When Will We Confront Our Other Agricultural Shame?

Marita Canedo and Jose Ignacio De La Cruz of Justicia Migrante

The first agricultural shame is the polluting of our lakes and waterways. The second: migrant farm labor. This isn’t a new story by any means, but it’s still true that we have failed to come to grips with a system that (a) props up the farm economy with cheap, pliable labor and (b) is, by definition, wage slavery.

Like I said, not a new story. But it got a human face Thursday morning before the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. Two members of Justicia Migrante, Jose Ignacio and Marita Canedo, spoke to the committee about the sorry state of worker housing on Vermont’s oh-so-picturesque farms. And they offered reasonable, practical ways to address the problem.

They were remarkable witnesses. They aren’t asking for pity, and they certainly have no use for condescension. They do want some basic protections for their working and living conditions (the kind we all take for granted), and they want some funding to help them and the farmers address the housing problem. They can’t do it by themselves, and the farmers can’t afford it.

They also have solid ideas for new kinds of farm housing. Ignacio, who spent four years as a migrant laborer, now works for New Frameworks, a firm creating sustainable, low-cost ways to design and build housing for farmworkers and others.

As you can perhaps tell, I was inspired by their testimony. These people are smart, hardworking, and willing to put their noses to the grindstone to gain a safer, more stable life.

What they’re asking for is really the least we should do. We have a moral obligation to change a broken system that takes advantage of the people who raise and harvest our food.

I can hear some voices in the back saying, “If they don’t like it, they can go back where they came from.” That’s a nice simple answer, but it ignores the fact that Vermont farms depend on cheap, pliable migrant labor. We worry about our vanishing dairy industry; how many more farms would go under if they had to pay prevailing wages and treat their workers as if they are people?

Truth is, we can’t live without migrant workers. We have to face that fact, and make provisoin for them so that they’re not being exploited any more.

Ignacio told of his own experience working 16-hour days and living in wretched conditions on a Vermont farm. “We were living in a garage beside the tractors,” he said through translator Canedo. “We shared a room with all our coworkers. We even shared beds.” (As one worker began their shift, another worker would take over the bed.) He spoke of cockroaches and mice, and a cold concrete floor.

“”This happens a lot, on many farms, maybe a majority,” he continued. He invited the committee on a tour of substandard farm housing. His invitation didn’t get an immediate response. He asked for a state inspection program for farm housing, because the workers don’t have the power to effect change on their own.

Rep. Terry Norris, whose wife spent 26 years in the ag business, noted that feed suppliers employ Spanish-speaking staff who visit farms. He asked if they are any help. The answer was pretty much no. “They usually take the farmer’s side,” said Canedo.

Also, and this was rich, those staffers often have side jobs locating and providing migrant laborers. They have a double incentive not to ruffle any feathers.

(Side note. Kudos to Rep. Heather Surprenant, the only committee member fluent in Spanish. I could tell because she would often react to Ignacio’s testimony before Canedo had a chance to translate.)

That was the depressing part. The inspiring part is how Ignacio and his compadres are involved in bettering their situation. Ignacio described how Justicia Migrante is working with Efficiency Vermont and New Frameworks to design and build sustainable, good-quality farm housing. But to go forward on a large scale, a funding source is needed.

Farmers don’t have the resources to build sufficient new housing. The workers sure don’t. Should the state step in? I don’t see why not. We’re making major efforts to increase affordable housing in Vermont. These are workers who live in seriously substandard housing, often inside barns or garages where there’s plenty of dust, smells, and noise.

And these are workers who are the bedrock of productive farms.

Those voices in the back are shrieking “But they’re ILLEGAL!!!!!”

Yeah. But we depend on them as much as they depend on their shitty jobs. This is a two-way bargain we make every day. Well, it’d be a bargain if we held up our end of the deal. Until we do, we’re seriously exploiting people who deserve fairness and respect.

Postscript. Recently I bemoaned the lack of “real people” testifying before the Legislature. This is an example of how much we miss in our expert- and lobbyist-driven system. You can read statistics and reports, you can listen to experts, but issues come to life when real people tell their stories. When you see and hear a person like Ignacio, who’s been ill-treated for years, retain his dignity, his energy, and his willingness to work hard for a better life, then it’s hard to ignore his claim to our attention.

2 thoughts on “When Will We Confront Our Other Agricultural Shame?

