University of Vermont

University Communications


Se Habla Español en la Granja

By Jon Reidel Article published June 27, 2007

Students in Franklin County practice Spanish terms designed to help them communicate with migrant workers on their farms. (Photo: Louise Waterman)

"¿Cuales vacas están en celo?" Not knowing the answer to this question (translation: "Which cows are in heat?") may not seem important to some, but on a dairy farm that relies on milk and reproduction to survive, it’s a crucial piece of information.

It’s not the only key piece of info that needs to be clearly understood by everyone on the farm to keep things running smoothly — and communication challenges have increased with a more diverse workforce. In Vermont, the need for farmers to understand at least some Spanish has grown dramatically over the past few years as more than 2,000 Latin Americans are now employed in the state's dairy industry. Recognizing a communication gap between farmers and migrant workers, the university and the state joined forces to develop the Vermont Dairy Spanish Project with the help of a USDA grant.

The results of the program, which consists primarily of an intensive four-week course, have been extremely positive and are just now being felt throughout the $400 million Vermont dairy industry.

Jonathan and Beverly Rutter, owners of Journey Hope farm in Bridport, took the inaugural course offered in Middlebury and say it’s had a dramatic impact on the level of communication they share with the migrant workers on their farm, most of whom come from the Mexican state of Tabasco. Many of the terms they learned focused on the importance of clean milking and animal care — critical issues on a farm that is the largest shipper of organic milk in the state.

“There’s no question it helped,” says Beverly, who was pleased to be able to communicate in Spanish with some farmers she ran into at an auction recently who also took the course. “We used to talk with our workers in charades. Now we can actually have a conversation. My husband goes out every morning and talks to them and maps out the day. Everything runs much smoother.”

Students help develop curriculum
The idea that became the Vermont Dairy Spanish project was conceived by Louise Waterman, agriculture resource management specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Erin Shea of the Vermont Migrant Education Program and Dan Baker, assistant professor in Community Development and Applied Economics.

“I look for service-learning projects that allow students to participate in integrated development projects,” says Baker. “To do this we work on one piece of a larger issue and seek to contribute meaningfully in that specific area while considering the larger context in which the research is taking place. This was an ideal opportunity to engage students in a development policy issue of statewide importance and in which Vermont’s experience can contribute the larger national debate on approaches to immigration management.”

The first step in creating the course was to identify what phrases, vocabulary and technical instruction were most important for farmers to communicate to workers. Baker sent students in his service-learning course, "Project Planning and Development" (CDAE 273), to four dairy farms in Addison County to interview farmers about the specific Spanish phrases they wanted to learn to help run their farms. These were later compiled, analyzed and prioritized by the students in the class and presented to the Agency of Agriculture in a report edited by CDAE graduate student Mark Cannella. Dozens of phrases were identified: “Clean the alley” (Limpie el callejón); “Open the gate” (Abra el portón); “Speak slower” (Hable más despacio); and “Is the (leg) band red?” (¿Tiene una banda roja?).

The compiled sayings and report were turned over to Command Spanish, Inc., a leading provider of occupational Spanish language training materials and programs for the workplace, which created a booklet and compact disk for the course. Dave Chappelle, a graduate student in CDAE and now the identification and recruitment coordinator with UVM Extension’s Vermont Migrant Education Program, taught the first course in Middlebury and who is now writing his thesis on the Vermont Dairy Spanish Project.

Effort pays off
Based on surveys, in-class feedback and follow-up interviews, Chappelle’s report concluded that the project achieved its objectives of improving on-farm communication, thus helping address a major problem hindering one of the state’s largest contributors to the economy. His report also praised the work of Command Spanish Inc., and its emphasis on repetition and non-grammar instruction, both critical teaching focuses that lead to successful communication on the farm. Beverly Rutter says she has used the accompanying CD from the course at home to work on her Spanish lessons.

In addition to the Middlebury course, which drew perfect attendance from 17 farmers (no easy task given their schedules), another class was offered to 14 participants in Franklin County by the Cold Hollow Career Center. Given the positive feedback from farmers, future classes around the state are expected to be offered, contingent upon funding.

“The feedback from producers who participated in the Spanish language class was very positive,” says Waterman. “The ability to communicate better with their Hispanic employees made the employees feel more welcome and increased their effectiveness as employees. Hispanic workers have become an essential part of Vermont’s dairy industry and this class was a way to address the need for better communications and cultural understanding on the farm.”