Pioneer Valley Grows Network (PVGrows) has organized annual informational forums for farmers, food growers and food businesses for almost eight years. Their sold-out April 7 forum, “Immigration, Food Access and Land Access,” and the role of race in the food system, was held at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, MA.
PVGrows activities included starting an investment fund that assists food and farm businesses, administered through the Franklin Community Development Corporation (Franklin CDC). “It allows people in the region to invest in the food business,” said Margaret Christie, CISA spokesperson, PVGrows Programs Committee member. Loan amounts range up to $250,000. They can be partnered with other lending agents on larger projects. Farmers and food businesses can apply through www.pvgrows.net/investment-fund . Last year they funded 11 loans through CDC.
Vermont’s Migrant Justice (MJ) members, Enrique Balcazar and Zully Palacios, were keynote speakers. Palacios emigrated from Peru. Balcazar emigrated from Mexico to Vermont and worked in the dairy industry for seven years. “In dairy farming, the day starts at 3 a.m.,” said Balcazar. Due to 14 hour days and transportation issues, it was difficult to have contact with others in the migrant community. “I earned half of what minimum wage [was]…I had a different expectation, like in a movie,” he said.
Several years ago, he joined MJ. MJ strives to improve housing, get drivers’ licenses for farm workers and implement policies preventing police collaboration with deportation agencies.
They implemented the Milk with Dignity Program (MD Program), to improve dairy farm workers’ conditions, with a code of conduct concerning wages, health care, safety, rest, scheduling, vacation and raising dairy farm wages to Vermont’s minimum wage of $10.50. Farmers that are in compliance would receive premiums and their dairy farm worker would receive bonuses. The MD Program provides worker-to-worker education, a third-party monitoring body, economic relief and forms legally binding agreements. In Vermont, 1,200 to 1,800 dairy farm workers are Latino. “New York has about 10 times that,” said Brendan O’Neill, MJ spokesperson.
MD Program members consulted with tomato farmers of the Food Fair Program in Florida, working towards improving working conditions. “In the dairy industry, we took the same elements — one of which participating dairy farmers would get a better price of their milk — to help offset compliance with the program,” said O’Neill. Their efforts extend threefold: Farmers can sustain their vanishing dairy farms, while raising their farm workers’ pay and improving working conditions.
A 2014 MJ survey of 180 migrant workers results show: They work 60 to 80 hours a week; 40 percent had no days off and make less than minimum wage; 26 percent had no pay stubs; 29 percent work seven hours or more with no breaks; 16 percent have less than eight hours off; 20 percent had first wages illegally withheld; 16 percent lived in overcrowded housing; 15 percent don’t have sufficient heat; 12 percent didn’t get paid on time; and 9 percent lacked clean drinking water. A 2006 to 2014 analysis showed 61 dairy farm worker fatalities in New York. With milk prices below production costs, the downward pressure on farmers gets passed down to their farm workers.
“These are not individual problems. They affect all of us and affect the community,” said Balcazar. In May 2015, the MD Program launched a campaign. On June 17, 2015, Ben and Jerry’s (B&J) signed a commitment agreement with the MD Program. Considerable time was spent making the commitment specifically operational. On the second anniversary of that signing, MD Program dairy farm workers marched 13 miles in Waterbury, VT to speed up the process. Justine Solheim, B&J CEO, signed the contract on Oct. 3, 2017, making them the dairy industry’s first to sign. Already many farmers within B&J’s milk supply chain have been enrolling.
Since putting forward a public face through MJ, Balcazar and Palacois were detained by ICE on March 17, 2017. “Neither of us had any encounter with police in the years we lived here before,” he said. They were followed from Massachusetts into Vermont where they were taken from their car in handcuffs by police. Balcazar was sent to join 50 others detained at a New Hampshire detention center for nine days. “People sent letters asking for us to be released.” Through social media, television and the newspaper, they were released. “It’s really tough speaking right now when we are facing a deportation process ourselves,” he said.
Attorney Claudia Quintero provides legal aid at the migrant farmer workers unit at Central West Justice Center, covering Massachusetts. Born in Mexico, her family brought her to Los Angeles as an infant. She became a U.S. citizen in 2013. “I became a lawyer specifically to represent migrant workers,” she said. She assists farm workers obtain food stamps, health insurance and helps with immigration issues.