Farm labor

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(HOST) Now that the elections are behind us, commentator Allen Gilbert hopes that the labor problems facing Vermont dairy farms will finally get some much-needed attention.

(GILBERT) The shift in control of Congress could help solve a vexing problem for Vermont dairy farmers.

Vermont dairy farms face significant economic threats. We’ve all heard about the drop in bulk milk prices and competition from huge Western farms. We’ve even heard quite a bit about the critical labor shortage that dairy farmers face. What we haven’t heard much about are realistic plans to address the shortage.

Nobody wants to milk cows anymore. It’s a relentless, back-breaking kind of work, and the pay’s not great. But nobody likes to hear about yet another dairy farm going under, either.

When rains and low prices socked farmers this summer, the governor called a “dairy summit.” At the summit, the governor said, I refuse to let the agricultural industry of Vermont slip away. Dairy farms, he said, are critical to Vermont’s working landscape. And the working landscape is good for the state’s economy. Dollars flow both from milk processors as well as from tourists.

Now it’s not entirely true that NOBODY wants to milk cows anymore. Mexican workers are willing to come to Vermont, thousands of miles from their families and communities, to do the work that Vermonters aren’t interested in.

The problem is that there’s no practical way for the Mexican laborers to come work here legally. Congress hasn’t been able to agree on immigration issues, other than authorizing the construction of a $700-million fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. But the problem facing Vermont dairy farmers isn’t about how to keep Mexicans out. It’s about getting them in. Our state will suffer if workers aren’t found to keep the farms in business.

So why haven’t politicians lined up to help Vermont dairy farmers get the labor they need so badly?

The answer is that it’s become very uncomfortable to talk about this country’s immigration policies. At a recent forum in Montpelier, panelists explained that prior to 9/11, American immigration laws were moving towards rational protocols for deciding who could come into the country and for what reason. The terror attacks of Sept. 11th changed that. Since then, we’ve become a xenophobic nation – we fear foreigners.

While there’s always been an undercurrent of resentment against immigrants, 9/11 allowed policy-makers to justify exclusionary rules on security grounds. Even local police – who used to be content to let the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service sort out who’s legal and who isn’t – even local police cite national security concerns if a foreign national’s documents aren’t in order.

Sen. Patrick Leahy tried earlier this year to have federal labor rules changed to allow the Mexicans to continue working on Vermont dairy farms. But the broader immigration fight blocked those efforts. Now, with the shift in control of Congress, perhaps the changes can go through.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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