The following column was published on April 22, 2017.
Vermont’s dairy industry attracts applause for providing impetus to the state economy, and adorning the landscape with a distinct rustic character. Often overlooked, though, is the historic role it has played in establishing a culture of uncompromising work ethic and self-effacing generosity in the region. Indeed, the meritocratic practices that dominate the dairy business today derive from that discipline of the past.
Regrettably, the plastering of progressivism on Vermont, over the last decades, has led to a diminished public perception of the dairy farmer. No longer is he hailed as rugged and self-reliant; now, the left vilifies him as a cow-killing, water-polluting, greedy exploiter of illegal workers. No longer does dairy work hold dignity of labor; rather, the left insists that it represents a “hard, cold and dirty” life that most Americans find shameful.
It should be noted that the burgeoning of Vermont as a welfare state corresponds with the popularity of this syllogism – manual labor jobs are abundant; Americans do not seek these positions; thus Americans aren’t willing to do hard labor (VTDigger: “Vermont’s Welfare Cornucopia; Aug. 2013). Even worse, dairy farms that rely on illegal alien workers are smeared as modern slave-holding plantations.
The latest attack from the left came with its backlash against President Trump’s immigration-related executive orders. As various anti-law advocates began whipping up hysteria about mass deportations of illegal aliens working in the dairy business, Gov. Scott and State Attorney General Donovan responded by championing sanctuary jurisdiction policies. These measures were designed to send a “comforting message” to illegal farm workers – that state and local police will not assist federal authorities with identifying and deporting persons present in the US illegally (VTDigger: Feb. 22).
At the same time, left-leaning journalists saturated the media with human-interest stories, lionizing the plight of the illegal farmhand. For example, see the Seven Days article, “Fear on the Farm: Trump’s Immigration Crackdown Threatens Vermont’s Dairy Industry” (Feb. 15), and another report by The Guardian, “My undocumented friend: Carlos does the work few in Vermont want to do” (March 25). In contrast, Vermonters haven’t heard from the farmers. Addison dairy farmer Alma Briggs explained why.
“You have to be ready if you want to speak out against [the left]. I learned the hard way,” she said. Four years ago, Alma testified before a House Committee regarding legislation to grant Vermont driver identification cards to illegal residents. Political and cultural elites had been touting the bill as “good for farms.”
Consider the op-ed by Emerson Lynn (Editor, St. Albans Messenger) in which he argued, “Providing the way to grant a driver’s license to an undocumented worker is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” (Addison Independent; April 2013). But Alma had been aware of a number of drunk-driving incidents, and she intended to raise concerns about public safety.
In Montpelier, Alma faced a surprisingly hostile environment. As angry activists interrupted her testimony, she felt overwhelmed with anxiety. Moreover, the Migrant Justice advocacy group had packed the small committee room with supporters, adding to the overall tension.
“When they said I was stereotyping my farmhands, I was rattled. I ended up telling them about a trivial incident I hoped would not offend anyone. I was unprepared,” Alma confessed (VPR: “Farmers Raise Last-Minute Concerns Over Migrant Drivers’ ID Bill;” April 2013).
When I met Alma at the Briggs’ farm last week, she was a picture of confidence “You cannot live in fear,” Alma emphasized, “We have to be able to share our experiences – good and bad – with illegal alien workers without worrying about accusations of racism or xenophobia.”
Unfortunately, the left never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. For instance, a Spanish-speaking farmer, who had accompanied Alma to Montpelier, noticed that the activists were embellishing the translations of the Mexican workers’ testimony. “They made it seem like we neglect our workers and stop them from visiting their friends on other farms,” Alma sighed. As she recalled fond memories of some illegal alien workers who became like family to the Briggs over the years, it became clear that the opposite was true.
Further, Alma’s son, Peter, shared the multiple ways in which his parents make their employees feel comfortable. Alma has given her farmhands haircuts, and often prepares and mails care packages for their family in Mexico. “She never hesitates to take them to the doctor or shopping for clothes, cell phones and other electronics, musical instruments for entertainment, and even food items that remind them of home,” Peter revealed. Such selfless acts of kindness are indeed prevalent in the dairy community. “No one knows these truths because we held our silence for fear of criticism from the activists. We won’t let others speak for us anymore,” Alma concluded. The times, they are a-changing.
Meg Hansen is a syndicated columnist from Windsor, Vermont. All views expressed are those of the author alone.