Dairy farms face labor struggle; foreign works pose unique challenges

MIDDLEBURY — The Dec. 2 visit to Middlebury from the Mexican consulate in Boston gave Mexicans laboring on Addison County farms an opportunity to get important documents, get informed about legal rights, exchange ideas and experiences, and access various kinds of support.
It also brought area farmers together with Consul General Emilio Rabasa to hear the farmer side of the equation.
Chief among dairy farmer concerns? The continued lack of federal immigration policy that supports the labor needs of dairy farms.
“It doesn’t look like there’s anything in the future. So what are the farmers supposed to do?” said meeting organizer Cheryl Connor, a Bridport organic dairy farmer.
While the roundtable itself was closed to journalists, Connor, who facilitated the meeting, followed up with the Independent to share local farmers’ concerns about their labor force. Along with the farmers, Rabasa and Connor, Vermont Farm Bureau President Joe Tisbert was also at the meeting.
Last month Connor was appointed chair of the Vermont Farm Bureau’s immigration committee. She said the Middlebury meeting was the first of a series of gatherings she plans to hold with farmers around the state on immigration and farm labor issues.
Connor said that dairy farmers are frustrated and discouraged by the lack of legal pathway to support foreign workers, mostly from Mexico and other Central American countries, who for the past 15 or so years have supplied a large part of the labor force powering Vermont’s estimated $2.2 billion dairy economy. According to estimates from Boston’s Mexican consulate, about 1,500 Mexican workers are in Vermont, toiling mostly on farms.
In 2013, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was instrumental in getting comprehensive immigration reform legislation passed in the U.S. Senate.
“Us farmers thought, ‘This is it. This is going to be it.’ It was good. There was a blue card option for citizenship after a period of time. It seemed to answer all the problems that we had been questioning. But it just didn’t get out,” Connor said.
Instead that legislation was blocked in the House of Representatives. Since then immigration issues have languished in what Leahy staffers have described as a “toxic environment.”
Connor said that at the roundtable discussions with Rabasa, farmers also voiced other concerns about their work force.
“What the committee felt and farmers felt was that overall the Mexican workers are a good and necessary work force but there were some problems that were identified: no show for work, they just didn’t show up; some problems with drinking and drug use,” she said.
Language also continues to be a challenge for farmers and workers alike, especially on small and medium-size farms, Connor said. Large farms can hire bilingual managers who can speak directly to the workers. Small and medium farmers find themselves using phone apps like iTranslate.
Some farmers told Rabasa that they are experiencing high turnover, said Connor. Some workers stay at a farm for years, others leave after a week. The impact is especially adverse on smaller farms.
“If the work force doesn’t show up, you have animals that still need to be milked,” Connor said. “It’s not like you have other people you can pull in and you’re going to work a double shift. A lot of the smaller farmers that were at this meeting don’t have any other work force. So that’s part of the problem.”
Farmers are also concerned about transporters, informally called “coyotes,” who charge workers to move them from farm to farm.
Asked if high turnover could be correlated to poor pay, work environment or living conditions, Connor said that she couldn’t speak to conditions on individual farms. Asked if the wage, work and housing standards recently negotiated with Ben and Jerry’s would have an impact locally, she said that the agreement affects only farmers in the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery (which supplies Ben & Jerry’s), but most Addison County farmers sell to the Agri-Mark/Cabot cooperative or, if they’re organic, to Horizon or Organic Valley.
One idea broached at the meeting would be to create an Addison County referral program for workers. Connor said that a group was already forming to put this idea into effect.
Some farmers are turning to robotic milkers. And directly after Rabasa spoke with area farmers, he toured the Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury and saw a huge new barn, being built around a robotic milking parlor. This change, once fully in place, will cut the dairy’s migrant labor force by half to three-fourths.
“This is sort of going to be the trend I see for Vermont farmers who have the capability of putting robotics in place because of the insecurity of the work force,” Connor said. “Farmers are going to the robotics. With no immigration policy in the future that we can see right now, you might see more farmers going to robotics if they can afford them. I don’t know if that’s the answer, but it looks like that may be what farmers are going to be doing.”
Some farmers also expressed the belief that robotic milkers might perform vital tasks to a more reliable standard. Connor gave the example of a cow with mastitis.
“Farmers are finding that the robotics are going to milk the same way all the time. They’re going to tell us if there’s any problems, like this cow has mastitis. Check this cow; her front right quarter is infected. Some workers don’t tell you.”
And that can have serious consequences.
“If you have a cow with mastitis, you might lose her,” Connor continued. “She was milked. But you’re still going to lose her because there was something that wasn’t identified.”
Whether more farmers convert to robotics, Vermont’s migrant work force will continue to be vital to the state’s farms, Connor summed up:
“They still are important, because these workers are still the people who are going to help the farmer.”
Connor also said that between dairy’s labor problems and the drop in prices for both conventional and organic milk, small farms will continue to be in peril.
“I think farmers are going to go out by the droves if the price of milk doesn’t go up,” she said. “The only ones that are going to be left are the large farms.”
Indeed Farm to Plate data shows that statewide, the number of dairy farms continues to decline. This is true specifically for Addison County as well, which is also seeing an increase in the number of farms that are non-dairy.
Connor said that she believes the Farm Bureau can help address dairy’s labor concerns as it reaches out to farmers around the state.
“We’re trying to do the best we can for the work force and for the farmer,” she said of the Farm Bureau initiative. “We want to keep both groups happy. We want to make sure the work force is kept happy and healthy. And we want to keep this dairy industry in the state of Vermont.”

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