Migrant Justice

Exploring Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont

“There is this violent irony in our food system, in that the people who provide food security for all of us are the most likely to be food insecure themselves”. This was the heart of the message shared by University of Vermont Scholar Teresa Mares at a recent gathering at the Middlebury Unitarian Universalist Society. Mares was sharing insights gleaned during research for her book Life on the Other Border:  Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont, which aimed to shed light on the intersections of structural vulnerability and food insecurity experienced by migrant farmworkers in the northeastern borderlands of the United States. 

By the Numbers

Half of all workers on U.S. dairy farms are migrants and most are from Mexico. Losing them would double the total retail price of milk and cost our nation’s economy more than $32 billion. Across the U.S., Latinx farmworker food security occurs at 3-4 times the national average and  Mares recognized that there was a lack of data on food security among farmworkers in Vermont. Through her research, Mares was able to identify that there are approximately 1,000-1,200 Latinx migrant workers sustaining the Dairy Industry in Vermont. Most of these individuals are from Southern Mexico, but some also come from Central America. These workers are mostly men, but steady numbers of migrant women are also employed on Vermont’s dairy farms. They are concentrated most heavily in Franklin and Addison County.

Roughly 90% of these workers are undocumented, due in large part to the fact that dairy workers are ineligible to work seasonally on farms on an H2A Visa, as is common in Vermont’s apple industry. A whopping 68% of Vermont’s milk comes from dairies employing migrant laborers, representing annual sales of $320 million, translating to 43% of New England’s milk supply. These individuals pay taxes, yet they’re unlikely to have the opportunity to utilize any of the resources that their tax dollars support. They are not eligible for food assistance resources like 3-Squares VT or WIC unless they have a U.S. born child and even then, they must be able to endure the risk of exposure associated with the completion of a government form. 

After surveying 100 migrant farmworkers (75 men and 25 women) in Vermont, Mares discovered that 18% of the state’s migrant farmworkers experience food insecurity, meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. She also recognized that these numbers fail to paint a completely accurate picture of the data, as the standard USDA survey that is used to asses food security operates on the assumption that if one has money then one must have access healthy food. This assumption fails to account for the various other barriers that the average migrant farmworker experiences when trying to access healthy food. The reality for most migrant farmworkers is that access presents a greater challenge than financial instability. The survey also makes assumptions about what constitutes a household. Migrant farmworkers are often living in cramped quarters with many of their peers and are thus not representative of a typical household. Given this multitude of factors supported by information gathered during a series of in-depth interviews with farmworkers, Mares determined that 50% or more of farmworker households likely struggle with access to food. 

Challenges to Access

When working 70 or more hours per week without a day off, as is the reality for most migrant dairy workers, it can be rather difficult to find time to shop for groceries. Add to that the rural isolation, lack of transportation, and a crippling fear of deportation experienced by a migrant farmworker living in a predominantly white community located well within the 100-mile jurisdiction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and it’s easy to understand why most members of this community (96%) rely on a third-party to access food. Mares also shared that there’s limited access to culturally-appropriate food in Vermont and a general lack of awareness of the kinds of food available in many stores. If you’ve never been able to enter a Vermont grocery store, you can only take your best guess as to what might be available when preparing your grocery list for a third-party shopper. Additionally, when you’re living in a household with 5 or more adults and you’re only able to shop every 15 days, there becomes a need for a significant amount of refrigerated storage space that is often lacking in the substandard housing where these individuals live. Mares expressed her strong belief that any strategies aimed at alleviating food insecurity among this group must be willing to travel to the farms and meet the farmworkers where they are. 


While it’s clear that Vermont’s Dairy Industry is heavily reliant on migrant farmworkers from a financial perspective, Mares challenged those in attendance to avoid measuring the worth of this hard-working group of individuals in economic terms. Their true value to our community runs much deeper. Mares’ book sheds light on the many ways that these individuals display resiliency and creativity in the face of a very challenging and isolated existence. They’re a culturally-rich group of people who often possess agricultural knowledge that far exceeds the actual farmwork that they’re employed to do and our failure to engage with them as members of our community results in a lost opportunity for valuable and meaningful cultural exchange.

Thanks to their brave willingness to organize and advocate for better working conditions, combined with the efforts of organizations such as the Huertas Project, the Addison Allies Network, Migrant Justice, and the Open Door Clinic, creative solutions are emerging to help support and foster increased resiliency among our migrant farmworker communities. We’re grateful to Teresa Mares for her willingness to shed light on this important issue and we’re grateful to the local organizations that are finding solutions to the challenges Mares outlined in her work. We look forward to exploring ways to support this effort. 

Co-op Board Member Louise Vojtisek, General Manager Glenn Lower, Author Teresa Mares, Education Coordinator Emily Landenberger, and Board Member Lynn Dunton.