  1. walter carpenter

    “Those voices in the back are shrieking “But they’re ILLEGAL!!!!!”

    What they’re really saying is “what, we have to treat them as humans and not slaves.” They all know that the rich folks would complain of what they thing are high prices if they had anyone else other than migrant workers.

    Reply
  2. Zim

    For one, it would nice to have some real data regarding the housing situation for migrant ag workers instead of anecdotal testimony and the usual morality play. This sounds a little too much like lobbying for a handout to business. It is not clear what the actual circumstances are for the majority of farm workers in Vermont but if history is any guide probably fairly dismal. It would good to actually know based on data. It would also be good to know data such as type and size of ag operations using migrant labor, number of days migrant workers spend on a farm (% of year round full time vs those workers who cycle through areas for short term work), what the farm’s balance sheets looks like (not every farmer is poor), an actual inventory of worker housing and a detailed analysis of the state of ag housing regulations. And how are we defining ‘migrant ag worker’? I have seen a mix of workers on farms and it not always clear the where they are coming from, who they are and what their needs are. Short term housing for a few weeks in the spring for planting or fall for harvest is different from year round housing. The building topology would greatly differ hence capital requirements – year round permanent housing is much more expensive than short term housing designed to accommodate a handful of workers for a few weeks during comfortable climatic conditions.

    Nonetheless, there is absolutely no reason the State can not conduct an audit/investigation other than the deliberate intention of keeping the public in the dark and letting business owners off the hook at the expense of a vulnerable population. I own several rental properties and the State and local government impose all sort of standards and require annual inspections on these operations regardless of the level of rent charged. I am required to let state and local inspectors inspect the buildings. The idea that farms, esp large farms – which are really industrial-scale factory operations and so the romantic notion of the noble ‘farmer’ at one with his land really needs to be dispensed with in these case – should be exempt from housing inspections and regulations is really the root of the problem since this creates a climate of unaccountability. These operations – CAFOs particularly- are highly extractive and highly polluting but Federal and State ag policy promote and protect this type of enterprise.

    I simply do not buy the poor farmer song and dance either. Nor do I believe public subsidies to farmers and/or developers for building decent housing is an answer but its so typical Vermont. No one take responsible here in this state for anything and all solutions seem to follow the same modality – transfer of public wealth to private hands (usually connected hands) to fund some public or private bureaucracy (usually affluent middle-class white professionals) under the guise of doing good.

    I have lived in ag communities most of my adult life, owned large tracts of land leased to farmers, known farmers who exploit migrant labor while making millions selling to Whole Foods and the like. I have had to hear them cry poor at every turn while sitting on millions of dollars worth of shiny farm equipment, driving the latest in pick ups and they always seem to have money to expand production. Here in Addison Cty I think every CAFO operation I have driven by this pass year has expanded its operations with huge new containment sheds and manure pits largely subsidized through low interest loans. The average annual subsidy for a large CAFO is close to a $750K. Of course this reflects the priorities of the business community in general and is reinforced by USDA and Federal policy which is designed to drive the small farmer out of business and drive down the cost of ag commodities so downstream processors have cheap feedstock. Obviously, many of the migrant ag workers are coming from Latin America whose rural economies and communities were destroyed by NAFTA when US Big ag paved over these economies with cheap heavily subsidized ag commodities forcing them to come north to be exploited by those who profited handsomely while destroying their native communities.

    Many of these ‘farmers’ are serious operators of sophisticated and very profitable operations but ask them of they are making any money and they always tell you no – its ingrained in the culture. Small farmers trying to cobble a livelihood off a handful of cows or a dozen acres of vegetables are another story. They do have it very hard and their margins are very thin due and are most likely not engaged in exploiting migrate labor. The problem of these farms is more due to scale and the relentless drive of Fed ag policy for ever increasing levels of efficiency and scale in order to produce the cheapest feedstocks for other downstream industries and export markets. Cheap food also covers up the declining prosperity across the country for 85% of the population which is related to another kind of problem.

    I suspect the biggest exploiters/abusers of migrant labor in the state are the large CAFO operations – letting them off the hook yet again at taxpayer expense is a big fat NO. They are already being let off the hook for polluting the environment, for putting smaller more ethical farmers out of business and now you want to let them off the hook for providing decent conditions for their workers and transfer the burden to the taxpayer.

    Reply

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