Struggling Vermont Dairies Shaken by Federal Subpoenas

Emily Udell

Dairy farmer Lisa Kaiman walks on her 33-acre farm in Chester, Vt. Vermont's family-run dairy operations are afflicted by a policy that favors large corporate producers. In 1947 there were 11,206 dairy farms in the state, today there are less than 1,500.

Vermont is a state that rarely pops up in labor news, but the Green Mountain State’s dairy industry became a target Friday when federal agents subpoenaed five dairy farms as part of a nationwide effort to punish employers who hire undocumented workers.

Advocates for migrant farmers estimate that some 2,000 undocumented workers are employed by Vermont dairy farms, which is the largest portion of the state’s agricultural income and a big part of its identity.

The feds presented subpoenas to five farms, demanding they provide documents proving their workers are employed legally. The probe, which was initially rumored to target some 86 farms, come at a bad time for the Vermont dairy industry, which has been facing an ongoing pricing decline that has caused the shutdown of several farms a month and prompted lawmakers to beg for federal aid.

The hiring records of the targeted dairies, which were reportedly located in Orleans and Franklin counties in the northern part of the state, are among 1,000 businesses nationwide whose employment records the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Thursday that it would audit.

An immigration attorney told the Associated Press that Vermont dairy farms have been struggling to find the workers they need and do not qualify for H2A or H2B temporary worker visa programs.

The situation prompted independent Sen. Bernie Sanders to say he would support a guest worker program to deal with a labor shortage at the state’s dairy farms, despite the fact that he has historically opposed such deals.

Sanders told the Burlington Free Press:

I am not a great fan of guest worker programs. I think very often in the recreation industry, the technology industry, the guest worker program has been used to bring foreign workers into this country to lower the wages that are paid to American workers.

As we blogged about at ITT Working, guestworkers are routinely abused and retaliated against if they complain about violations of their rights or a loss of wages.

To wit, Sanders said that such a plan would need to include language to protect workers’ civil rights and ensure they were paid a fair wage.

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Emily Udell is a writer for Angie’s List Magazine in Indianapolis. In 2009, she finished a stint drinking bourbon and covering breaking news for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. Her eclectic media career also includes time at the Associated Press, Punk Planet (R.I.P.), The Daily Southtown in southwest Chicago, and Radio Prague in the Czech Republic. She co-hosted and co-produced In These Times’ radio show Fire on the Prairie” from 2003 to 2006.
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