June is Dairy Month

Since 1937, Americans have been celebrating June as National Dairy Month. As we take this time to heartily celebrate our dairy farmers this month, it’s hard to avoid mention of the many challenges that dairy farmers in Vermont and across the country continue to face as they endure the fifth consecutive year of low farm-gate milk prices. This means that the price farmers are paid for the milk they produce is well below the cost of production. As a recent press release from Rural Vermont states, “our agricultural heartbeat is in threat, as is our farmland. With an average farmer age of 58 and consistently inadequate milk prices, the future for our dairy community, and its accompanying 80% of Vermont’s agricultural land is in jeopardy as it goes through a formative transition.” 

The Local Scene

Our local dairy farmers need our support now more than ever, though some recent developments give us reason to feel optimistic.  In April of 2019 over 50 Vermont dairy farmers and eaters gathered for a meeting geared toward developing strategies for viability. The overwhelming sentiment shared throughout the meeting was one of hope and gratitude for the local support they’re receiving. The six dairy farmers on the panel that day, along with many other conventional and organic dairy farmers in attendance, underscored the value of having strong local support. They recognized the need to provide ongoing education for the community about the impact of supporting local dairy. As George van Vlaanderen of Does’ Leap Farm in East Fairfield stated, “It’s contingent on us to educate friends and neighbors about where our food comes from and the impact of voting with your dollars. We can support a prosperous agricultural future by supporting our farmer neighbors today.” Amber Machia of Red Barn in HIghgate echoed his sentiments, reminding those in attendance that impact of spending food dollars locally extends well beyond the farms, affecting the multitude of other local businesses connected to local dairy farms, including feed supply stores, trucking companies, label and package makers, and distribution hubs.

Happy grass-fed cows at Butterworks Farm

National Support

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the most senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, played a key role in forging the 2018 Farm Bill’s dairy priorities and, as a result of his efforts, the Farm Bill dramatically expanded support for dairy producers, providing flexible, affordable coverage options through the new Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program. The goal of the Farm Bill is to benefit producers of all sizes, but offers up to five times more support for the smallest farms, as those farms tend to be hardest hit during times of crisis. This is particularly good news for Vermont dairy farmers, as most manage herds of less than 200 cattle, qualifying them as small dairies by national standards. Leahy, along with Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and others, penned a bipartisan letter in April asking Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to prioritize the implementation of the dairy provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill to help provide some much-needed relief to dairy farmers without delay. Leahy followed that up with an additional bipartisan letter on May 17th urging Perdue to increase trade war relief payments to a level that more accurately reflects the damages dairy farmers have faced, as the current trade mitigation program has failed to fairly compensate dairy farmers slammed by retaliatory tariffs. It sure is nice to have a local Senator fighting so hard for our farmers.

Milk with Dignity

A bright spot in local dairy news this year was the adoption of the Milk with Dignity program by local dairy giant Ben & Jerry’s. In a recent article in VT Digger, Marita Canedo, Migrant Justice staff member and event panelist representing the Milk with Dignity Program, reflected on Ben & Jerry’s adoption of the program as a human rights victory. “It took more than two years in a public campaign and 4 years in conversation. We had to have translators and it took a long time, but we finally had everyone at the same table. There are human rights in that ice cream.” The Milk with Dignity Program brings together farmers, farmworker, buyers, and consumers to ensure dignified working conditions in the dairy supply chain, asking the corporations making the most in the dairy industry to pay for a higher standard of human rights for workers.

This came as part of a larger Values-Led Dairy Vision adopted by Ben & Jerry’s, which specifies that all dairy used by Ben & Jerry’s in the manufacture of its products will be sourced from dairy farms which have:

  • Thriving and dignified livelihoods for farmers and farm workers
  • Exceptional animal welfare standards for cows
  • A flourishing ecosystem in which feed is grown ecologically, without the use of harmful chemicals or GMOs, and in a way that protects water resources and promotes biological diversity
  • Farm operations acting as a net carbon sink through minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon in the soil.

Ben & Jerry’s sources most of the milk and cream from members of the St. Albans Cooperative. 

Grass-fed Organic Dairy Offers Solutions

The US milk glut and the accompanying drop in dairy prices over the past few years have wielded a tough blow for conventional and organic dairy farmers alike, though organic and grass-fed dairy farms are still faring better than their conventional counterparts. Consumers are beginning to recognize the importance of supporting organic dairy production that utilizes traditional pasture-based systems of rotational grazing. Not only does this system of natural grazing aid the environment in terms of soil restoration, increased biodiversity, improved water quality, and flood mitigation – but it also it guarantees healthy lives for the animals, and they, in turn, produce meat and milk that is healthier for us than the grain-fed alternatives. Soil scientists have determined that grazing animals are critical to the process of building soil organic matter. According to Jean Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm, who presented at the recent Real Organic Project Symposium at Dartmouth, a mere one-percent increase in the soil organic matter on the four billion acres that are used for agricultural production on our planet would allow for the sequestration of 102 billion tons of carbon dioxide. When raising livestock using managed rotational grazing, it is possible to sink more carbon than one is producing, making organic agricultural production an active part of the solution to the ongoing threat of climate change.  

