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Kittredge: Dairy Dilemma

06/07/12 7:55AM By Susan Cooke Kittredge
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(Host) Vermont dairy farmers are at their busiest this time of year, planting corn, cutting hay and dodging thunderstorms. But, nestled in the bucolic landscape of lush hills and valleys, commentator and minister Susan Cooke Kittredge finds a disquieting reality.

(Kittredge) A friend of mine who was raised in the South was speaking recently about her family. For generations they farmed plantations; but, she said somewhat ironically, “My family was known for being very good to their slaves.”

Around the dinner table, guffaws and nervous laughter erupted. While the remark spoke of kindness, it simultaneously referenced an entirely unacceptable practice—that of slavery. We were uneasy and unsure how to react.

I felt the same way in 1993 when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became law. It prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted gay or bisexual people in the military while also barring openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from joining the armed services. Ostensibly seeming a kinder and gentler approach, the law turned a blind eye to a troubling situation.

In the United States another vital segment of our population is currently living in secrecy. From vineyards in California to restaurants in New York to dairy farms in Vermont, migrant workers are shouldering a major portion of the work required to keep these industries afloat.

Here in Vermont the migrant workers’ plight has gained recognition recently, specifically with the passage by the legislature of S-238, a bill that seeks to address the issues inherent in providing driver’s licenses to the farm workers so that they are not dependent on their employers for transportation.

How Vermont’s immigration laws and policies interact with those of the federal government is not entirely clear.

Meanwhile, the diary industry, so vital and inherent a part of our state, is kept moving by hard-working Mexicans who have come here to work so their families in Mexico can eat. Why they have had to leave Mexico is another complex story entwining NAFTA, corn and the big issues of global food production.

The process of immigration is very complicated, and so are the root causes that underlie why Vermont dairy farms need migrant workers at all, never mind why they are illegal.

What is clear to me is that some of the most marginalized people in our community are those who are helping to give us milk. If they all quit at once, the dairy industry in Vermont would collapse within 12 hours, as herds of unmilked cows succumbed to acute and pervasive mastitis.

At the heart of this situation, however, is the simple matter of human dignity, respect and justice. The lives of these migrant workers bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the lives of the slaves on the southern plantation of my friend’s family . My hope is that we do not turn a blind eye but seek ways to affirm them as human beings and members of our community. Please pass the milk.
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