Business & Economy

Fate of Vermont agriculture in Washington weighs heavy

Peter Welch
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., talks about his Washington work on agriculture with farmers in Middlebury last week. Photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger
MIDDLEBURY — In a conference room with a calendar of antique tractors on the wall, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch spoke with agriculture leaders Thursday in what was billed as a roundtable focused on the next sweeping five-year federal farm bill.

And while dairy protection programs and phosphorus management were on the menu, farmers made clear to the Vermont Democrat that battling President Donald Trump’s tough immigration policies should be priority No. 1. Hundreds if not thousands of immigrant workers labor on Vermont farms, many of them in the U.S. without permission.

Snacking on cheese pizza and tall glasses of local milk, Champlain Valley dairy farmers vented to Welch about the uncertainty of Trump’s policies, contending that immigrant workers were some of the most dedicated employees they’ve ever had.

Loren Wood said the four migrants who labor on his Woodnotch Farm in Shoreham are “vitally important to our business.”

“Some of these guys have become almost members of the family,” Wood told Welch. “If we are having a cookout, they are with us.”

Phil Livingston of Rail View Dairy chimed in with agreement, saying his New Haven farm has benefited enormously from their dedicated labor.

“They know as much about managing dairy cows as some of us do, because they have invested so much of their time and energy,” Livingston said. “They are pretty smart individuals, and they are as proud of putting up high-quality milk as we are.”

Brian Kemp, a beef farmer who runs the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, urged Welch to tell Washington politicians that immigrants aren’t taking jobs away from citizens.

“They are here because there is a void,” Kemp said. “American workers do not want to milk cows.”

Wood shook his head in agreement, saying he offers competitive wages to local workers, but Vermonters often can’t keep up with the strenuous schedule.

“When we started milking three times a day we hired two local boys — white guys,” Wood said. “One lasted a week, the other quit before he started.”

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
Welch listened intently to the farmers’ concerns while his top dairy aide in Washington, Mark Fowler, took detailed notes.

“What you’re telling me is that getting the immigration issues resolved is at the top of your list, even more so than the dairy Margin Protection Plan,” Welch said, referring to a much-maligned insurance program inserted into the last farm bill.

The farmers nodded in agreement. Then Eugene Audet, of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, told Welch to quickly start looking for congressional allies for a comprehensive immigration bill that would offer a pathway to citizenship.

“(Sens.) Bernie Sanders and (Patrick) Leahy, they are helpful, but you all represent a small geographic area,” Audet said. “We need to get more help from the rest of the country. So can you come up with 10 names?”

Welch couldn’t list potential allies for an immigration bill, and for good reason. One of Trump’s key campaign promises was to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants, and in a speech during the campaign he denigrated Mexicans as rapists and criminals.

There has been congressional action on immigration in recent years, including in 2013 when Leahy, D-Vt., helped craft a bipartisan reform bill that passed the Senate. The bill, however, died in the House. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who holds enormous sway over immigration policy, vigorously opposed the 2013 bill when he was an Alabama senator.

“We in Washington are making it so hard for you,” Welch acknowledged. “It’s a challenge to simply have labor who can do the job and feel safe going into town to pick up some groceries or go to a movie. That’s pretty bad.”

Sonny Perdue
U.S. Sen Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, and Sonny Perdue, the USDA secretary nominee, shortly before Perdue’s confirmation hearing March 23. Photo courtesy of Leahy’s office

Funding in question

Many Vermont farmers feel existentially threatened under Trump, and not only because of his immigration policies. The president has recommended a 21 percent decrease in the budget of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for fiscal year 2018 — totaling $4.7 billion in savings.

In Vermont, such cuts would take away crucial technical and grant assistance to farmers already burdened by debt who face a shaky agricultural market.

In March, during the confirmation hearing for Trump’s USDA secretary, Sonny Perdue, Leahy defended federal programs as crucial for keeping Vermont farmers afloat.

“We know how important the Department of Agriculture is in supporting our nation’s farmers, our rural communities, our hungry and malnourished families here and abroad,” said Leahy, a former chairman of the Agriculture Committee who is now the panel’s most senior member.

An affable former Georgia governor, Perdue wore a powder blue tie dotted with rusty tractors during his confirmation hearing. And while Trump is looking to slash assistance for farmers, Perdue promised the panel he would be an advocate for those who work the land.

“Agriculture is in my heart,” he said. “And I look forward to fighting for the producers of America.”

Perdue’s nomination breezed out of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee in late March on a voice vote. According to Leahy’s spokesman, David Carle, the Vermont senator hasn’t made a decision on whether to vote for Perdue on the Senate floor, but he didn’t object to the nomination during the committee vote.