Happy grass-fed cows at Larson Farm & Creamery





Milk With Dignity

June is Dairy Month, and we’re excited to celebrate all aspects of Vermont’s Dairy industry, including the migrant workers who are responsible for anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of the state’s dairy production. Vermont is home to about 1,200 – 1,500 migrant workers, mostly concentrated on dairy farms in Addison and Franklin County. Dairy work is generally considered desirable among migrant worker communities because it offers consistent, year-round work and usually provides some form of housing. However, because dairy work is year-round, there is no legal pathway to citizenship for workers. It is estimated that about 90% of migrant workers are undocumented, though the exact number is unknown.

Unfortunately, Vermont’s migrant dairy workers often face dangerous and unhealthy working and living conditions. In December of 2009, an accident resulting in the tragic death of migrant worker José Obeth Santiz Cruz, who was killed while working on a farm in Fairfield, Vermont when his clothes were caught in a ‘gutter scraper’ without proper safety protections, sparked the birth of an organization intended to support workers enduring human and workers rights abuses. Migrant Justice has documented farmworker stories, struggles, and denial of rights through interviews, surveying hundreds of farmworkers, organizing monthly community meetings, and running a hotline that was launched in June of 2011. In 2014, Migrant Justice farmworker leaders designed and completed a survey with 172 dairy farmworkers across the state of Vermont to collect up-to-date detailed information about the working and living conditions that dairy farmworkers face on a daily basis.

The survey revealed significant injustices faced by Vermont dairy farmworkers, which are in violation not only of existing labor and housing laws but more fundamentally of basic human rights principles. It’s also important to note that migrant farmworkers are excluded from many fundamental rights under the law including the right to the Vermont minimum wage:

The results of their survey, combined with information gathered over several years of open communication with migrant workers through their various programs, led Migrant Justice to launch the Milk with Dignity Campaign. The Milk with Dignity Program brings together farmworkers, farmers, buyers, and consumers to secure dignified working conditions in dairy supply chains. The Program enlists the resources of food industry leaders to provide a premium for milk to participating farmers who agree to work towards compliance with the labor standards in the Milk with Dignity (MD) Code of Conduct. The premium helps offset farms’ costs of compliance with the Code and rewards farms that comply.

Farmworkers converted worker’s rights and housing violations into solutions in the creation of the MD Code of Conduct—defining the human rights essential to a dignified workplace and fair housing. The Code is created by the very workers whose rights it is intended to protect and is further improved upon through an intensive feedback loop from participating farmworkers and farmers in the MD Working Group. The Code sets standards for working conditions relating to wages, health and safety, housing, schedule and rest, non-retaliation, non-discrimination, and other
labor conditions. Their members also noted that some dairy farms already had most of the Code of Conduct’s standards in place, demonstrating that it is both necessary and possible to raise the bar in the industry through this campaign.

Migrant Justice is now inviting corporate buyers of milk to take the lead in the dairy industry by sourcing their dairy through the MD Program to ensure workers’ rights in their supply chains. They were able to secure a commitment from Ben & Jerry’s in June 2015 to be a pioneer in the Milk with Dignity Program and have been working ever since to hash out the details of how to operationalize the  Program. To learn more, contact info@milkwithdignity.org or call 802-881-7054.To get involved, contact info@migrantjustice.net or call 802-540-8370.


Milk with Dignity Short Doc from Molly Stuart on Vimeo.

Vermont’s Local Food System: A Report Card – Part 1


At a recent meeting of the Addison County Hunger Council, three representatives offered interesting perspectives regarding Vermont’s local food system, and shared the successes and challenges associated with serving each particular group they represented. The Council explored issues throughout the local food system, from the farm workers who produce the food, to the distribution system for getting food to those who need it most. Council members discussed available resources, what supports are necessary, and what opportunities are present.

The representatives sharing presentations were Dr. Teresa Mares of UVM, Lily Bradburn of HOPE, and Jonathan Corcoran of ACORN. Dr. Mares shared insights about how our local food system serves the growing migrant farm worker population in Vermont. Lily Bradburn spoke about how these systems serve members of our community who are food insecure, and Jonathan Corcoran discussed local food system goals and challenges for our state as a whole.  Here at the Co-op, we spend a lot of time thinking about local food and the systems that support it, though it was very interesting and unique to think of it though the lens of these diverse groups of people. If the function of a food system is to feed the community it supports, then we must assess its efficacy from the diverse viewpoints of all members of that community. Through a three-part review of these presentations, we hope to share what we learned with all of you. First up is the work of Dr. Teresa Mares.

