University of Vermont

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Department of Plant and Soil Science

The New Face of Vermont Dairy Farming

Dan Baker seeks to understand the points of view of both Vermont dairy farm owners and farm workers

Because UVM research on Vermont’s migrant dairy workers and their employers has been continuously funded by state and federal grants since 2008, data is becoming increasingly valuable to policy makers, farmers and government agencies seeking to improve Vermont’s labor issues. Photo: Caleb Kenna / The Golden Cage Project / The Vermont Folklife Center

Shortages of farm labor are common across much of the United States. Some 41 percent of U.S dairy farms depend on outside labor, primarily from Mexico. Vermont, however – the 12th largest milk producer in U.S. – has always hired most of its labor locally. Until recently.

Between 2000 and 2010, Vermont’s Latino population grew 24 times faster than its overall population, and the two largest dairy producing counties, Addison and Franklin, tallied 73 and 111 percent increases respectively. That said, the actual numbers are small – an estimated 1,200-1,500 workers in a state of 626,000 people. Still, this represents a significant demographic shift for a state where Spanish is rarely spoken.

“Public concern about how migrant workers were being treated was raised in 2009 when a young Mexican worker was killed in an accident on a Vermont dairy farm. This accident highlighted the lack of objective data about how workers are faring in Vermont,” Dan Baker wrote in the “Journal of Agromedicine” in an article published in July 2012.

“Little is known about who these workers are, how they view dairy farm employment, or how they differ from dairy farm workers who from Vermont and what their health needs are,” says Baker a UVM assistant professor of community development and applied economics. That’s why he, research specialist David Chappelle are among the UVM faculty and staff who are conducting several studies and programs.

RESULTS MAY INFORM POLICY, CHANGE

Baker’s three-year, $60,000, USDA Hatch-funded project, which ended in 2010, tried to understand the broader issues faced by dairy farm labor in Vermont. Through surveys, analysis of secondary data and collaboration with partner organizations, he’s gathered statistics such as those below that build a picture of the state of Vermont’s work force. Most importantly, it includes the perspectives of both farm managers and farm workers and how they affect Vermont’s economy and communities. For example:

  • 78 percent, of farmers surveyed believe that there is a shortage of domestic labor.
  • Hispanic workers put in more hours than their domestic counterparts, 70 compared to 50 hours a week, and say they want to put in more hours.
  • Although few farmers speak Spanish and few workers speak English, farmers report being pleased with their Hispanic workers and 90 percent of workers report they’re satisfied with their jobs and felt they were treated well.
  • The main concern farmers expressed about hiring Hispanic workers was potential legal repercussions.
  • The greatest challenge most workers report is isolation. And other studies point to workers suffering from a number of work-related injuries and diseases and high levels of depression and anxiety.

“The results of this study will contribute to a more detailed understanding of the situation faced by the state's farming sector and the policy alternatives available to address agricultural labor issues,” says Baker. “It is also of use to other states and regions facing similar changes in their farm labor work force.”

Baker has delivered survey findings at an annual roundtable discussion on the state of Vermont’s agricultural work force, testified before Vermont Senate and House committees, written articles and delivered remarks at conferences and meetings such as the Northeast Organic Farming Winter Conference, Vermont Farm Bureau annual meeting and to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

The need for further research and discussion can only continue as does the increase in the Latino population and the need for solutions to make Vermont’s agricultural work force just and sustainable. In 2011, he led a one-year project investigating migrant health issues in Vermont. In 2012, Baker received a two-year, $30,000 USDA Hatch fund grant to study anxiety and depression among migrant farm workers.

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