was funding cuts to the UVM Extension program and the need for more staffing at the Vermont Natural Resources Conservation Services office, both of which provide important technical assistance to farmers.
Other concerns raised at the Thursday forum included how estate taxes affect farm succession and the importance of export markets to the dairy industry.
Welch seemed to genuinely appreciate the input from the farmers and laterdescribed what he heard as “powerful Vermont stories.”
Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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