In addition to Perdue, there are roughly two dozen other USDA posts that still require Senate confirmation. The slow pace of the White House’s nomination process has frustrated Senate aides who say there are gaping holes in agency leadership.

In his confirmation hearing, Perdue made clear that he had not been consulted on the budget cuts Trump proposed, adding that he opposed many of the reductions.

Trump’s proposal slashes everything from wastewater grants to foreign food aid programs and calls for staffing reductions at USDA service centers across the country to “reflect reduced Rural Development workload.”

Vermont has nine USDA service centers, from Brattleboro to Newport, aimed at connecting farmers to financial and technical assistance programs.

There are 50 service center employees statewide to assist the roughly 7,000 farms in Vermont. Trump has also instituted a hiring freeze at various federal agencies, including the USDA, leaving a handful of jobs open in Vermont, including for a food safety inspector and a public health veterinarian.

State and Senate officials said cutbacks to staffing would result in farmers losing access to crucial grant money.

“Congress can appropriate all the money it wants for a conservation program, but if farmers can’t walk through the door at a nearby USDA office, that money goes back to the federal Treasury,” said Tom Berry, an agriculture policy aide to Leahy based in Vermont. “Anything that cuts back on the ability to reach farmers and deliver the help they need is more of a threat than lack of dollars.”

During the Perdue hearing, Leahy criticized the Trump administration’s hiring freeze and urged the nominee to be an ally to the “dedicated, competent, loyal” employees at the USDA, contending “they deserve your support.”

In the five minutes he was allotted during the Perdue hearing, Vermont’s senior senator raised a number of concerns — from flawed immigration and visa programs for farmers to inadequate forest fire preparedness.

As Vermont’s agricultural producers share their hopes and concerns for federal policy changes with Vermont’s congressional delegation, Leahy is best positioned to bring about change. He is working against USDA cuts in his role on the Appropriations Committee. He is also looking to address Vermont’s agriculture concerns as proposals for a new farm bill begin to germinate in Congress.

Migrant dairy worker, calf
An immigrant dairy worker tends a Holstein calf. File photo by Terry J. Allen/VTDigger

Visas and enforcement

Like Welch, Leahy is also worried about the future of farms without the labor of immigrant workers who may be in the country without permission.

During the Purdue hearing, Leahy brought up the federal H-2A visa program, which offers temporary agricultural visas for work such as harvesting fruit.

Leahy criticized the seasonal nature of the program, saying dairy farmers need year-round employees.

“You can’t have somebody come in for six months and then say, ‘OK’ — to the cows — ‘I’ll be back in six months to milk you again,’” Leahy said.

While any change would likely be directed through the Senate Judiciary Committee — where Leahy is a senior member — Perdue said he would support an exemption to the visa program for dairy farmers that would allow for extended stays.

Leahy included such an exemption in the 2010 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which received bipartisan support but died after pushback from conservatives.

The congressional delegation is also concerned about the recent arrests of Vermont immigration activists by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In a conference call with officials in late March, the delegation pressed ICE not to harm Vermont’s farm labor force through crackdowns. Republican Gov. Phil Scott said one of the primary reasons he supported a state immigration bill was to protect the agricultural economy in Vermont.

Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said there is widespread anxiety among farmers over the future of immigrant laborers in the state.

“Dairy farmers will tell you they don’t know where labor policy is headed,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty on the farm.”

Tebbetts said he hasn’t heard of any ICE raids on Vermont farms but that he and other state officials are looking to meet with ICE soon to clarify the mission of the federal agency under Trump.

Future of dairy in the farm bill

Dubbed the “Swiss Army knife” of legislation by President Barack Obama in 2014, the farm bill stakes out critical farm, food and forest policy for five years. The previous version had expired earlier, but Congress extended many of its provisions for a year.

As negotiations approach for the next version, Leahy is looking to boost support for dairy farmers amid a global drop in milk prices. The global market for milk, like oil, is extremely volatile, dependent on the economic strength — and appetites — of nations across the world.

Russia, for example, used to gobble up European cheese. But after the country was slapped with economic sanctions in 2014 over its involvement in Ukraine, Moscow retaliated by banning Western cheese, a move that bloated the global market with surplus dairy and lowered prices, according to NPR.

Leahy urged Perdue, if confirmed, to use his power as secretary to extend emergency support for struggling farmers, citing similar action taken to bail out Southern cotton farmers last year.

In 2016, then-USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack used his existing authority to approve a $300 million emergency cost-sharing program for cotton producers struggling from a drought that was worsened by an intense hurricane season that ripped up acres and acres of the fluffy fiber.

Perdue seemed open to Leahy’s proposal.

“As a son of a dairy farmer, and having dairied myself, I understand the hard work — seven days a week, 365 days a year — that our farm families, particularly smaller farm families — particularly in your area — go through,” said Perdue, promising to fight for such a program.

