Vermont farmers worried about immigration policy changes
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Agriculture Anson Tebbetts.

Vermont farmers worried about immigration policy changes

At Brattleboro meeting, state Ag boss tries to ease concerns

BRATTLEBORO — Vermont farmers are worried about what President Donald J. Trump's immigration policies may mean for the hundreds of Latino laborers who work on their farms.

At a meeting on Feb. 17 at the Vermont Agricultural Business Economic Center, state Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has been talking with the state and U.S. Labor Departments to figure out a strategy.

According to the Vermont Migration Education program at the University of Vermont, about 1,000 Latino farmworkers are in the Green Mountain State, and about half of them work on about 177 of Vermont's 818 dairy farms.

While the U.S. government has temporary visa programs that allow workers to perform seasonal labor - such as the Jamaicans who come to work each growing season on apple farms around Windham County - there isn't an equivalent program for dairy farmworkers.

Seasonal farmworkers come to Vermont on an H-2A visa. About 140,000 agricultural workers annually come to the U.S. under this program. Work terms can be as short as a month or two, but no longer than 10 months, and all H-2A workers are covered by federal labor regulations. Employers of H-2A workers are also required to pay for inbound and outbound transportation, plus room and board.

Other temporary non-agriculture workers need H-2B visas, but the number of those visas available each year is capped at a nationwide total of 66,000 by the U.S. government.

“It doesn't take long to fill those slots up,” said Tebbetts.

Because dairy farming is year-round work, immigrants who come to work temporarily on Vermont's dairy farms and stay on fall into a legal limbo. Attempts to end that limbo by expanding H-2A visas to cover dairy-farm work have gone nowhere in Congress.

Tebbetts said the Agency of Agriculture has been talking with the federal government to expand the H-2A program, and has also talked with the state Department of Corrections about training low-risk offenders to do dairy farmwork.

The idea behind both discussions is to make sure farms have someone to do the work if the Trump administration's immigration crackdown comes to Vermont.

“It would take a huge shift to get other workers to fill those jobs,” Tebbetts said.

Farmers want to cut red tape

Tebbetts' visit to Brattleboro, part of a statewide “listening tour” by the Agency of Agriculture, drew about 20 people. The farmers in attendance were unanimous in their sentiment that there is too much state and federal bureaucracy interfering with their work.

Leon Corse, who runs an organic dairy farm in Whitingham with his wife, Linda, talked about state rules that prohibit spreading manure on fields during the winter months to prevent runoff into rivers and streams.

He said his farm is in the Deerfield River watershed, about three miles from the Massachusetts border. Yet, when he and wife drive to Greenfield to run errands, they pass by several dairy farms that are spreading manure “along the same river that we are trying to keep clean.”

Peter Miller, an organic farmer in Vernon, spoke in frustration about the hundreds of pages of forms and regulations that his small farm has to struggle to comply with.

“It's an incredible amount of work,” he said. “It makes it hard to make decisions on the fly. Farmers are really getting tired of trying to meet unfunded mandates.”

Vern Grubinger, vegetable and berry specialist with the University of Vermont Extension, told Tebbetts that, as agriculture secretary, he has the power to adjust state rules to make them more flexible and practical for farms of all sizes. Grubinger urged Tebbetts to use that power.

Corse agreed, saying that it was “ridiculous” to have one-size-fits-all regulations that didn't take into account the size of farms, or their unique circumstances.

“People don't want to pay anything more for food than they have to,” said retired farmer Terry Gulick of Springfield. “Any farm regulation has to consider that, because the cost always get passed on to the consumer.”

Where is the Extension Service?

Alan Baker, a Shaftsbury farmer, said the Agency of Agriculture should do more to help revitalize UVM Extension, and bring back the system of having agricultural extension agents in each country.

Budget cuts and changing agricultural policy priorities in the 1970s and 1980s eliminated county extension agents. UVM Extension still has an office in each county, but it now is divided into five regions, with fewer staffers and less one-on-one contact.

“There's no support from UVM Extension in Bennington County,” he said. “The Extension Agent used to come out to your farm and help you work through your problems. I would love to see someone like that again.”

Baker also wants to see better use made of the volunteers who serve as Master Gardeners and Master Composters for UVM Extension, especially when it comes to teaching others the finer points of composting and growing vegetables.

“You don't need to go out and get a grant to teach kids how to compost,” he said. “It's not rocket science.”

Marketing the farm experience

Marketing Vermont agriculture was another concern of the farm people present at the meeting.

While Gov. Phil Scott backed off on his plan to eliminate the state Department of Tourism and Marketing, there was still concern that, as Corse described it, “there's not a recognition of the link between agriculture and tourism in Montpelier.”

Corse said farms, particularly dairy farms, pump a considerable amount of money into rural economies.

According to Agency of Agriculture data, dairy accounts for more than 70 percent of agriculture sales and 80 percent of total agricultural land use. While specialty crops and value-added food production are a growing part of Vermont's annual $776 million in agricultural sales, dairy is still big business in Vermont.

But more than that, Corse said, is dairy farming's role in preserving the rural landscape that attracts so many visitors to Vermont.

“Dairy farmers are why Vermont looks like Vermont,” he said.

For Cynthia Larson of Wells, who runs Larson Farm with her husband, Richard, agricultural tourism is another way for small farms to make ends meet.

Her farm near Lake St. Catherine has a herd of 30 Jersey cows and sells raw milk, organic eggs, and grass-fed beef. But she is also in the process of starting a bed-and-breakfast at the farm, with a eye on attracting visitors interested in farm-stay vacations.

“I have a 21-year-old daughter and I'd like to have her carry on our farm,” Larson said, “but we need to stay viable as a farm.”

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