Mexican Labor on the Farm, Part 1 - Increasing Numbers

01/18/06 12:00AM By John Dillon
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(Host) Good help has always been hard to find for dairy farmers in Vermont. The hours are long, the work is hard, and the pay isn't the highest.

So a growing number of farmers have solved their labor problem by hiring Mexican workers.

But many Mexicans are here illegally and that can create problems for them and the farmers who employ them.

Today, in the first of a three-part series, VPR's John Dillon looks at the changing face of Vermont agriculture, and how Spanish became the language of the milking parlor.

(Sound of milking machines punctuated by cow moos.)

(Dillon) It's near dusk on a winter afternoon in Addison County - time for the evening milking at a large barn outside Vergennes. A young man with a shy smile tends to the large Holsteins.

Emilio is from Chiapas, Mexico. He's worked here three years.

(Emilio speaks in Spanish)
(Translator) "He'd like to live here, except for the cold.)

(Dillon) The bitter winter is not the only difficulty for the hundreds of Mexican immigrants who work in Vermont's dairy barns.

The language barrier is the most challenging obstacle. And then there's their legal status. Many of the Mexican workers here live in constant fear of deportation.

(Emilio speaks in Spanish)
(Translator) "So they have to watch out for immigration whenever they go out to shop or visit friends."

(Dillon) Translating for Emilio is Chris Urban. He teaches English as a second language through a Migrant Education program run through the University of Vermont extension service.

(Dillon) Chris Urban grew up in Addison County, and he now spends his days cruising the back roads in his red Subaru, visiting his students.

(Urban) "If you go into any large farms, you're bound to hear Spanish being spoken. Oh, here's the driveway."

(Sounds of clanking chains, and cow moos)

(Dillon) The farm we're visiting in Panton has been in the same family since 1796.

(Jason) "Yeah, we've been here a long, long time. I'm a seventh generation dairy farmer."

(Dillon) The farmer's name is Jason. He doesn't want his last name used on the radio, because he worries about his employees getting in trouble with the federal immigration service.

Jason says the Mexican workers have solved the constant problem of finding people who want to do the hard work on his dairy farm.

(Jason) "It made my life a lot easier. We've been able to grow and expand without having to worry about labor too much."

(Dillon) "One of the things you always hear about immigration is that they're taking jobs away from Americans. Do you think that's the case?"

(Jason) "I don't think it's the case, but I've got a lot of friends who stop here at night and say that. I tell them, go right ahead and do the work. But you don't see Americans that want to do the work any more."

(Dillon) Other farmers make the same point. They say the Hispanic labor has helped them stay in business.

The workers get paid $7 to $8 an hour. The farmer provides housing, heat and cable television with Spanish language programs.

(Kitchen sounds)

(Dillon) Fernando is 30 years old and has worked for Jason for just over a year. With his wife and two children, he lives in a house trailer nearby.

Fernando says it's a great place to work, although it's sometimes frustrating trying to communicate. He says transportation is also a problem. Many of the workers don't have driver's licenses so they rely on others for food or shopping.

(Fernando speaks Spanish)
(Urban translates) "So there are people who come house to house selling food or various products. Because Mexicans don't have legal licenses they can't drive to the stores when they want to, so they either have to wait once a week or once every two weeks for the farmer to take them to the store. Or someone comes to the store and sells them food at an inflated rate. So in that sense they're being exploited right in their own house."

(Dillon) The state Agency of Agriculture recognizes the critical role of immigrant labor for the Vermont farm economy. The state estimates that the Mexican workers contribute to half of all the milk produced in the state.

A recent survey found that as many as one-third of full time farm workers in Vermont are Hispanic. Deputy Agriculture Secretary Louise Calderwood says she was surprised the number was so high.

(Calderwood) "But the indication is it could be close to 2,000 Hispanic employees. And the farms that have Hispanic employees tend to have multiple employers, they tend to have two or three."

(Dillon) Calderwood says she doesn't know how many of the workers are here legally. She says that based on national estimates, probably 75% of the foreign labor is illegal.

(Calderwood) "Of course, we're advocating for legally documented labor. But the perspective we are taking as an agency is to focus on the language and culture issues. That we feel is a legitimate role for our agency. So we have developed resources. Last summer we hired a young woman who conducted language courses for farmers."

(Dillon) The Mexican workers have helped many farms survive. Calderwood says that in addition to the workers studying English, more and more farmers will have to learn Spanish.

(Calderwood) "I speak to farmers who say, 'Look I don't want to have to learn a new language to speak to my employees.' I think that will be a reality moving forward."

(Dillon) Just up the road from Calderwood's Montpelier office, Erin Shea sees another side of the farm labor issue. Shea is a migrant education coordinator for the UVM extension service.

It's her job to make sure that families of migrant farm workers Mexicans and Americans - get access to education.

Over the last three years, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of Hispanic youth that the program tries to reach. In 2001, for example, Migrant Ed served six Hispanic youth between the ages of 3 and 21. Shea says that in 2005 the number had jumped to 100.

(Shea) "It's a really difficult population to serve because these guys are working up to 14 hours-a-day in between milking schedules. So realistically, there's only such a small window to serve them."

(Dillon) Shea's numbers show that most of the Hispanic workers are concentrated in Addison and Franklin Counties. She says more Mexicans are also moving to the Northeast Kingdom.

Shea says that most Vermonters probably don't realize that many farms rely on Hispanic labor.

(Shea) "To the general public, it's a rather hidden, underground population. And I think the more Vermonters can recognize that these are the very people that are keeping Vermont's dairy farms running, then hopefully the more welcoming the Vermont community will be to the population."

(Barn sounds)

(Dillon) Back in the barn outside Vergennes, Emilio is finishing up the milking. The native of Chiapas, Mexico, says he has a good situation here in Vermont. The farm provides housing. His only expense is for food.

But his legal status is always an issue. He says it's frustrating to have to worry about immigration officials every time he goes out to visit friends. And he says he might be able to make more money if he was in the country legally.

(Emilio speaks in Spanish)
(Translator) "Because we don't have papers, we don't get paid as much as the Americans. We work about 11 hours. He's hinting that perhaps with legal status, he could get paid a little more."

(Dillon) The Mexicans in Vermont are following a familiar immigrant path. They have to overcome barriers of law, education, poverty and language as they strive to become recognized members of society. But along the way, they've made themselves indispensable to the Vermont farm economy.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm John Dillon.

Note: Tomorrow, John Dillon looks at the quandary presented by the legal status of the Mexican farm workers in Vermont.
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