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Issue Spotlight: Improving housing conditions for migrant farmworkers

Vermont dairy farmworkers are surely some of the folks most in need of a safe, comfortable place to rest at the end of the day. They work long hours at difficult, often physically grueling tasks to produce Vermont’s famed milk, dairy, and agricultural products, filling an essential role in the state’s agricultural economy. Yet they face some of the most severe housing challenges in the state, including unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, structural safety issues, and critical lack of choice and control in their housing. A new report released this month gives us a better picture of the challenges facing migrant farmworkers in Vermont. 

Here, we break down some of the key insights in the Farmworker Housing Needs Assessment (prepared by Development Cycles for the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board) and other research that has been conducted over the years, including UVM Department of Community Development & Applied Economics Professor Dan Baker’s research based on interviews with farmers migrant farmworkers between 2010 and 2019; and insights from the 2020 Biennial Report of Milk With Dignity, a program of Migrant Justice that partners with farms to improve working and housing conditions for farmers. 

Who are Vermont’s farmworkers?

Vermont’s agricultural industry spans the gamut, from small family-run organic vegetable farms to large dairy operations milking more than 700 cows. More than half of Vermont’s farmworkers are the farm owners and their family members (12,500 out of 21,000, according to the 2017 US Census of Agriculture). There are also workers who live off-site and commute daily to the farms, and about 325 seasonal H2A visa holders, who mostly work at apple orchards. 

Dairy farms, however, are year-long operations and thus excluded from the H2A program. Much of Vermont’s dairy farm labor force consists of migrant workers. Because many in this population are undocumented and must live in fear of deportation, it’s difficult to know exact numbers, but Baker’s research and Development Cycles’ new report help illuminate many of the general trends. According to Baker’s report, there are between 800 and 1,500 Spanish-speaking migrant farmworkers and families in Vermont. Most dairy farmworkers are men who have come to the U.S. alone (though some come with families), the majority from southern Mexico or Guatemala. They often live on the farm where they work, in housing that is owned and maintained by the farm owner. This housing is often in poor condition, with little to no local enforcement of housing safety and quality standards. 

What are farmworker housing conditions like? 

In Milk With Dignity’s biennial report, a farmworker named Jose Luis shared that housing conditions seemed to have fallen to the bottom of the priority list at the farm where he works: five workers shared a three-bedroom trailer, where the walls were riddled with holes, the shower water was often scalding, and there was not enough storage space for food. He reflected that they lived “stacked on top of each other.” Development Cycles’ report confirms that Jose’s experience is not uncommon, identifying the following key concerning issues:

Existing farmworker housing in Vermont (photo from Efficiency Vermont’s Farmworker Housing Initiative)

  1. Overcrowding, resulting in noise and lack of privacy. Dairy workers often have round-the-clock shifts, and some need to sleep while others are getting ready to work, so tight living spaces can make sleep impossible. Overcrowding a serious concern for worsening the threat of spreading COVID-19.

  2. Cleanliness and sanitation, including lack of adequate food storage, inadequate trash removal, and inadequate maintenance. Pest infestations (including bed bugs, cockroaches, fleas, and rats) have been observed. 

  3. Safety defaults such as lack of smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers. 

  4. Temperature and moisture control, including inadequate ventilation or insulation, making for hot summers and cold winters.

  5. Septic capacity issues.

  6. Lack of functioning kitchen and bathroom appliances. 

Why are farmworker housing conditions poor, and what prevents them from improving? 

The dairy industry in the United States has undergone significant change in the era of globalization, and dairy farmers are confronting plummeting milk prices. Profit margins are tiny if existent—in 2017, only 42 percent of Vermont farmers reported drawing any net income, and only 13 percent had an average income of $50,000 or more. According to Milk With Dignity’s annual report, these industry factors tend to “put immense pressure on farmers to de-prioritize working conditions and have contributed to a labor market characterized by low wages, poor conditions, and systemic abuses of workers’ human rights.” In the dairy industry, farmers do not generally have the financial means or capacity to develop and maintain quality housing in the role of a sound developer or property manager. Moreover, many farmers interviewed in the report expressed feeling besieged by regulations that limit their control over their business, and discussion of improving housing may be viewed as yet another extension of the state. 

Meanwhile, because many migrant farmworkers do not make even minimum wage, they would have an extremely difficult time finding housing off the farm. Buster Caswell has worked on dairy farms for most of his life and has been a long-time advocate for farmworker housing, pushing especially for housing organizations to get involved in the issue. He points out that Vermont median rent prices are much higher than wages; the state has the fourth-largest gap in the nation between the average renter’s wage and the “housing wage” it takes to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. “When you look at it as a farmworker, which is generally low wages … trying to rent is a huge challenge as an agriculture worker,” he says. Undocumented workers do not usually report poor conditions in their on-farm housing for fear of deportation, and farm owners face barriers in accessing federal funds to serve housing needs. 

Plus, Development Cycles’ report explains, “The shadow existence of migrant workers who are not here legally feeds the racial stereotyping and bias, cultural and language differences, xenophobia, and double standards around housing for domestic and Latinx workers.” Farm owners who house workers from the U.S. on their farm estimated the median value of that housing to be three times ($14,100) of the estimated value to migrant workers ($4,367).  While by no means does the entire farmer community carry that bias, it is a persistent reality that must be reckoned with. 

Finally, the scale of the problems vary. The report estimates that while some critical improvements could be done for less than $5,000, a significant number would require investments over $50,000 for major renovations or replacement of units. However, 42 percent of farmer respondents to the survey said that if they had the capacity to provide additional housing to their employees, they would, viewing it as an advantage to their ability to attract and retain workers. 

What can be done? 

Farmworker housing is a complex, intersectional issue, with roots in and implications for housing justice, immigrant rights, agricultural economy, food system sustainability, and climate resiliency. Here are a few promising pilot programs and strategies suggested by researchers that could help address farmworker housing needs: 

  1. The Milk with Dignity program, which launched in 2017 when Migrant Justice reached an agreement with Ben & Jerrys to implement standards for working and housing conditions on farms in their supply chain, provides a unique model for supporting farmworkers and holding farm owners accountable to work toward more dignified housing. The program created a Standards Council (MDSC) that works with farmworkers to process complaints and with participating farms to address standards including poor housing. MDSC found that in 2018, the first year of the program, only 46% of units on participating farms were fully compliant with the Vermont Rental Housing Health Code. Since then, MDSC has worked with farms to make significant improvements to many housing situations, and is awaiting the results of a 2020 audit, for which it expects data to improve. Learn more in the Milk With Dignity Biennial Report.

  2. In collaboration with MDSC, Efficiency Vermont is piloting an exciting new program to finance the development of Zero Energy Modular (ZEM) homes to replace or augment old and inefficient mobile homes on farms across Vermont. Units could be owned by a non-profit housing partner or owned and maintained by individual farms.

  3. There are many possible financing sources for housing improvements that farm owners may not know about or be able to navigate. A matrix of these resources is included on page 28 of the report. While all have limitations, they could be combined with some technical assistance to help farmers better access these funds.

  4. Organizations could use federal relief money to build and purchase new homes. 

  5. Affordable housing organizations could build off-farm housing for farmworkers specifically, using a combination of these funding sources, their regular funding streams, and/or the possibility of a new state tax credit for agricultural workforce housing; farmworker Buster Caswell has long advocated for this kind of solution. 

This post is part of a VAHC series spotlighting affordable housing problems and solutions emerging at the state and national levels in 2021. To see the other posts, click here, and follow VAHC on Facebook and Twitter to see new posts!

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