Farm Class & Social Justice: Studying the Ethics of Labor in the NYS Dairy Industry
There are times at the Manhattan Country School Farm where we live in an agricultural bubble. 100% of the agricultural harvests are either consumed or utilized at the MCS Farm in Roxbury, NY or at meals on 85th Street. Our number one “product” is education -- educated and informed children, as such, we are somewhat shielded from the political landscape of farming. However our seventh and eighth grade students have been taking a deep dive into a political issue that has great bearing on the New York State dairy industry.
During winter Farming classes, the kids have been investigating the scale of dairy farms in the state and who provides the labor. The students learned that NY is the third largest dairy producer in the country, behind California and Wisconsin. They researched and learned that the price of milk paid to farmers is $17 per hundredweight. Milk is measured in pounds, with one gallon weighing approximately 8 lbs. and a hundredweight equaling 100 lbs. This is a fact they know intimately as they hand milk our cow and then hang the bucket on a scale to be weighed. They also discovered that the cost to produce this milk is $22 per hundredweight. Farmers are losing, on average $5 per hundred pounds of milk.
So how are dairy farmers staying in business? One solution has been for one or more family members to work “off the farm” jobs. Another is to grow or produce other crops or “value added” items on the farm for sale. A not-so-new, but growing strategy is to hire a less expensive labor force. While the work is extremely hard, dirty and dangerous, there is a ready and willing workforce. 83% of workers on New York dairy farms are undocumented immigrants. It’s nearly impossible for farmers to hire workers with legal documentation. Primarily, American workers have refused to do the work due to the difficulty, dangers, hours and wages. The seventh and eighth grade classes watched a documentary, where one segment showed interviews with people at an employment agency seeking a job. When told there were plenty of jobs on local dairy farms, the potential employees from the US were quick to say no, “I won’t do that work” or “those hours are too long.” While there is a Visa program for visiting farm workers, it’s only seasonal. Historically, people from other countries, primarily Latin America would follow the harvest seasons of fruits and vegetables. No such worker Visa program exists for the dairy industry, which is not seasonal. There have been some attempts to change this law.
Being quite politically savvy, our students were quick to connect the dots of the current political administrations increased arrests, detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants and the need of the dairy industry to hire them.
Western New York has one of the largest Immigration and Custom Enforcement Detention Centers outside Texas and Arizona. Located in Batavia, New York, this ICE center, like many nationwide has site specific or “bed” quota. NYS dairy farms have been directly targeted in sweeps or raids that reduce or completely eradicate a farms work force. Often times, prospective farm workers have enough proper documentation for the farm owner to fill out required applications, but not enough to satisfy ICE. During these sweeps, students learned undocumented farm workers are removed from the farm. Some are detained in the ICE detention center, but if the daily quota is filled, the people are often released, only to start working at another nearby farm. In the meantime, the farm that’s lost a group of trained workers hires new undocumented workers and the cycle continues.
The classes touched on the isolation many people feel when living and working so far from home and family. They explored what it must feel like to have language and cultural barriers. How do people without a driver’s license, let alone a vehicle, perform simple tasks like grocery shopping? The potential danger and inherent physical risks of dairy farming often lead to injuries. Will undocumented farm workers choose medical attention for injuries or stay silent to keep working in the shadows?
What happens next? Students will continue to research, investigate and discuss this issue on their spring Farm trips. They will eventually move on in their next stage of life, with a deeper understanding of these complex issues. Eventually, this shared knowledge will help inform their decisions as citizens and change-makers.