Experts say temporary assistance, however, won’t heal the underlying economic wounds of dairy farmers. Instead, they say a more comprehensive approach is needed.

Leahy’s dream fix is a dairy market stabilization program designed to rein in wild fluctuations in dairy commodity prices.

Cows on a Vermont farm. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
The so-called supply management program — which had been a major hope for smaller Northeastern dairy farmers during the last farm bill debate — would have required farmers participating in a new dairy insurance program to reduce milk production when dairy prices fell. The program would have scaled back milk payments for farmers who produced more than their average seasonal output, to try to avoid an oversupply of milk on the market and further decrease commodity prices.

These provisions aimed to stabilize the market and, in turn, reduce the need for USDA price supports.

Although a Leahy-backed stabilization program passed both chambers in the 2014 farm bill, Republican leaders balked at the program in the final days of negotiations. House Speaker John Boehner was the chief critic of market stabilization, calling it a “Soviet-style” program.

Scott Brown, a University of Missouri dairy economist, said different market segments of the dairy industry do not all agree on the idea of market stabilization.

“If you are a dairy processor you probably aren’t excited about a plan to lower the amount of milk available to you to make dairy products,” Brown said.

While Leahy would like to see the program offered again in the 2018 farm bill, a Senate aide acknowledged that “there does not seem to be sufficient political support.”

Leahy’s efforts are now focused on more politically practical reforms, including changes to two insurance-type programs established in the last farm bill: the dairy Margin Protection Program and the Livestock Growth Margin.

The Margin Protection Program — the more popular of the two programs among Vermont farmers — allows dairy producers to buy milk-loss insurance plans through the USDA for an annual fee of $100. The base plan reimburses producers when the national dairy margin — defined as the difference between the wholesale milk price and average feed costs — is less than $4 per hundred pounds of milk, or hundredweight.

More comprehensive plans, with heftier support payments for milk losses, are available at a higher price to the farmer. The cap in coverage currently ends when a farmer is losing $8 per hundredweight.

The other program, the Livestock Growth Margin, offers similar help to dairy farmers, though assistance is calculated based on a farm’s profits.

For the first time, these two assistance programs required farmers to calculate their risk and submit estimates to the government. Before these programs, farmers simply signed up in a USDA office for the Milk Income Loss Contract, which disbursed direct monthly payments when dairy prices dropped below a certain amount.

“It used to be a passive program. Now it’s an active program where farmers have to figure out their own risk,” said Diane Bothfeld, Vermont’s deputy agriculture secretary. “It would be great if all farmers knew how to calculate the exact price to make milk. Some do, some don’t.”

After the programs were passed in the last farm bill, USDA and state officials held workshops across Vermont to explain how to enter the programs. And while 566 Vermont farms signed up for the Margin Protection Program, 93 percent of farms signed up for the cheapest, catastrophic coverage option, leading to inadequate payments when prices dropped.

Mexican workers milk cows in the milking parlor of a Vermont dairy farm.
Workers milk cows on a Vermont dairy farm. File photo by Terry J. Allen
“Farmers weren’t seeing many payments,” said Bothfeld. “It was discouraging, because the milk prices seemed really low and farmers were struggling, but they weren’t getting anything out of this program.”

The payments are meager, in part, because of how the federal government currently calculates feed costs.

The federal standards use wholesale, not retail, grain prices, which also don’t include processing and shipping costs that inevitably raise prices for farmers. In addition, Congress skimmed 10 percent off the feed cost calculation during late-stage negotiations over the 2014 farm bill.

According to Dairy Herd Management, a trade publication, only farmers who bought the more expensive comprehensive plans received government assistance last summer. Nearly 21,000 farmers who purchased the catastrophic $100 coverage option didn’t get one federal check.

Leahy is looking to raise the margin beyond the current $8 cap in order to raise payments to dairy farmers. But while lifting the cap would put more money in the farmer’s pocket, some are concerned about the added federal cost — potentially $2 billion over 10 years.

In addition, farmers are looking for payments to be calculated and dispensed every month, as opposed to the bimonthly payment system in place today. Such a change could add more financial stability to farms, and might more accurately reflect the constantly shifting dairy market. (The current base price per hundredweight of milk is around $16.)

Vermont’s senior senator is also advocating for more flexibility for farmers by allowing them to shift between insurance programs. Farmers were locked into either the Margin Protection Program or the Livestock Growth Margin for the full term of the last farm bill.

Brown, the dairy economist, has laid out a variety of proposed changes to dairy margin programs that would strengthen support for farmers.

“All of them cost more money for the federal government,” he said.

Brown points out that the federal dairy support is roughly $70 million a year for an industry that takes in $40 billion a year worldwide.

