Support Vermont's dairy industry

To the Editor:

It's relatively easy to drive down the Route 7 corridor between Charlotte and Rutland and forget that Vermont's dairy industry is in crisis. It's a beautiful drive with open fields and working farms. Unfortunately, this kind of bucolic agricultural image is underpinned by a very grim existence for some 1,500 people.

Many dairy farmers are finding it near to impossible to fill their positions for dairy workers using local labor. Add to this the absence of any federal foreign worker program to support these year-round positions and you have the current situation in Vermont's dairy industry. It is estimated by the State Department of Agriculture that approximately half of the milk produced in Vermont comes from the labor of these 1,500 undocumented migrant workers. These workers, from whose work we all benefit, end up living lives of fear and isolation. Fear of leaving the farm, an inability to leave the farm, and the resulting isolation that comes from having no life beyond your place of work. This all adds up to a complex issue of human rights, access to basic services and needed relief for Vermont's farmers.

I have the opportunity to be in regular contact with some of these workers. Last month I learned there was a worker in need of work clothes, steel-toed rubber boots and minutes for his cell phone. The farmer he works for does not have the capacity to take him, or the other four migrant farm workers at his farm, shopping for items such as these. And these are not incidental items. In the winter months dairy farm laborers need plenty of warm clothing to do their dirty, labor-intensive 70-hour a week jobs. They need boots which protect their feet from the hooves of cows which average 1,500 pounds. And they need a life-line to their family. Because their wife, or child, or mother may be the only person they speak with during the week who speaks their language or who knows them as an individual who loves to draw, or cook or walk in the woods.

We now have a chance to begin to address this issue. Access to a Vermont I.D. and driver's license without a Social Security number would allow our state's migrant farm workers to access basic necessities, including food and health care. They would be able to contact emergency personnel without fear and engage in social and religious activities with regular frequency. With passage of S-238 in the Vermont Senate and House of Representatives a study committee has been formed to craft legislation which could make such access to state identification a reality.

It is important that we express our support for this legislation. Vermonters can not in good conscience benefit from the work of migrant farm workers and at the same time support a system which results in these workers, these fellow human beings, living in fear and isolation.

Laura O'Brien

Charlotte, Vt.

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