SHADOW LABOR: Migrant Workers on Vermont’s Dairy Farms

By Chris W.

In southern Mexico, in rural states like Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, vast numbers of farmers are being driven off of their land. The community life that has sustained Mexican campesinos for hundreds of years is being demolished by an invading economic system. The economy and culture of these rural communities is centered around the small scale cultivation of corn and other traditional agricultural products. But now the globalization and industrialization of agriculture has undercut this livelihood. These economic forces are conspiring to make it impossible for these farmers to continue existing as they have lived for so many years. With industrially farmed and government subsidized corn from the heartland of the United States now pushing local corn out of marketplaces, the price that rural Mexican farmers get for their corn is far below the cost to produce it. The policies of the US and Mexican governments have unanimously favored the profit-making of the largest trans-national agricultural companies, leaving little room for farmers at the bottom. With no access to the money needed for fertilizers and farm machinery that would improve yield, and living on marginally productive agricultural land, the only options are either emigration or collective resistance. Most find themselves forced to take the first option.

In the northeastern United States, in the rural state of Vermont, a similar process is taking place. Villages that have revolved around the life of the dairy farmer for decades are facing the disappearance of the way of life that has been the basis for these communities. Farmers are being forced to abandon their land, leaving fading pastures and fallen-in barns. Most who remain on the land do so only with the support of a spouse who has taken a service industry job in town. Industrial methods of agricultural production replaced human labor with oil and mechanics, leaving dairy production viable only to those who now find themselves forever indebted to global financial institutions after requiring huge resources of capital to invest in a system that pushes never ending growth, modernization, and industrialization . Chemical and technical advances (like factory farms) have nearly doubled the amount of milk produced by one American cow since 1970, from 9,700 pounds per year to 19,000 pounds per year. Economic liberalization policies have prevented state support of the industry, with the Northeast Dairy Compact, which provided guaranteed prices for farmers, being eliminated in 2001. The process of discarding human labor from dairying and of relentlessly increasing the production efficiency, combined with governmental policies that favor the interests of transnational dairy titans and price fixing by dairy monopolies, has resulted in a decades long decline in milk prices. There is now no feasible way for a dairy farmer in Vermont to turn a profit on milk within the economic system that is being pushed on them. The very geography of the region – forested, hilly and rocky with scattered villages – prevents farmers from expanding into the gigantic herds that farmers in the flat and open Midwestern US or in the Central Valley of California rely on to squeeze a profit from their economy of scale. Where there were once 11,000 dairy farms in Vermont in 1950, their numbers have declined in 55 of the past 60 years to a precarious 1,000 farms in 2010.

In the past few years, the wave of migration coming from Mexican farms has reached the few remaining dairy farms of Vermont. With many driven into poverty themselves by transnational agricultural corporations, Vermont dairy farmers find it necessary to cut their labor costs as much as possible and about half end up engaging the labor of migrant workers, whose low wages are guaranteed by the illegalization of their status. It is estimated that there are now 1,200-1,500 migrant workers in Vermont.

The stories that these new arrivals tell of the situation that forced them to leave their homes is an echo of what their new bosses, Vermont dairy farmers, have been experiencing.

Well, what the family does for work is farmwork; we plant corn and do all kinds of farmwork. In fact, it hasn’t gone well over there in Mexico, because the government comes in, another government comes in, and they change things, and they raise prices on things, and the corn is worth less, and the truth is that it’s not worth the effort of planting, ’cause you end up the same as you started. Well, what happens is that the chemicals are too expensive, and then the corn isn’t worth much, and then what the government does is raise the prices on products, the chemicals, fertilizer, and all that, and then the price of corn stays the same. And the farmers are always losing money, and they tell, they always tell us, there’s going to be a change; in fact, it’s the same old story.

Yes, most of us are here because other families are getting ahead because they have a little machinery to work the land and…. Before we had to – with animals, with all that. Well, previously our great-grandparents. Now it’s changing, because a lot of us are coming here so our families can plant, buy a little machinery like tractors and some machinery to grind sorghum and corn so we can help ourselves more.

Not now, but, we’re changing things now. Now that we’re buying a little machinery so that, well, we can get ahead with our own hands because the reality is that the government hasn’t, well, supported us. It probably supports other people, but, in any case, when support comes it’s not good enough for all. Most of us then, well, we came to this country to get to work hard, ’cause things have been changing now. Our family is planning to buy a little tractor, even if it’s just a cheap one, to get ahead and cultivate our own land.

Well my family has a few big parcels of land, but, I don’t have any yet. It’s my family who has them, but, you know, sometimes they say, “Go ahead and plant them” because everything is too expensive, and you can’t do much in Mexico.