“When you think about an industry that has $40 billion in cash receipts, it’s a pretty tall order to make a safety net that can adequately protect dairy farmers,” Brown said. “There’s a political choice to be made over how much we are going to spend on dairy safety.”

Goats graze on the Flatlander Farm in Addison County. Courtesy photo

Environmental conservation

Federal conservation programs tucked into the farm bill provide crucial support in passing land from aging farmers to their younger counterparts.

Leahy has been a key defender of federal farmland conservation programs for more than a decade, and staffers say he will fight any proposed cuts in the programs, which are often high on the list when lawmakers look for savings.

One of those areas is land conservation.

The Vermont Land Trust has supported the continued operation of more than 800 farms of all shapes and sizes over the last 25 years, according to Gil Livingston, the organization’s president.

“Half of every dollar we spend for farmland conservation in Vermont comes out of the farm bill,” Livingston said. “Without the farm bill, we’d do half as many farmland conservations.”

(The Vermont Land Trust also receives significant support from private foundations and donors.)

In Vermont today, fledgling farmers often struggle to purchase land.

“There’s very little farmland in Vermont that’s not subject to real estate pressure because of its proximity to New York, Boston and Montreal,” Livingston said. “There are very few farmers who are well capitalized enough to purchase farmland without help.”

The land trust matches young farmers with retiring ones, negotiating purchases and helping to defray land costs through conservation easements or direct assistance to farmers. The land trust also purchases four or five farms a year when retiring farmers need to sell, holding the land until a fledgling farmer expresses interest.

Livingston said his organization is “really worried” about potential federal cuts, contending that Vermont would benefit from even more assistance.

“There is four times the demand as there is money,” Livingston said. “The waiting list is very long, and when people wait in a queue for too long, we lose farmland protection opportunities.”

Literature at a USDA Service Center in Middlebury explains various federal grant programs for farmers. Photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

Rural economy programs

In his role on the Appropriations and Agriculture committees, Leahy is also looking to spare a number of USDA programs from deep cuts or outright elimination.

Under the White House proposal, the Rural Business Cooperative Service would be discontinued. The service offers grants ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 to businesses with fewer than 50 employees in rural areas.

USDA Rental Assistance Grants — which subsidize payments for rural low-income tenants, including farmworkers — would be cut by $50 million nationally under Trump’s proposal.

The USDA’s Forest Service would see $41 million in cuts to forest programs. In 2016, Vermont received more than $5.7 million in grant money from the forest service to support everything from fire prevention efforts to restoration of community forests.

Tebbetts, Vermont’s agriculture secretary, said he is closely tracking developments in the farm bill and the appropriations process, noting that 15 percent of his agency’s $22 million budget comes from the federal government.

Tebbetts said the agency is in “constant contact with the congressional delegation” on how things are shaping up. “But because the agriculture secretary is the last Cabinet official to be nominated, we are still listening and learning, trying to figure out what the future may mean for our farmers,” he said.

Chief among Tebbetts’ various concerns is a future without federal support for clean water and wastewater programs.

Anson Tebbetts
Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
Trump would put an end to the Water and Wastewater loan and grant program, which provides funding for clean and reliable drinking water systems and sanitary sewage disposal across Vermont and the rest of the country.

USDA dollars are crucial in helping farmers around the Lake Champlain basin, the Connecticut River and Lake Memphremagog to improve farming techniques and strengthen water quality.

There’s also anxiety from Tebbetts and others that the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, another USDA program, could see cuts in the next farm bill. The program offers financial and technical assistance for everything from drought mitigation to manure management.

Federal funds are a major source of money to help farmers contain phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain. Vermont dairy farmers are hoping that even more EQIP money will be available in the next farm bill to install expensive new infrastructure required to meet the cleanup plan for the lake.

“The economics of running a farm right now are not good,” said Jeff Carter, an agronomist at the University of Vermont who helps connect farmers with federal grants. “If additional requirements are put on that farm — even if they get financial assistance — they still have to come up with a chunk of money. Farmers right now are talking to us, saying, ‘Well, should I sell my farm now or should I try to go through these upgrades?’”

Vermont is also one of the highest users of USDA assistance to help farms transition to organic production.

“So far, the proposals out of the White House haven’t gotten into granular detail,” said Berry, Leahy’s Vermont agriculture aide. “This organic program does not require much money, but it is important for organic agriculture in Vermont and other states. Sen. Leahy will fight for it.”

Another farm bill program Vermont relies heavily on provides specialty crop block grants. In recent years these grants have supported various producers, including Vermont hemp growers and winemakers. They also enable research at the University of Vermont aimed at solving agricultural challenges, from the fight against the invasive swede midge to determining the best bee-rearing techniques.

