THE BLOG
06/25/2014 12:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2014

Vermont's Invisible Farmworkers

A couple of months ago I was invited to give a keynote address at the University of Vermont's Food Systems Summit, held last week at UVM in Burlington. I get a lot of these invitations. Keynote lectures are a part of the job at Food First. Fly in, give talk, go to reception, get up early and fly home. But Vermont is special. It just passed regulations to label GMOs and an increased minimum wage law. I asked my hosts if there would be any time to meet some people in the food movement and see some of the state's famous dairy farms and maple syrup operations. They graciously suggested I arrive a day early so they could show me around.

I was met early Monday morning by Doug Lantagne, Dean of UVM Extension, UVM Professor Teresa Mares, Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland, the Migrant Health Coordinator for Extension's "Bridges to Health" program, and Jessie Mazar, Project Coordinator for Huertas, a food security kitchen gardening project. They took me on a tour to Franklin County, on the Canadian border. It is Vermont's foremost dairy region. Little did I know what the combination of "border" and "dairy" meant to Franklin County's farming communities.

Rural Vermont in June is picture-postcard charming; gently rolling green fields and deciduous forests with magnificent old red barns and quaint two-story farmhouses nestled among the creeks and streams that drain into Lake Champlain. A Vermonter and forester, Doug provided a running commentary on the history, agroecology and culture of the region as we cruised along the neatly maintained country roads.

I spent much of my youth living and working on family dairy farms in Northern California. The dairies of my childhood -- and the farming way of life -- is largely gone today, so I got a warm, nostalgic feeling seeing that many Vermonters have managed to weather the ongoing disaster of our country's federal dairy policies. There were also lots of greenhouses full of fresh greens and vegetables. These are sold locally and regionally, from Burlington to New York City. Vermont itself is chock full of farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), local food enterprises, organic restaurants, Slow Food chapters, farm to school projects, farm to plate initiatives, farm incubators... Vermonters pride themselves for their strong local governments, progressive politics and spirit of independence -- Vermont was its own republic before it became a state.

"We are the Mecca of local food systems," said Doug, only half-joking. Then we stopped at a farm.

We were met by two milkers on the way to their chores. It was pretty clear they weren't from Vermont. They were short, powerfully-built indigenous men. We spoke with them briefly, not wanting to keep them from their work. I noticed their Spanish had the lilt common to southern Mexico. They were from Chiapas. My hosts took me to a weathered trailer to meet "Juana", the wife of one of the milkers. Juana was one of a number of women who work with Bridges to Health's Huertas Project that helps farmworker families grow vegetables to improve the family diet. Her garden had been recently planted so there wasn't too much to see, but it was clear that in a few weeks, chilies, tomatoes, eggplant, cilantro, squash and herbs were set to take over her back yard. Even though Juana had no previous gardening experience in Mexico (she told me that in her village farming was men's work), this was her second garden in Vermont and she was a believer.

Juana invited us in and we chatted about gardening, Vermont and Mexico over homemade tamales. I was curious about Bridges to Health. I'd worked with school and family gardens in Mexico in the 1970s. In my experience, the patio behind the house on smallholder farms was the domain of the woman of the house. It was a laboratory and she was the scientist. New seeds, cultivars, fertilization and cultivation techniques were often introduced, managed and evaluated under her watchful eye. Taste, ease of cooking, nutritional value and adaptability into the larger food and farming system were all part of her criteria. When cultivars were successful, they were often incorporated into the field. The knowledge of the new practice or cultivar was shared broadly through extended family and village networks, farmer-to-farmer. I believe that in this way women were essential to the success of Campesino a Campesino, a smallholder's movement for sustainable agriculture that spread agroecological farming practices to a quarter of a million farm families in Central America during the 1980s and 90s.

When I asked my friends from UVM Extension if they were using farmer-to-farmer techniques to spread Juana's new knowledge to other farmworker households, they shook their heads.

Then they told me something that broke my heart.

Juana can't leave the farm as she pleases. Neither can her husband or the other milker. In fact many of the undocumented farmworkers living close to the Canadian border in Vermont don't dare to leave the farms where they work on a regular basis out of fear of being picked up by the U.S. Border patrol. Those who live in these border communities don't have the ability to see friends or family, go to the store, go to church or go see a doctor as needed. They don't go anywhere out of fear of being seen. They are invisible.

I'd spent twenty years working with campesina families just like these. Their cultures are rooted in family and village life. They are deeply social because in the often precarious living conditions in which they live, they must depend on each other. Their culture is their resiliency. To be alone is to be painfully vulnerable -- and to be profoundly sad.