While farmers in Chiapas and farmers in Vermont may find themselves in similar relationships to global capital and industrial agriculture, when migrants come north they find themselves trapped in a new set of exploitative relationships. Migrant workers are deprived of land, of community, of self-sufficiency and of legal status. They have a minimum of power in the workplace and thus bear the brunt of the dairy farmers’ financial troubles in the US’s ‘trickle up’ economic system. Besides being some of the worst paid workers in the state, migrant farmworkers are sometimes denied any pay at all. This worker recounts his experience with a farmer who withheld wages for nine months:

The problem started last December, in 2009. They took a lot of time, many months. Two months, they didn’t do anything to pay us. They wouldn’t pay us, they wouldn’t explain why they wouldn’t pay us, so we started to became a little bit desperate. At that point, in order for them to pay us, we had to stop working. We didn’t go to work, but even then they didn’t pay us all of it. They just payed us part of it, not even half of what they owed us. We didn’t like this at all.

The farm in question, Mack Farm in Charlotte, became the subject of a strike this month when the three workers then at the farm walked out in protest of Robert and David Mack’s continued refusal to pay their workers. These workers have now filed a back wage claim for the $4,494 that is owed them – only a piece of the more than $8,000 in stolen wages that is thought to be owed to migrant workers by Mack Farm. This is the first time that migrant farmworkers in Vermont have publicly denounced and legally challenged their employer.

Despite the inescapable poverty that many farmers and migrant workers experience in Vermont, there are people making a profit off of dairy in the US. The CEO of Dean Foods, a milk processor that controls 70% of the Northeast dairy market, receives an average yearly compensation of $21.3 million. While the price that Dean Foods pays farmers for milk is cut to record low after record low, the supermarket price of milk remains relatively unchanged. The difference is pocketed by the corporate bosses. Several days ago Dean Foods agreed to pay out $30 million to settle a class action suit brought by northeastern farmers accusing it of price fixing, one of several such lawsuits that have been brought against it across the country. But the processors who own the bottling plants and supermarket brands are only half the story. The largest marketing cooperatives that buy raw milk and take it to the plants have lost the democratic nature that a cooperative structure supposedly guarantees and instead find it more profitable to collaborate with the processors to fix dairy prices. Vermont still has some independent cooperatives, but two of the biggest cooperatives in the state, St. Albans Co-Op and Dairylea, have affiliated with Dairy Farmers of America, the largest dairy co-op in the nation and one that is a practical extension of Dean Foods. The way it is increasingly becoming is that the only market available to farmers is Dean Foods, and the only way to get there is through Dairy Farmers of America.

There remains little glimmer of hope for dairy farmers within the capitalist order. Even such ‘alternatives’ as organic production and local agriculture give only temporary increases in profits by catering to specialty markets while offering no real change to the existing systems of exploitation. The largest chunk of the organic milk market in the US just happens to be taken by Dean Foods.

The work that migrants do on Vermont farms is one of the most demanding jobs in the state, requiring an inflexible schedule of early mornings, late night and hard physical labor. It is also one of the most dangerous; workers are frequently injured and last December a migrant farmworker from Chiapas named José Obeth Santiz Cruz was strangled to death by a piece of farm machinery while working alone at a dairy in Franklin County. Most workers earn around $5-$10 per hour, while most farm owners lose money on the family farms themselves. Workers endure the suffering of grinding working conditions with the hope that they can someday return to their homes in Mexico with the few dollars they’ve saved.

I can’t go out or come back at the time that I want, right? If I go out to a store or something, I already know what time I’ll be back. I have this timed: at what time I will leave, and at what time I will return. Yes, because I have to be on time to work, right? Then we always wake up in a hurry, right? We have the time allotted. I was saying, that’s the part of suffering, right? Because, you have to organize yourself to not fail your work. But in my case, I was saying, it’s good. As long as I have a job there is no problem. Yes, as long as I have a job there is no problem. Well, that is what I wanted when I left Mexico: to work. Because I know that the suffering and the things that I have not been able to have; I know that one day it has to come, right? For a while my suffering will get to a limit. I know when I get to Mexico I am going to be free. I’m going to do what I want, right? Yes, because I’m going to be in my home I decide what time to leave and what time to arrive. This time, I’m the boss. But here, here I am not the boss. And it’s fine. Sometimes, you have to complain. But at the moment, everything seems to be OK for me.

The migrant workers’ position as exploitable labor is maintained by the country’s border regime, which makes their very existence in Vermont illegal. Migrant workers in Vermont face a constant threat of deportation. Many of the dairy farms in Vermont are located in within a short distance of the Canadian border, putting the workers within striking distance of the Border Patrol. While the US/Canada border used to be a largely informal and open demarcation, since 2001 the War on Terror has come to Vermont and the border region has suffered from increasing militarization. Northern Vermont now hosts an increasing number of Border Patrol agents who take it upon themselves to scour the countryside for undocumented workers. Workers live in constant danger of calamitous encounters like the one experienced by this worker in a Vermont grocery store:

There we were buying food, when a man came and started asking us where we came from, what we were doing, where we were working, and, he asked for our paper, whether we had papers or not. And we said that no, we didn’t have them, that we were immigrants, and he called more agents, and they came for us. They weren’t immigration agents. They didn’t have the uniform. Yeah, they were undercover. They took us to their offices, and there was a kind of interview, and then we were deported.