The Northeast Kingdom relies heavily on the REAP program, created by Leahy in the 2000 farm bill. The program designated a handful of economically struggling rural zones across the country, including the Kingdom — which has received at least $68 million in USDA development grants since 2000.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., raises the traditional “milk toast” to dairy farmers after the signing of the farm bill in 2014. U.S. Senate photo

Farm bill politics

The political factions for the farm bill often cut across geographical lines, not party ones.

States teeming with industrialized farms and thousands of cows have different interests than regions where farmers work on smaller plots of land with fewer livestock.

Tebbetts said divisions emerged during a recent meeting with agriculture secretaries and commissioners from New England.

“Hearing remarks from around the table it was clear there was no real consensus about how to deal with dairy policy,” he said.

Leahy is looking to build a coalition of states with smaller dairy producers over the farm bill, a team that may include members from states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire and Maryland.

Both Leahy and Welch also have a strong relationship with U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson was a key ally in the 2014 farm bill push for stabilization in the dairy market.

The most expensive section in the farm bill is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps. In the last farm bill, tea party Republicans looked to divorce SNAP from the farm bill in an effort to cut food assistance by $40 billion and eliminate eligibility for 3.8 million low-income recipients. The cuts failed to gain widespread support and SNAP remained in the farm bill — though the final legislation cut $8.6 billion in nutrition spending over a period of 10 years.

It’s unclear the fate of SNAP in the 2018 farm bill, though Trump’s budget proposal offered no spending reductions to the program. Leahy aides predicted Republicans will likely again push for cuts to SNAP, adding that most farm bill programs are expected to be level-funded, if not cut.

“When Sen. Leahy was chairman, he literally put the word ‘nutrition’ back in the committee’s official title, and he acted to make hunger and nutrition a priority,” said Berry. “That title and that emphasis have stayed ever since.”

The farm bill writing process will heat up once the Senate Budget Committee provides the Agriculture committee a secure budget number for the USDA, at which funding levels can be filled in.

Sanders is the top liberal on the Budget Committee. Two Sanders staffers did not respond to multiple requests to discuss the budget process and what the Vermont senator’s work on USDA funding entails.

Welch framed the farm bill as a key piece of legislation to help Americans of all stripes, implying that Trump should push to enrich the USDA, not slash its budget.

“The farm bill is an absolutely essential tool to help us revitalize rural America,” Welch said. “Rural America is struggling, we are losing population, the economy is weak. The titles in the bill — from conservation to rural green energy programs — have helped revitalize Vermont’s economy of local production.”

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Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is VTDigger’s political reporter. A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news sited dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. Congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Jasper on Twitter @Jasper_Craven

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  • Dave Bellini

    The real problem is there’s more supply than demand. Subsidizing this reality makes no sense. Milk shouldn’t be this political. People are drinking less milk. There’s fewer kids in school than there was years ago. There’s healthy alternatives to cow milk in 2017 that didn’t exist years ago. Consuming less dairy is healthier for some people. All these changes have happened gradually and do not equal a crisis of some kind.

    • Steve Baker

      Exactly, milk for the most part is a non-essential carrier and the fact that most people don’t need. Are we the only mammals to drink milk after we are weaned from their mother ?

  • John Klar

    There are actually farms in Vermont that are not Big Dairy….

  • Luann Tenney Therrien

    I have known, and know plenty of people who ​have worked on farms, and are willing to go to work on farms.
    Lets look at this from another angle shall we….. What are the benefits to hiring illegal immigrant workers?
    Do not have to pay them the same as a legal resident, and that money is paid under the table, they do not pay taxes.
    Do not have to pay workman’s comp for illegal immigrant workers.
    Do not have to have insurance for illegal immigrant workers.
    If the illegal immigrant workers do not like how they are treated, who would they turn to for help? No one, because they are illegal immigrant workers and do not want to be turned in.

  • Steve Baker

    Isn’t it extremely pathetic we were on a headline “Fate of Vermont agriculture rests in Washington”
    Have we fallen that far? I wants hard-working proud state now completely dependent on Washington?
    I think it’s a case of hyperbole or fake news, The financial data available doesn’t back up a claim like that.
    Farmers and the agricultural business need to follow our laws! Regardless if you’re in favor of illegal immigration or against, I’m sure you’re not in favor of businesses moving into Vermont and hiring illegals in order to make their balance sheets work.
    And since when has it become hate speech or harassment to post “follow the law”

    • chris wilmot

      Our state reps…working to exploit illegals so welfare farmers can continue their failed buiseness approach..which polluted lake Champlain

      • Steve Baker

        That really is the headline. If it were any other business, Vermont would be calling for heads To roll.

    • Robert Lehmert

      “I’m shocked. SHOCKED I tell you… The financial data available doesn’t back up a claim like that….” Really?

