Farmworkers Take the Lead in Vermont’s Food Movement

Audrey Irvine-Broque

Abel Luna began working as a farmworker at 13 years old in NY farms.  He later worked with the Rural & Migrant Ministry in New York, winning legislative victories for agricultural workers, including improving minimum wage laws. Today, Abel is Migrant Justice’s Campaign and Education Coordinator. Abelwill be speaking as a part of our Keynote Panel at our RootSkills workshop taking place in Brattleboro, Vermont, this May 18th.

Will you start by telling us a little bit about Migrant Justice’s history? How was Migrant Justice founded?

Migrant Justice was started in early 2009 after the death of a young farmworker, José Obeth Santiz Cruz, who was pulled into a mechanized gutter scraper and was strangled to death on the farm he used to work. This was an accident that could have been prevented if the right equipment was in use. After his death, farmworkers started to come together in community assemblies to talk about issues that they were facing on their farms on Vermont.

Out of those assemblies we created our Human Rights Agenda, which outlined four main things: the right to freedom of movement, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to access to healthcare, and the right to work and live with dignity. We worked with the statehouse to pass legislation that protects farmworkers by prohibiting local police from collaborating with border patrol, and then to ensure drivers licences so that everyone has freedom of mobility. Now we are working on the right to work and live with dignity through the Milk with Dignity program.

The Milk with Dignity program switched from working with the statehouse to creating a program with farmers and companies. Why?

We started the Milk with Dignity campaign because workers were coming to the assemblies saying, “Okay, I am still working 12 hour days, I still have bed bugs in my house, I still don’t have heating in my house.” And we knew that going to the statehouse or running a legislative campaign alone was not going to achieve our goal: the right to live and work with dignity. While there are laws that protect farmworkers, complaints can take months or years to resolve, if at all.

So, with the help of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (who represent tomato pickers in Florida), we worked to design a program that was farmworker-led and included our 5 principles: worker-to-worker education, a worker-defined code of conduct, a third-party monitoring body, economic redistribution, and a legally-binding agreement. Ben and Jerry’s was the first company we decided to reach out to, and to our surprise, they at first said “No.” We campaigned for two and a half years for them to sign on to this program, and they did finally decide to join.

Today, we are in the second year of implementation and it’s a success. 100% of the farms that supply milk to Ben & Jerry’s have enrolled, workers are using the worker support line, and have access to workers comp, to doctors and to basic needs that we deserve as the people who put the milk, cheese, ice cream and other dairy products on everyone's table.

The theme for RootSkills this year is creating racial and economic equity in rural communities. What has Migrant Justice’s experience been trying to gain support for this program in rural communities?

One thing we hear a lot is, “Oh, why are you talking badly about the farmers? Why are you talking badly about these rural communities which are also suffering?” And under this system, everyone is suffering. And we all need to realize that for a very long time, this is exactly what the corporate system has wanted to create, to pit farmers against workers and have companies take no responsibility.

People are concerned about small farmers losing their farms because they don’t make enough money. But it’s also true that that’s not because farmworkers are demanding rights, that’s because big corporations are screwing farmers. Corporations are taking home all of the money, farmers are squeezed in the middle, and the farmworkers are the ones that get the end of the stick. These are the things that we want farmers to realize: that there is this common enemy that we have. These corporations are squeezing the dignity out of everyone.

Through the Milk with Dignity program, that has been made visible. When we talk about economic redistribution, that means that now the companies are paying a higher price to the farmer for their milk, enough that it’s attractive for farmers to join and increase wages, improve housing, and still have some money left over in their pockets.

For years farmers have been trying to change the prices of milk, but they haven’t been able to. But the farmworkers, while they are fighting for their rights, they are also helping to solve this problem. Farmers are now getting a premium for their milk. So, by supporting the rights of their  workers, farmers are benefiting from this program

There was this idea that implementing a farmworker-led program was going close farms. But we started to see something very different: that there is unity around this program. Unity between farmworkers, between farmers, and now with big companies like Ben & Jerry’s, who are taking responsibility for the injustices in their supply chain, not just towards farmworkers but towards farmers as well.

Even today there are farms that don’t agree with the program. But is not because farmers don't like the program, it is because the program represents a shift in power. Now farmworkers are able to speak up about needs that they have on the farm and this goes against a culture that for so long has been about established in which farmworkers cannot speak back. Not just in the dairy industry, but in agriculture in general. But there are also many farmers that recognize that it has allowed them to continue farming because of the extra support that farms are receiving from the corporations.

Why should someone come to this keynote panel?

In these majority-white communities, people don’t always realize that there is discrimination. People think it doesn’t happen here. But it does, and it’s shaping our culture, the way we live, and the way we interact with each other.

Especially in a state that is so passionate about a local, sustainable, and economically viable food system, it’s important that people learn about what migrant farmworkers, who sustain and maintain the dairy industry in Vermont, are doing to make Vermont a better state. Not just for farmworkers, but a better state for everyone to live in.

If we want to create food systems and rural communities that are inclusive, resilient, local, and just and fair - for everyone - then we need you to show up. We need to talk about these things.

Interested in learning more about Abel’s work? Join us for RootSkills in Brattleboro, Vermont, this May 18!