A worker without legal status is forced into invisibility. The only way to survive as a migrant worker in Vermont is to become invisible; to marginalize oneself as much as possible in order to escape notice. As the only sizable Latino community in Vermont, the second whitest state in the U.S., and being almost universally without immigration documentation because of the absence of work visas for dairy farm laborers, migrant workers experience an intense visibility that doesn’t exist in regions with higher populations of documented Latinos. Among the all-white rural communities in which they work, migrant workers are instantly recognizable and deportable if they carelessly venture off their farm:

I’m penned up here. And it’s not just that I’m saying so, even the boss knows that it’s like that for us. That is, we don’t have much freedom here. We don’t have freedom. We can’t, I tell you. Well, the town is right near here, we know it is, but we don’t go because they don’t let us go. We can’t go. If we go someone will probably arrest us, or a police officer will come out and ask what we’re doing. I don’t know, I don’t know, well, because we don’t go. And besides, the lady who owns the farm won’t let us go there. In New York, it’s different because you can walk in the streets, go to work, I don’t know, but you’re free. They don’t say anything to you, and as long as you’re not doing anything you have no problems with the police or anybody. And well, nothing happens. But not here.

The everyday condition for migrant farmworkers in Vermont is to be trapped on their farms. Workers live on the farm, perhaps in a trailer abutting the barn so that they can go from home to work without being spotted by the Border Patrol helicopters that roam the territory near the border, and leave the farm at most once a month when the farmer’s spouse takes the workers out to buy necessities. Some workers may go an entire year without leaving the farm. Although the farm is not always a safe haven – ICE agents have been known to take workers straight out of the farmhouse. In the past week, after a 911 dispatcher heard a man speaking Spanish on the other end of the line, police officers in Franklin County brought Border Patrol agents with them to visit the farm that the 911 call had come from. Three migrant workers are now detained in New York awaiting deportation.

Well, we can’t go out much. Primarily because, well, people say it’s dangerous and, well, usually the bosses don’t allow us to go out much. They don’t like us to go out. They go out once in while, but not like when we were at home. I guess it’s a little lack of freedom.

Well, something I would change, well, the truth, simply… simply the freedom. Well, I don’t know. To be able to go out trusting that they’re not going to detain us, deport us. Simply to go out, like to stores, or to parties, or whatever, with the security that, well, no one’s going to say anything to us. Or, well, unless we were doing something we shouldn’t – that’s normal, that they would detain you for doing something bad. But if not, well, yes, in this case, yes. We would like to be able to have this freedom, yes.

After the death of José Obeth Santiz Cruz in December 2009, Vermonters organized to create a delegation to return his body to Chiapas. The social justice organizers who participated in this delegation had previously been working on a participatory education project with high school Spanish classes to conduct interviews with migrant workers. This delegation that brought Santiz Cruz home was the beginning of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project (VTMFSP). The Project is a collectively run organization with three programs: popular education, community health and community organizing. The Project’s efforts have initially focused on generating community support for migrant farmworkers through the popular education program; establishing networks in the towns where they labor that can work to make the community safer and more hospitable for them. Individual actions to drive workers to the market or church are part of the activities of these local networks, along with political actions to halt the cooperation of local police departments with ICE and the Border Patrol. Traveling across the state with the documentary that was filmed during the delegation to Chiapas, the VTMFSP is directly reaching and holding discussion with hundreds of people in rural Vermont.

At the same time, the VTMFSP is working to initiate self-organization among the migrant farmworkers. Efforts towards this end are beginning with an electronic newsletter by and for farmworkers and a text alert system to allow workers to warn each other of problems with bosses. The VTMFSP recently assisted a farmworker in filing a claim for back wages against Mack Farm in Chittenden County, the first time a farmworker has taken legal action against an employer. The ultimate goal is to develop the leadership and capacity for a new worker-led organization.

Organizing campaigns among migrant farmworkers in Vermont face unique challenges that will be difficult to overcome. How does a community of isolated workers who can’t leave their workplace, live with their bosses, and are spread across a rural landscape without access to transportation organize itself? It will take new strategies, new tactics, and a broad campaign that engages the entire state.

While the situations and histories of Mexican campesinos and Vermont dairy farmers are clearly more dissimilar and complex than what is presented in this short article, pulling out and illuminating the common threads gives us the chance to build a platform for united struggle. By understanding the commonalities of our struggle, we come to realize that the liberation of our communities here in Vermont is bound up in the liberation of the rural communities in southern Mexico, and indeed with all communities that are in the struggle against capitalism. This real solidarity, based in a consciousness of the needs of our own class and communities, is what will push the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project forward as it begins to unite workers in towns and farms across the state.

No, definitely you want fresh air, but necessity forces you. Desire is one thing, reality is another. And well, we’re in need and so we’re trapped.

Quotes in this article are taken from migrant worker interviews with the VTMFSP, with the exception of the concluding quote, which is from an interview conducted by The Golden Cage, a documentary project of the Vermont Folklife Center.