  • chris wilmot

    It’s worth noting Donald trumps immigration policy is the exact same one as obamas and bush etc. nothing has changed and no new laws have been passed.
    What’s changed is trumps enforcement of federal laws in dealing with ILLEGAL immigrants.
    The way it’s phrased by vtdigger is misleading, as it makes it seem as though trump has created new laws

  • Jason Brisson

    I have nothing but respect for farmers who work long hard days to make their operations profitable, and provide a living for their families. Farming is agribusiness though. What other business model relies on government assistance/grants/subsidies/price regulation and the hiring of illegal labor, that we call successful and sustainable?

    • Edward Letourneau

      “…What other business model relies on government assistance/grants/subsidies/price regulation.” this fits the education establishment too.

      • chris wilmot

        Public education is an institution not a business

        • Edward Letourneau

          You guys don’t understand how education works in Vermont.

      • Jason Brisson

        Nope. Public schools are a function of government. If they were a business, either we’d have great students graduating every year, or the school would close.

    • Robert Lehmert

      When Donald Trump demolished the Commodore Hotel in New York, he hired 200 illegal Polish guys to knock it down. Guess it all depends on whose ox is getting gored. Also, Trump Tower picked up an energy efficiency incentive (assistance/subsidy) from NYSERDA of almost $1 million for one practically new building. Now he’s just living in three places paid for the government, flying two government funded jets. I do, however, have respect for farmers.

      • chris wilmot

        Actually a subcontractor hired them

        • Robert Lehmert

          Was it a liberal elite subcontractor? Did the Polish workers end up in affordable housing projects?

      • Jason Brisson

        “he hired 200 illegal Polish guys to knock it down” So because Trump did it, farmers should do it too? I don’t believe in grabbing cats, but Trump is on record as being a fan…

        “Trump Tower picked up an energy efficiency incentive (assistance/subsidy) from NYSERDA of almost $1 million”. Are you calling Trump “successful and sustainable”?

        • Robert Lehmert

          Not exactly. More like “opportunistic” and “greedy” and “hypocritical”. Tell you what Jason, find a whole bunch of bona fide Americans willing to show up when needed, and do that work at that pay and the farmers will sing folksongs for generations about you. If you can’t and they can’t find anybody, the farmers can’t get the crops and the fields will go fallow and the farmers will drift away. This is not a good thing.

          • Jason Brisson

            “If you can’t and they can’t find anybody, the farmers can’t get the crops and the fields will go fallow and the farmers will drift away. This is not a good thing.”
            So instead of addressing the problem, throw $$ at it with subsidies, and look the other way on illegal hiring?
            Making hard decisions about dairy now, could lead to a better farm, state, economy, and environment in the future.
            Now is the time for dairy farmers to ask themselves–do I want to be 100% in the fluid milk market only, or should I be looking to diversify into other agriculture, and reduce my liability in milk?
            Now is the time for dairy farmers to ask themselves–if I don’t have the manpower to milk a couple hundred head, should I downsize the herd significantly, and start making value added products like butter, cheese, or ice cream?
            Now is the time for dairy farmers to ask themselves–maybe I’m ready to retire from the barn, and start selling hay, or christmas trees, or flowers, or fruits, or vegetables, or on farm experiences, none of which require regularly getting up to milk at 4 am.

          • chris wilmot

            The farmers pay is not even legal. They expect people to be willing slaves

          • Steve Baker

            So you’re in favor of continuing illegal exploitative slave labor?

  • chris wilmot

    The real issue is the nimby attitude of the liberal elite. The worst that would happen if these failed farmers were actually allowed to fail is that the state would have 1000’s of acres of land to develop affordable housing.

    Since the liberal elite want the poor “herded” into city centers where the will be enchained in debt with high rental prices- the farms will remain. The rich want the poor either paying high rents, dead from a heroin epidemic they do nothing about, or moved out of state

    It’s the only reason they are openly colluding with criminals to continue their criminal enterprises

    • Jason Brisson


    • Robert Lehmert

      Amazing! What is “liberal”about the elites who want to herd the poor into the cities? This sounds a lot like Pol Pot — was he a type of liberal as you describe them?

      • chris wilmot

        Ask the upper valley land trust why they want to “herd” (yes that is the word they use) the poor into city centers.
        And are you seriously. claiming that leahy, Welch, and sanders are not liberal?

