Grace Oedel: Care, justice for farmworkers are critical for agricultural economy 

This commentary is by Grace Odell, executive director of the Northeast Organic Agriculture Association-VT.

Vermont leaders often wring their hands and lament the loss of young, driven workers from our state and the decline in the number of children in our schools. The state is so desperate that it has offered thousands of dollars in ongoing incentives for workers who will relocate.

Additionally, Vermont’s economy and identity depend on a declining and challenged agricultural sector, with dairies closing rapidly and farmers unable to find skilled workers.

Farming is needed to maintain Vermont’s pastoral beauty and tourism industry, along with claims to fame such as maple and dairy. Agriculture is the engine of our state, and it’s the farmers and ranchers who keep it humming.

And yet, right now, a person who sits at the combination of talent and identity the state requires — a young Vermont farmworker, a mother of five enrolled in Vermont schools, a skilled dairy worker, a passionate community builder — is threatened with deportation.

The devastation of deportation cannot be overstated: families torn apart, lives destroyed, children left without their mothers, not to mention farms without skilled workers, intensifying the complex crises facing Vermont’s agricultural community.

This heartbreaking story of a mother (who has been farming in Vermont for nearly a decade) dragged on and then stuck the hit close to home: Wendy has several young children for whom she is the primary provider, just like me. Wendy has been on a farm here in Vermont since 2014, the year I started my farm. Wendy was being driven home from church when she was pulled over, and at that moment I was on my way to drop my eldest off at Hebrew school at our synagogue.

Wendy is a much more accomplished community organizer than I am, but I try to emulate the example she sets — she is someone who tirelessly shows up to the needs of her community again and again.

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Certainly, immigration law is a system in dire need of reform at the federal level. As my friend UVM professor Dr. Elise Morgenstein Fuerst wrote, “I doubt it is necessary (and I know it is not possible, given word count limitations) to provide a thorough account of the history of unjust laws” – but let me simply state my own as a woman. Point out the identity (not to mention a Jew) who in the past was completely legally prohibited from owning land or voting in this “Courageous State”.

Legality and justice are two entirely different terms—the former only becomes the latter through stubborn, collective effort. We need to do the uncomfortable work of not silently accepting certain moments of injustice as unfortunate but “legal” revelations, but instead insist on using those moments to create larger conversations, ultimately creating change.

Contrast that with how the many wealthy remote workers who have moved to Vermont since the pandemic have been welcomed, while the workers (including both farmers and farmworkers) who tend our land and provide food have made Vermont a special place for years. Placed on our table under extreme pressure and the threat of deportation, deep, uncomfortable truths are revealed about what and who we value, welcome, ignore — and where we stand silent against injustice.

Climate change projections indicate that Vermont is well positioned to be a relatively decent and safe place in the coming years, and recent trends show that people are taking notice. We should now figure out how to have a home for everyone — not just people with money and computer jobs (not to ask what we’d all eat if no one else farmed here).

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How do we ensure that the future is equitable — and fed? How do we stand up for both farmers and farmworkers so that our state can thrive in agriculture?

Vermont needs more people like Wendy — skilled, dedicated, hard-working people who know how to care for the land, feed the community, sustain Vermont’s agricultural economy, and who are interested in raising their children here despite the very real challenges parents face. Vermont. People willing to organize for a better future, who look up for their communities, who speak up for justice.

I stand with and for Wendy — a farmer who cares deeply about this place, our land and feeding Vermonters. Join me in raising your voice to let ICE know that not deporting this mother and farmer is critical to a prosperous agricultural future in Vermont.

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