Farmworker Jose Luis Cordova in housing that was built through the Milk with Dignity program
Housing for Vermont’s undocumented dairy farm workers, long described by advocates as a critical problem, could be improved by the federal COVID-19 relief funds that are flowing into the state.
The Vermont Housing Conservation Board plans to use half a million dollars to fix up farmworker quarters in the coming year. That amount could be higher if the housing allocation in the state budget increases.
Momentum for fixing the longstanding problems, which affect an estimated 2,000 dairy farm workers, has picked up this year, said Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury), the chair of the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs. He held an informational hearing Wednesday with the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry to hear from advocates, saying he had never tackled the topic in the committee before.
“We’ve spent a lot of money on trying to find a solution to house 2,000 homeless Vermonters,” Stevens said, of steps taken during the pandemic. Federal COVID-19 relief money has made it practical to tackle other problems now, he added. “This is absolutely a worthy investment of time and energy, to try to provide solutions for the people who provide us our food.”
Many of the dairy farm workers in Vermont are Hispanic, and they live in conditions that don’t meet state housing codes, said John Ryan, a consultant who this month released a report for the Housing Conservation Board.
Ryan said undocumented workers are hesitant to speak up about the conditions for fear of losing their jobs, and dairy farmers themselves are so financially strapped that they have no way to improve the housing they provide. Additionally, much of Vermont’s farmland is enrolled in conservation or tax abatement programs designed to preserve the landscape. These programs limit construction, making it difficult for farmers to build or expand housing for workers.
“This is as complex and challenging a problem as I could imagine constructing,” said Ryan.
According to Ryan’s report, 345 of Vermont’s 6,800 farms provide separate residences for farmworkers. Of these, 70 percent are in Franklin, Addison or Orleans counties.
About 2,000 workers live in housing on the farm where they work or nearby. Most of them are dairy farm laborers, and about half are migrant workers, mostly from Mexico.
Another 650 seasonal workers regularly visit Vermont to work at orchards, meat processors or farms through the H-2A visa program, which lays out requirements for housing quality.
The length of time that Hispanic workers report that they typically stay at a farm job has increased in recent years, from a median of 24 months in 2016 to 36 months in 2018 and 2019, said Dan Baker, an associate professor of community and international development at the University of Vermont. He recently published a report on the state’s migrant dairy farm workers.
Courtesy of Migrant Justice
Three farmworkers shared this room, according to Migrant Justice.
Advocates have said much of Vermont’s on-farm housing needs to be substantially improved. Tom Fritzsche, the executive director of Migrant Justice's Milk with Dignity Standards Council, told the committee about three farmworkers who shared a small concrete room behind a dairy barn’s milking parlor. It was furnished with two bunk beds, a stove and a fridge. They used the one spare bunk as a closet.
“A visitor to the farm would not have known there were people living behind the closed doorway behind the parlor,” Fritzsche said. The Milk with Dignity program works with corporations to require suppliers to comply with worker standards. Ben & Jerry's joined the program in October 2017.
The Vermont image and brand depicts picture-perfect farms in advertisements and on food labels, noted Marita Canedo of Migrant Justice. “It’s not true,” said Canedo. “The people that are bringing the food to your table are living in inhumane conditions.”
But Fritzsche, Canedo and Ryan agreed that farmers often lack choice in the quality of the housing they offer. They said the state needs to help.
“We know the farmers, even if they want to change things, the prices for milk are too low,” said Canedo. “Immigrants are not eligible for any housing benefits from the state. So we have to be practical; we have to be creative. Vermont is known as a state that’s ahead in the country, so let’s be ahead on this.”
Stevens said he was ashamed by the descriptions of housing conditions.
“People should have the dignity of having a place that is safe and clean to stay in,” he said. “We know the reality is different, especially for people who are — as they were called earlier today — invisible.”