  • John Freitag

    Thanks VTDigger for yet another excellent in depth article on an important issue. Another benefit of VTDigger, that is much appreciated, is the place it provides for a younger generation of reporters, like Mr. Craven, to hone their already considerable journalistic skills.
    It may well be that we are at a critical juncture for large scale dairy farms in Vermont.
    We simply can not have a agricultural component of our State that is dependent on illegal workers and is also responsible for a good part of polluting Lake Champlain and other waterways with nutrient rich runoff. Vermont agriculture has gone through changes in the past, most notably the nearly total collapse of sheep farming, which at one point dominated the State and interesting enough had its own adverse environmental impact.
    Adjustments clearly are in the offing as the status quo will not stand up to the political and environmental reality of today. How and in what manner we make these changes is the challenge faced by both farmers and those who believe a sustainable working landscape is important in Vermont.

    • Andi Rosin

      Hi. One of the farmers in this article specifically said he tried to hire local workers. One stayed just a week and the other quit before he started.
      Farmers want to hire locally but Americans just dont want the jobs. They are very physically demanding jobs and many people are just not able to do it. Sometimes due to health or age but the fact is, time and time again farmers say no Americans want the jobs. If the farmers need workers to survive and he/she cannot find workers in the U.S., what choice do they have? I have heard many farmers here say the same, dozens of them as in my job I worked sometimes with farmers as well as foresters. I am not sure what other choice they have because of Americans dont want the jobs then they have to fill the jobs somewhere or go out of business.

      • chris wilmot

        If they won’t pay wages tHat are in line with the work being asked then they need to offer to pay more.

      • Jason Brisson

        “no Americans want the jobs”. No, no Americans want to work for what the farmers are paying. I’ve seen farmers that pay more and hire plenty of locals.

        “they have to fill the jobs somewhere or go out of business.” Correct, without illegal labor many of these farms would be forced to make very tough decisions about their business model, diversification, alternative products/crops, and indeed the possibility of the heartbreaking decision of do we stay in business.

        We might lose some farms, but the ones that remain will be stronger, and better able to compete.

        • Scott Greene

          $15 an hour seems to get results.

  • Tim Vincent

    Leahy, the “dean” of the Senate.
    Where is his legislation creating an agriculture visa specifically aimed at dairy?
    A modified H1-B should not be all that complicated?
    Where is it?

  • Andi Rosin

    In the article, one farmer specifically said he wanted to hire local people. He said that one quit after a week, and one quit before he began.
    The work is very physically demanding and the fact is, most Americans dont want the jobs.

    The farmer in the article made a point of how much he wanted to hire local workers and how local workers just could not handle the job.

    The other farmers agreed with him.

    While I am now retired, my job brought me into contact with local farmers and foresters and industries here in Vermont ranging from lumber exports to greenhouses to farms to the wood industry.

    The fact is these farmers want to hire locally but people just find the work too physically demanding.

    If these farms, not just here in Vermont but nationwide, cannot survive then you will be paying a huge amount of money for your produce and for your dairy products.

    Food would have to be imported from around the world, and ironically, we import a lot of produce from Mexico.

    Every action has a reaction. If the farms cannot find help and cant survive, then your food prices skyrocket because the majority would come from other countries.

    People keep saying these workers are taking jobs from Americans but how many farmers have to say over and over that Americans dont want those jobs until you actually believe them?

    • chris wilmot

      The pay is too low. No one will work hard manuel labor for absolute minimum wage. These farmers are not being realistic. Which is why they make up stories to justify hiring illegals at wages well below legal

      • Jim Manahan

        Being ignorant about the facts doesn’t justify the nonsense.

    • Tim Vincent

      Vermont’s generous welfare payments discourage work and a lot of people just don’t want to work – unless they are in a rock band or president of a large corporation.

      • chris wilmot

        There is no such thing as welfare payments. There are various social services which mainly help single mothers or low income couples with a newborn.
        There is NO assistance for able bodied adults in the form of cash payments. At best you will get a room in a motel for a few months and maybe-maybe some food assistance. That’s it

    • Glenn Thompson

      I’ve touched on this issue in another Digger article recently. No doubt Vermont farmers have no choice but to look outside the country for workers willing to work on a diary farm. Even back in the 50’s & 60’s when my own family farmed, my dad found it difficult to find quality help. Back then, it was available as opposed to now which is next to impossible which one of my relatives has learned.

      They have brought in migrants using the H-2A program. They have had success with it, but H-2A has issues where the entire program needs an overhaul so farmers can easily bring in Migrant workers. Here is a link to the program.

      However, farming isn’t the only occupation that demands physical activity. My son’s own employer has a difficult time filling open positions due to the fact that job does require some physical activity…..not anywheres on the level as farming, but yet requires physical activity. Contrary to what some might believe, it has nothing to do with low wages, but a direction this country has become in “lazyness’. We have created a society if one doesn’t need to work for a living, they don’t. Perhaps we need to look at the root cause to why Americans don’t wish to do jobs that are physically demanding?

