Letter to the editor: A look at migrant workers through a climate prism

Surely every Vermonter sympathizes with the plight of migrant farm workers, who are far from home, away from family, navigating a foreign language, working 64 hours/week for $7.75/hour and living in substandard housing. But as to “playing a vital role in the health of the state’s agricultural industry” let’s put sympathy momentarily aside and have a cold, hard look at an underlying problem. 

First, the FMMO price for milk in November 2023 for farms in New England was +/- $26/cwt, which is a hair’s breadth above cost for farms milking over 1,500 cows — about a quarter of the +/-600 dairies we have left — and well below cost for the other 475. So, with or without migrant workers, the vast majority of Vermont’s dairy farmers are losing money.  

Second, “agriculture” — which in Vermont predominantly means conventional dairy — is the largest contributor to lake pollution in the state (45%), the third largest contributor to Vermont’s GHG emissions (16%) and by far the largest emitter of GHG in Addison County (55%). In spite of a steady stream of denials issuing from the agency of agriculture and their apologists at state, these figures have not changed materially for decades. In fact, the GHG emission numbers are growing steadily.

Third, in 1938, the United States enacted The Fair Labor Standards Act which provides that nonexempt workers are entitled to a minimum wage of not less than $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009. Overtime pay at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay is required after 40 hours of work in a week. 

There is plenty of criticism aimed at this ancient law, most of it insisting that $7.25/hour is not enough for anyone to live a decent life in the United States of America. Notwithstanding, the FLSA explicitly exempts farm laborers, and that means that migrants working on Vermont dairy farms, who are obliged to work 40/hours/week for $7.75, must work 20 additional hours, or 50% more, for the same minimum wage. The government provides a number of impenetrable reasons for exempting farm labor but the real reason is painfully simple: farm laborers are BIPOC, and exploiting them is rooted in racism. 

Vermont is a state that prides itself on its environmental conscience and its fairness to all. But in permitting dairy farmers to exploit undocumented migrants, especially when the justification is that they are “playing a vital role in the health of the state’s agricultural industry,” implicates all Vermonters in a crime. And since the government has permitted the exploitation of BIPOC on farms for centuries, we are all complicit.

There is hope that this system may be nearing its ugly end. In 2022 the Vermont legislature enacted the Global Warming Solutions Act, which mandates that Vermont — and that includes dairy — reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025; to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050. These are extremely stringent targets and the GWSA mandates that in order to meet them it will be necessary for all — and all includes dairy farmers — to dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels. As surely everyone knows, conventional dairy is wholly dependent upon artificial nitrogen and phosphorus-rich fertilizer derived from fossil fuel; wholly dependent upon imported grain, which is grown with fossil fuel fertilizer and fossil fuel herbicides; wholly dependent upon the housing of more than one cow for every three acres under management on which that cow’s feed is harvested and her manure is spread; and wholly dependent upon migrant workers. But the GWSA and conventional dairy farming are contra-indicated: Vermont dairy cannot both continue doing business as usual and comply with the law. And without its prodigious dependence on fossil fuel, Vermont conventional dairy farms would be forced to dramatically downsize. And yet, as of this writing the secretary of agriculture has not promulgated rules to help dairy farmers adapt to the law. 

So, if you are upset by the plight of BIPOC migrant farm workers, call your representative and insist— insist— that farmers meet their obligations under the Global Warming Solutions Act.

James H. Maroney, Jr.


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