Commentary

Dan Baker: Dairy industry at particular risk from pandemic

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Dan Baker, of Starksboro, who is an associate professor in the Department of Community Development & Applied Economics at the University of Vermont, whose research focuses on rural development in Vermont and Latin America.

The Covid-19 pandemic highlights many of the vulnerabilities in our food system. In his interview in VTDigger last week former and current migrant farmworkers Enrique Balcazar and Pedro highlighted several important and overlooked vulnerabilities in our dairy industry. My research team at UVM has studied dairy labor for over 10 years and our findings support several issues Enrique and Pedro raise. In addition we’re concerned about related stressors facing our dairy farmers and farms.  

Enrique pointed to the difficulty of social distancing for workers living in shared housing and working in close quarters. Interviews we did in 2019 bear this out: The average migrant dairy worker shares a house with an average of four other people, with as many as nine people in some housing. Options for social distancing is limited by work, transportation and legal status. How quarantine would be managed if someone gets sick is an open and challenging question.

Language issues are a perennial problem on dairy farms, where many migrant workers speak little English, nor do farmers speak Spanish.  Cellphone apps now help with limited translation, but most translation is still done by humans whose visits to farms are now restricted at a time when accurate and reliable information about the coronavirus is essential to limit its spread and protect human health.  

Accessing health care can be challenging for farmworkers in the best of times. A few organizations, notably the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury and UVM Extension’s Bridges to Health program have existing outreach and expertise in reaching Spanish-speaking farmworkers. Demand for the services of these organizations was high before the coronavirus and funding is limited. Both organizations have already contacted farms in their service areas providing information in English and Spanish about the coronavirus. Outreach to Spanish-speaking farmworkers beyond the service areas of these two organizations is much more uncertain. In addition, how workers would manage the cost of lost income or medical expenses if they become severely ill is a significant concern.  

More than 60% of dairy farmers we interviewed in 2018 reported that the farm drove their workers to go shopping. In addition, workers are normally served by mobile vendors who come to the farm delivering foods enjoyed by Mexican and Guatemalan workers. Farmers’ ability to drive workers is threatened if they themselves are sick, and very few, if any, food vendors are currently traveling to farms. Pre-coronavirus, most workers were food secure, but not all. In interviews we conducted in 2016 and 2019 about 20% of migrant dairy workers reported stress related to having access to sufficient food. With coronavirus, the risk of food insecurity among farmworkers grows. The work Migrant Justice is initiating to address the gap in food delivery to migrant farmworkers is timely and important.

The impact of becoming ill from COVID-19 affects not only the workers but their families back home. Nearly all migrant workers send money home. In addition to the impact of lost wages, workers are concerned about their family’s health, a serious issue in Mexico and Guatemala, countries with very limited health care systems that could well be hit hard by the coronavirus. 

The vulnerability of migrant dairy workers extends to the dairy farm itself.  Farmers depend on these workers. If workers get ill from the coronavirus that is a crisis for both workers and farmers. Dairy farmers head into this pandemic after years of low milk prices, resulting in the closure of nearly 50 dairy farms in 2019. Now they are facing another steep drop in milk prices.  And of course farmers, with an average age approaching 60, are vulnerable to the virus, threatening themselves, their families, and the farm, as well as farmworkers. 

Fortunately, there is time to prepare organizations mobilizing to address these issues. The Northeast Organic Farming Association saw the threat to their farms and moved quickly to organize and avoid disaster. NOFA put out a call for people with dairy experience who could step in to assist in case workers or farmers get ill. Their database now has more than 100 volunteers, and it’s growing. NOFA has made this program available to all dairy farmers affected by Covid-19, independent of membership in NOFA or whether or not they are organic.

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Taking action now to donate to the groups that are preparing to help farmers and farmworkers affected by the coronavirus, or volunteering if you have time and skills, can help weather the crisis today so we can have our farms for tomorrow. Vermont policymakers can advance legislation and provide assistance that helps Spanish-speaking farmworkers and farmers communicate more effectively about farm safety and health. 

The dairy farms that produce the milk, cheese and yogurt that feed us every day, and that create the landscape we love, are in a precarious situation. We need to support them now. When we do make it to the other side of this crisis, hopefully we will have a greater appreciation for the value of sustaining our local farms, a better understanding of the interconnectedness of our food systems, and a deepened commitment to collaboration in working through the challenges of farming today.


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