    • Steve Baker

      There is a difference between not wanting a job and not needing a job because someone else will provide for you (meaning the state). If the only way you could feed yourself was through hard work, I believe there would be plenty of people willing to work on the dairy farms.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    The labor troubles for Vermont’s dairy farms are in part due to the fact that our overly generous welfare cornucopia incentivizes people to NOT work and instead to turn out fatherless children. The need for steady work on the dairy farms is no different than the need for other seasonal migrant agricultural workers that we have a current visa program for. Rep. Welch, and Sens. Leahy and Sanders, since you have
    always promoted yourselves as friends to the Vermont dairy farmer, how
    about you spend a little less time obsessing about the last election
    and instead promote legislation to create a foreign worker visa program
    for dairy and other YEAR-ROUND agricultural help. We have a successful
    visa program for SEASONAL workers that Vermont farmers have long taken
    advantage of. No one is arguing against guest workers doing the things
    that lazy Ummericans just wont do (because our welfare system gives
    out checks for doing nothing) , but why shouldn’t they have the
    opportunity to get a
    work visa so we can have an option to check
    criminal background and have some idea of where they can be located?
    What Vermont does instead is give illegal aliens a sham drivers license
    with no requirement for documentation.

  • John McClaughry

    This is an exceptionally good review article on current dairy issues. On one key issue: The solution to the immigrant labor problem should be evident. Make the H2A program valid for extended periods, as Leahy proposed in 2010. Then assign one of the 50 USDA employees in VT to manage compliance paperwork for immigrant workers for all Vermont’s dairy farms, as a joint employer. Just keep the authorizing legislation apart from a hotly controversial “comprehensive immigration reform bill”. One would
    think Leahy could get a Vermont pilot program through his two committees, as he
    did the REAP program.

    • Steve Baker

      You would think our senator could do that if he wasn’t a strident and ideologue. There is plenty of bipartisan support to fix areas of the immigration system without the omnibus comprehensive immigration reform.
      Let’s all remember, years ago when the entire visa system was being looked at it was the Democrats that took their ball and went home that scuttling the entire seasonal visa program.

  • Willie Rainville

    It’s not the fact that we need immigrants to work on farms !!! It’s the fact that they would rather worry bout the Mexican probolm when all they need to do is worry about a stable price of milk so us as farmers can pay none immigrant wages !! The only way to fix it is threw supply management !! Anyone will milk cows if they get paid for it… There are hundreds of ways to do supply management and one system to start .. Then we can work on it from there to better balance the flow of milk to market demands and stop worrying about exports my suggestion to ur legislation is to fix the supply and demand probolm of milk so we can be profitable and fix the problem on our own !

    • chris wilmot

      Like killing cows to decrease the amount of milk available? Oh wait – that already happened..

      • Willie Rainville

        Not killing cows at all. Adjust rations for lil less milk produtuon if we are allready dumping milk like we are in manure pits why are we maken it just t drive the price down. If there is 5% to much milk cut back 5 % …
        5% can drive the price back to 25$cwt. do with that being said if you ship 60000 lbs a day at 16 $ milk it is 9600$. Now 55000 lbs a day 25 $ milk is 13750$ Less is more. When they need your milk they will pay for it. Just need to balance the supply to fit the demand if a market opens up for exports then we will be able to expand to the market but when the market drops we need to adjust the supply for it

        • chris wilmot

          Killing cows proved costly with the settlement payout…

  • Willem Post

    There is no reason to go through all sorts of extra legal contortions to justify aiding, abetting and condoning illegality.

    There are plenty of legal, documented immigrant workers who will work on Vermont farms, if paid a decent wage.

  • Steve Baker

    One thing to remember, President Trump isn’t responsible for deporting illegals, the law is responsible for deporting them.

  • John Grady

    “There’s A Huge Shortage Of Truck Drivers In America — Here’s Why The Problem Is Only Getting Worse”

    Same lie, different industry. They have been crying for decades yet UPS has no driver shortage. Reality is millions of displaced workers give trucking a shot and don’t last long. Is it because they are lazy and would sooner collect welfare, no they had jobs for decades and have families to support but a large part of the trucking industry is a burn.

    Spoiled people who worked 40 hours a week with vacations and holidays didn’t ever give their boss 40 hours, they spent 40 hours on the clock and made good money in most cases. They didn’t work for labor racketeers 80 to 100 hours a week in sweatshop third world conditions right here in America.

    How much would milk go up in price if the diary farm pay was tripled and hours cut in half ? America throws away half the food it produces and tons of people eat way too much.

    Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation
    by Michael H. Belzer
    Michael H. Belzer, Associate Professor of Industrial Relations and
    Director of the Graduate Program in Industrial Relations at at Wayne
    State University and an assistant research scientist at the University
    of Michigan Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations.

    American’s believe in myths, folk lore and Fairy Tales and like pull string dolls babble away about things they know nothing about.