The Huertas project has tried bringing gardeners together to share seeds, plants and produce. Since the start of the project five years ago, they have invited gardeners to one or two canning workshops per year on a local family farm to help everyone process the tremendous surplus of vegetables they raise. Last year, the participants' greatest fear became reality when a volunteer driver was stopped by the Border Patrol while bringing farmworkers back home after a harvest gathering. Now, the project coordinators shuttle seeds and plants between gardening families, share information and just visit with the people confined to their trailers and makeshift apartments.

I've seen a number of labor camps over the years and I've visited many farmworker families in the United States. These farmworkers seemed comparatively better off. (Though I learned this isn't always the case.) Their wages are over $7/hour; housing is rustic but provided without charge. People told me most family farmers cared about their workers and did their shopping for them. It's not the farmer's fault our northern border has become militarized and immigration reform is mired in a dysfunctional Congress. Still, I had never seen such grinding solitude. Living in the shadows of Vermont's local food mecca, these men and women suffer a structural violence that strikes at the core of who they are as a people. I shudder to think of their isolation during winter months.

We went to another farm to visit "Tomás", a middle-aged man who insisted on feeding us a second lunch. The rice, beans, salad and homemade salsa were delicious. Then we visited his garden, one of several he maintains on the farm where he works. In Mexico, Tomás used to be a curandero, an herbalist. The garden was a riotous mix of herbs, greens and vegetables. He grows a lot of the seedlings that are shared with the other gardeners. He bounced enthusiastically between rows, harvesting vegetables and giving us bits of herbs to smell and taste.

"I don't actually eat much of this," he confessed, "I like to give it away to everyone!"

It occurred to me that Tomás gardened to take the edge off his loneliness. Not only did it fill up his time, it brought people to see him. It was something for which he had been respected in his own village. His positive attitude was infectious and we all enjoyed being together talking about gardening, health, friendship. It occurred to me that Tomás was one of the quintessential promotores (village extensionists) typical of the Campesino a Campesino movement: curious, enthusiastic and dedicated to farming and to his people. Then I learned that after eleven years of working on this dairy farm, Tomás had recently been caught by the Border Patrol. He had a court date and would in all likelihood be deported. The upside, I learned, was that he was, for the first time in a decade, moving freely around the county. If he got stopped by the Border Patrol all he had to do was show his court summons.

From there, Naomi took us to her family's farm where they raise vegetables, milk cows and (like most Vermont farmers) make maple syrup. She has recruited all of them to work with the Huertas project. It turns out that many of Vermont's farmers feel very badly about the draconian conditions imposed on their workers by the Border Patrol. Local law enforcement is decidedly less enthusiastic than the feds about rounding up undocumented farmworkers and even the governor has reportedly asked Homeland Security to back off a bit. A local organization, Migrant Justice, has worked hard to open access to driver identification cards to all residents regardless of documentation status and pass bias-free policing policies at the state level. Nevertheless, these efforts are necessarily constrained by the surveillance of the federal border.

The next day the Food Systems Conference got underway with speakers, panels and time for discussion. A lively crowd of some 300 social workers, academics, students, farmers and good old Vermont citizens turned out to address the issues of sustainability and equity in the food system. I learned quite bit. When it was my time to speak, I launched into a 40-minute tirade about the atrocities of the corporate food regime and the courageous efforts of farmers and consumers around the world to establish food justice and food sovereignty in the face of what seem to be insurmountable odds. I think I might have overwhelmed a lot of people, including myself. The fact is, the transformation of our food system is hard and often depressing work. The rules and the institutions are stacked in favor of the status quo.

As I finished up, in the midst of the sinking feeling I felt facing 300 people yearning for something positive, I was reminded of Tomás. He comes from one of many communities that have been devastated by free trade agreements and the industrial agricultural expansion of the corporate food regime. Yet somehow, Tomás refuses to give up hope.

Hope, is not the same as optimism. Optimism is when you believe things are going to turn out well. With one billion hungry despite record harvests (and record monopoly profits) it is hard to be optimistic about the global food system. It is hard to see how we are going to dismantle the carbon-spewing practices of industrial agriculture. It is very hard, sometimes, to be optimistic. Hope, however, is different. Hope is when you do things not because you are confident in an outcome but because you believe they are the right thing to do. You hope things work out for the best. Like Tomás, planting and sharing even though he is about to be deported.

For Tomás, for Juana and for hundreds of millions of others in the U.S. and around the world, giving up hope is simply not an option. We need to stand with them -- for everyone's future. Gracias, Tomás.