Pen in the Hand, Hands in the Soil

Farmers Speak Out Against Immigration Policy

By Marykate Smith Despres

We’ve protected some of the most precious farmland,” said Linda Kingsley of Twin Oaks Farm in Hadley. “What are we gonna do to harvest it?” 

Kingsley, who has been farming for over 40 years, was one of about 100 people gathered at Wally Czajkowski’s Plainville Farm in Hadley on April 8. Czajkowski and Michael Docter of Winter Moon Roots invited farmers and other small-business owners to discuss concerns, according to their press release, “about the impact of current immigration policies on their livelihoods.” 

“We have a population we need to protect,” said Kingsley. “It’s only fair to them.”

Eric Stocker, co-owner of local distributor Squash, Inc., opened and moderated the forum, calling out “inhumane” policies and political rhetoric that “ignore the basic facts about who does the work” and leave those workers “living in uncertainty and fear.”

Heads nodded and applause rang out in recognition, again and again, as people spoke of the the web of bureaucratic red tape created by the H2A program, the misclassification of farming as unskilled labor, and the ignored integrity of the local immigrant workforce.

“Nobody in their right mind wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to leave my home,’” said chef and food justice advocate Neftali Duran. “That desperation comes from policies.”

Organizers and many attendees hoped to help change those policies by signing letters to the State House, urging Governor Baker to support the Safe Communities Act, and to the Senate, asking for implementation of immigration reform that ensures: 

  • Current experienced workers can obtain legal work authorization.
  • Their businesses can access new authorized workers when needed in the future.
  • The workers on whom the local economy depends have a pathway to citizenship.
  • State resources are not used to enforce federal immigration policies that harm local businesses and workers.

Postcards were penned and marks were made, but there was still an overwhelming unrest at the meeting’s end. Some left with both more clarity and concern than they had come with. Julie Pottier-Brown, operations manager of the Farm Direct Co-op in Salem, Massachusetts, who has bought food from growers in the Valley for 24 years, was “struck by the level of fear being reported by the immigrant community.” 

“We are an interdependent community,” said Pottier-Brown. “Take away one part, and there will be collapse.”

There are some programs that have consistently offered services and support to the migrant and immigrant farm worker community. Gloria Penagos, a migrant enrollment specialist at Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield (HCS) Head Start, encouraged farmers to spread the word about a migrant/seasonal program specifically designed to meet the needs of farmworkers with young children. The program offers free extended day care, beginning as early as 5am, for children as young as four weeks. She also urged business owners to consider offering transportation to workers in the Springfield area who would normally be commuting to farms around the Valley, but are afraid to leave home in the current political climate.

Migrant and seasonal farmworkers can also find support through the Connecticut River Valley Farmworker Health Program (CRVFHP), which, in conjunction with health centers in Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties, offers free and reduced-cost health care services for both workers and their families. Moreover, CRVFHP makes its services accessible by providing transportation to and from appointments as well as on-farm and in-field intake and primary care services. 

Whether farmworkers from within immigrant and migrant communities will feel safe enough to access these services as often as they did in previous seasons is yet to be seen. 

www.hcsheadstart.org
www.massleague.org/Programs/CRVFarmWorkerHealthProgram/AboutCRVFHP-English.php

Dirt is the Salt of the Earth

Dirt is the Salt of the Earth

Adam is a dirt farmer.

He speaks earnestly, and excitedly, and in threes. “Cardboard, food waste, and paper,” and “temperature, oxygen, and moisture,” and, of course, “blood, sweat, and tears.” These are the trinities that make Martin’s Farm compost, the ingredients that turn our cast-offs into fodder for flowers and food.

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Milk Matters

Story by Claire Morenon | Graph design by Mary Reilly | Photos by Dominic Perri

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One of the things that makes CISA’s “buy local” effort so successful in the Pioneer Valley is the relatively straightforward message. When you hear “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown,” it’s easy to understand how you can do that: Just swing by a farmers’ market or look for local labels at the grocery store.

But when it comes to dairy, things start to get complicated. The hardy few farms that have navigated the regulatory and financial challenges to processing milk on-farm represent just a sliver of the dairy industry in Massachusetts.

For a host of historical and practical reasons, most of the dairy farms in the state sell their milk wholesale. These dairy farms have an enormous impact on land preservation, the agricultural economy, and everything else that a healthy agricultural system means for our community.

The problem for dairy farms is in the pricing. The wholesale price for raw milk is set at the federal level using a deeply complex system, based on how demand for a range of dairy commodities interacts with international supply, and decided by bidding at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and some federal price support programs. The price farmers receive for their milk is only tenuously connected to the price you pay for milk at the grocery store.

In recent years, wholesale prices for dairy have stagnated, creating a serious gap between the cost of milk production and the amount farmers are getting paid for their milk. CISA recently worked with Dan Lass of the UMass Department of Resource Economics on a study to determine the actual costs of production for dairy farms in the state of Massachusetts. We found that it cost farmers $2.43 to produce a gallon of milk, while the price paid to farmers was stalled at $1.71 per gallon.

So how do farmers do it?

The primary financial factors not shown in the graph are programs like the state’s Dairy Farmer Tax Credit Program and the federal Dairy Margin Protection Program, which are vital stopgaps, if not permanent solutions. Many dairy farmers run diversified businesses and have income streams from other agricultural products. Finally, there are individual financial factors that can make a huge difference to a farm’s viability, such as mortgage debt or a family member’s off-farm income and benefits. Dairy farms, like all agricultural businesses, are seasonal in nature. The costs of production and the wholesale price do vary throughout the year, and when support programs are factored in, the picture from month to month can shift significantly.

So what can conscientious consumers do about all this? Unfortunately, I don’t have a snappy recommendation. Wholesale dairy pricing does, even with its complicated mechanisms, reflect consumer demand, so we can all don our milk mustaches and drink more milk. Various advocacy efforts, from establishing “Right to Farm” communities to pushing for a more localized system of price supports, can help our dairy farms stay afloat.

We’ve already seen that dairy farms are an important part of our agricultural landscape. We have the expertise, land base, and infrastructure to produce, process, bottle, and sell milk regionally, and Massachusetts dairy farms are producing a significant percentage of the milk consumed in the state. The thought that this entire agricultural sector and tradition be abandoned and that dozens of farm businesses should embark on entirely new enterprises, because of a relatively recent shift in the industry’s financial picture, is short-sighted at best.

As dairy farmer Darryl Williams of Luther Belden Farm told me, “Up until people stop drinking milk, I think there’s a future for the dairy industry here. We are committed to making a wholesome, high-quality, healthy product, always.”

Claire Morenon is a program coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). For more details on CISA’s work with dairy farms, visit buylocalfood.org.