Farm Labor Expert Reacts To Vermont Migrant Workers' Isolation

Jun 18, 2014

At the University of Vermont's Food Systems Summit this week, a farm labor expert shared a personal perspective on life for some of Vermont's migrant farm workers.

Agroecologist Eric Holt-Giménez traveled to Vermont from Oakland, California, where he's the executive director of Food First, the Institute for Food and Development Policy.

Holt-Giménez worked with subsistence farmers in Latin America for over 20 years and helped start a movement called Campesino a Campesino, or farmer to farmer. The sustainable agriculture movement is based on the exchange of ideas for innovative farming methods and improved quality of life for farmers.

"I've never seen such solitude amongst farm workers in my life." - Eric Holt-Gimenez, California-based agroecologist and Institute for Food and Development Policy executive director

While Holt-Giménez's keynote at the UVM summit focused on the major structural forces that have given rise to what he calls a "capitalist food regime," the expert closed his remarks by reflecting on a visit he had taken the day before to a northern Vermont dairy farm that employs migrant workers.

"And they're clearly all from Mexico, and I could tell by their accent that they're from southern Mexico. Turns out they're from Chiapas," Holt-Giménez said. "And I thought, 'Oh, these are the folks who I've worked with for over 20 years, you know, these are the ones who taught me agroecology.'"

Holt-Giménez said that, at first, he thought he had found a version of the Campesino a Campesino movement here in Vermont. But then he realized that fear of deportation keeps many workers from leaving the farms they live on and building their own community.

"They're people who don't leave the farm for years. And I was so taken aback, and this great sadness set in my heart, and I still can't shake it," Holt-Giménez said. "I've been thinking about this since I got here. It's like, I know these people, these are family people, these are people who have deep, rich, village life. But I've never seen such solitude amongst farm workers in my life."

Holt-Giménez said he recognized that the farmers who run these farms are "between a rock and a hard place" and shouldn't be blamed for workers' isolation.

At the two-day summit, policy makers and scholars came together to discuss pressing global food issues.