That quart of milk you bought today? A cow and a herd of humans is behind it: Employees who homogenize, bottle and deliver it to your store; the lab technician who checks it for quality and safety; workers who make disinfectants for cows and dairy machines; the truck driver who picks up the milk from the farm; the farmer who owns the cows and grows the silage; the nutritionist who supervises their feeding; and the laborers who clean the stalls, feed the cows and milk them.
Like Maria. On a dairy farm in Franklin County, Vt., she and three co-workers feed and milk 750 cows, twice a day.
For everyone living on a dairy farm, keeping cows healthy and productive is a 24-hour concern. Shifts are long and days off are few.
Maria (name withheld) and her co-workers face an additional restriction. Like half the workers on U.S. dairy farms—and well above 60 percent in Vermont—they are immigrants, all from Mexico, according to the Franklin Alliance for Rural Ministries (FARM) website. Undocumented, Maria doesn’t venture much beyond the farm.
“These [dairy workers] live in isolation, far from home,” said Kim Erno, director of FARM, an ecumenical ministry of the ELCA based at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Swanton, Vt. FARM provides accompaniment to Latino migrant workers and their families.
“Most Vermont workers come from the poorest states in southern Mexico, where trade agreements that permitted the dumping of low-price U.S. corn have devastated the local economy and forced small farmers off the land,” Erno said. “Folks are not coming to pursue the American dream but fleeing a global economic disaster.”
Erno knows one young man who supports seven people in Chiapas, Mexico, with his dairy wages. Maria, from Mexico City, hopes to earn enough to return home, buy a house for her family and start a business. Unless she is detained and deported—a possibility that troubles the National Milk Producers Federation, which estimates that losing workers to deportation would nearly double retail milk prices.
“Folks are not coming to pursue the American dream but fleeing a global economic disaster.” — Kim Erno, FARM director
Deportation isn’t the only issue that concerns Vermont dairy farmers. Industry consolidation pressures smaller dairies to increase their herds. Milk production is going up, but consumption isn’t. A strong U.S. dollar has tightened the export market for dairy products. And as government milk prices move from $20 a hundredweight down to $11, farmers are often in the red, said Alan Mesman, a milk industry expert.
While dairy farming is increasingly mechanized, people are still needed. As farmers age and their children choose non-farm careers, help must come from outside the family. Dependable workers like Maria and her family must cover extra shifts as unreliable workers come and go.
Marginalized by language and legal status, Vermont dairy workers can be vulnerable to exploitation, Erno said. Some farmers try to make up for profit-squeezing external factors by scrimping on wages and working and living conditions, Mesman added.
Pastoral presence, advocacy make a difference
Enter Erno. An ELCA missionary in Mexico City from 2002 to 2010, an Episcopal priest and Franklin County native, he connects deeply with both dairy workers and farmers. He calls himself “a sort of circuit rider” whose ministry is visiting workers like Maria in their homes and workplaces, driving them to medical appointments, interpreting when necessary, officiating at funerals and weddings, and, lately, taking part in vigils outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.
Pastoral presence makes a difference, Maria said. In cases where conditions are sketchy, salaries too low or abuse is taking place—a hazard for some women workers—“the boss knows we are not alone.”
Erno, Maria and FARM also participate in larger justice movements like the Milk with Dignity campaign, which seeks to establish a third-party verification system to certify that milk is sourced from dairies offering dignified housing and just labor practices.
“If people are concerned about milk quality and the well-being of cows, then why not workers?” Erno asked. “As Christians, we are called to God’s reign, where both people and creation are to be respected.”
Going home and staying there
Recently, Erno drove a couple to the post office to send packages of belongings back to their hometown in the state of Tabasco. The husband has been working in Vermont for seven years, and his wife for one. Now they are returning to Mexico and their 8-year-old son, who has been living with his grandparents. They hope their years in dairies are behind them.
So does Erno, who sees in the parable of the loaves and fishes the first steps toward achieving what he calls “the right to stay home.”
“When Jesus organized the community gathered to hear him, everyone was satisfied,” Erno said. “No one was separated from their homeland and sent away hungry to places like Vermont in order to support their families.”