Solving the Immigrant Farm Labor Problem

by John McClaughry 

Last Monday Vermont Digger published a really fine article by Jasper Craven about the problems faced by Vermont dairy farmers. The occasion was a statewide meeting in Middlebury attended by Vermont Ag Secretary Anson Tebbetts, Senator Leahy, Congressman Welch, and the new Trump Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

The meeting discussed , as always, the low prices for bulk milk and the problem of reducing the phosphorus runoff flowing into the north end of Lake Champlain, an estimated forty percent of which originates with fertilizer applied to dairy farm croplands.

But perhaps the most time was spent on the problem of finding workers for dairy farms. Several farmers noted that Mexican immigrant laborers are essential to producing milk nowadays, since white and black Americans simply don’t want to milk cows and move manure.

These immigrants, some of them illegal, are under the gun in Washington. But there’s an obvious solution, called the H2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers. The problem is the “temporary” part, which is designed for, say, Jamaicans coming to Vermont for a couple of months to pick apples, then returning home.

The solution is to allow Mexican dairy workers to come for longer than temporary stays, and work full time on dairy farms. Senator Leahy, who has favored this for four or five years, needs to push a bill through to at the least make Vermont a pilot program for H2A extension.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute. 

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