Migrant Farm Workers & Their Families:

Dr. Teresa Mares and her assistant Jessie Mazar (University of Vermont) led the discussion about food security among our growing migrant farm worker population in Vermont. Teresa is a professor of Anthropology at UVM, and Jessie is a graduate student in Food Systems. They presented an overview of a research project they’ve been working on for the past 5 years.  The project, which will be continuing for another few years, just finished its first phase, in which she and Jessie collected data on food insecurity and access to food through surveys with migrant farm workers.

Vermont is considered a “non-traditional destination” for migrant workers, but still has at least 1000 – 1200 migrant workers in the state. 90% of migrant workers are undocumented, so the exact number is unknown. Most are arriving from Mexico, though some come from countries in Central America.  Most migrant workers are concentrated in Addison County and Franklin County, and many work on dairy farms. Vermont is the most dairy-dependent state in the country, and it’s estimated that between one-half and two-thirds of the state’s dairy products are prepared by migrant workers. Dairy work is considered very desirable, as it is consistent, year-round, and usually offers some form of housing. However, because it is year-round, there is no legal pathway to citizenship for workers.

Teresa and Jessie’s early conclusions show that a worker’s proximity to the US / Canada border has a strong effect on that person’s food security and access to resources. Teresa highlighted the physical location of two invisible lines: one was 25 miles from the US/Canada border and defines the “primary operating zone” for Border Patrol and Immigration Services (IS); the second was 100 miles from the border, in which land is still under the general jurisdiction of Border Patrol and IS, but sees much less activity. Addison County falls within this 100 mile border.

Overall, only 18% of migrant workers were found to be food insecure, which is close to the Vermont average, and much better than other states’ migrant populations. Nationally, migrant farm workers experience food insecurity at a rate that is roughly 3-4 times the national average (14%), so it’s reassuring to find that these families fare slightly better here in Vermont. The average in Franklin County was 18.2%, but in Addison County, migrant food insecurity was only 15.7%. Teresa linked this to the two different areas’ proximity to the US / Canada border. In Addison County, which is outside of the primary operating zone for IS and Border Patrol, migrant workers are much more likely to use driver permission cards, and much more likely to be traveling away from their farms in order to access food and other resources. However, in Franklin County, migrant workers were much more afraid to leave the farm, which has led to a lot of dependence on their employers or third parties to get food. This practice has been very exploitative in some places.

Jessie described the Huertas project being led by UVM Extension, which has helped demonstrate the incredible resiliency and creativity of accessing food by migrant workers. UVM Extension workers have helped provide seedlings of culturally appropriate plants and started gardens for migrant workers on farms. The program started in Addison County last year, and found that there were already strong networks of migrant workers in the region. Jessie described that many migrant workers already have farming backgrounds, and use the gardens to supplement their own food
over the summer months (as opposed to trying to scale up and create a market for their crops). The gardens also serve an important social and cultural role for the workers.

One interesting highlight was when Jessie mentioned the role of local co-ops in offering culturally meaningful foods for these families. She found during her interviews that migrant farm workers are often able to find culturally meaningful foods like masa, dried chiles, and corn husks for tamales at co-ops. She touched on the importance of providing access to these foods, as they can have an important influence on social and familial relationships. These foods allow migrant families to retain their cultural identity and maintain strong family and social bonds.

The Council discussed some of the political and logistical complications facing migrant workers and their families. Dr. Mares described the challenging hours facing dairy workers, who often work 70-80 hours/week from 4-11am and 4-11pm, which obviously affects their health and ability to cook. Middlebury Foods shared that they have been trying to connect their services to these families, and are in the early stages of trying to provide food pick-up sites in areas that are easily accessible for migrant farm workers.  Dr. Mares and council member, Martha Kenfield, discussed that migrant families usually access school meals. Martha shared that if a parent identifies themselves as a migrant, it allows the family access to more resources at the school, but understood that revealing their status could be difficult. Cheryl Mitchell of NOFA- VT, who was part of a group that helped start the Latino Farmworker Coalition, praised the presentation and research. She is encouraged by the amount of energy emerging around supporting migrant workers, especially the Migrant Justice group and their Milk with Dignity program.

Dr. Mares’s work was enlightening and inspiring. It certainly identified areas for improvement with regard to our food system and the way it serves these members of our community, but also shed light on some very positive programs and components of our food system that are making food accessible for migrant farm workers and their families. As the population of migrant farm workers continues to grow in our county, what can we do to make our Co-op a more welcoming and accessible place for these community members?