This story was written by sophomore Alyce Bradshaw. It is a part of a collection of stories written by U-32 sophomores about moral dilemmas members of our community have gone through.
Dairy farms in Vermont are finding it increasingly harder to find workers from within the community. Keith Sprague said, “It gets harder and harder, as time goes on to operate one of these dairy farms, stay profitable, and make it so the farm is available for the next generation.”
Keith Sprague owns Sprague Ranch in Brookfield, Vermont. Ten years ago, he began hiring Hispanic labor due to the shortage of American workers. Now, two-thirds of his workers are Hispanic. Most of them migrate from Veracruz, Mexico.
When Sprague took over the farm, he made several big changes. He purchased neighboring farms to increase the land available for his operation. He also grew the herd from 100 to 700 cows. Each cow needed to be milked 3 times per day. His farm required more labor than before, so he began to hire Hispanic workers.
Sprague’s employees work for a minimum of 70 hours a week. Under federal labor law, agricultural workers are exempt from receiving overtime pay. Keith said, “Their desire, reason, and purpose of being here is to make money so they can better their life back in Mexico.” They often want to work more than 70 hours a week, so they can make money for their families.
One issue with hiring migrant labor is that the workers speak a different language. Sprague usually has one worker that is able to English well enough to communicate, but for more complex issues an interpreter is used. But, he believes that the language barrier is a small problem compared to the constant turnover of domestic labor
Sprague has had problems with a few of his workers, and he has developed a system that addresses workplace issues. He allows the Hispanic employees to choose whether someone stays or not. When a worker wants to leave, they will recommend someone from back home. They will stay and train the workers for a few weeks and then return to their homes.
In some parts of Vermont, Hispanic workers are not comfortable going into the community due to concerns with immigration enforcement or cultural clashes with locals. Sprague said, “Our area’s very receptive to them. I know there’s a lot of areas in the state that are not that way. But where we are, they’re very comfortable in the community.”
Not all migrant workers feel comfortable leaving the farm.“I think the biggest challenge for them is the fact that without legal status, it limits…their ability to access certain services,” said University of Vermont Extension Migrant Health Coordinator Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland. “There’s fear associated with even going out to the grocery store or going to receive health care services in at least the northern part of the state.” Wolcott-MacCausland works with migrant farmworkers across the state.
Some people in the community have concerns that Sprague’s labor isn’t legal. All of his Hispanic workers have legal documentation as far as Sprague knows. As long as they provide him with sufficient documentation, he is able to hire them. Under federal law, Sprague is not liable if his workers are found to not have the proper work clearance.
Sprague has had problems with people not supporting his decision to hire Hispanic workers. He said, “There’s people that are deep, deep, rooted Americans… and are angry that we have Hispanic labor.”Sprague deals with these people by ignoring them. He has come to realize that he won’t change their minds. He said, “My advice is to try to paint your story and be real and realize that you’re not going to change them.”
Without Hispanic labor, Sprague’s farm would not be profitable. His Hispanic workers bring a lot to the farm.“When the Hispanic labor came to the farm, I realized that I didn’t know nothing about working hard.” he said, “I was totally floored with how hard, dedicated, and driven these people are. It not only made me better, but it made the American help that was on the farm better.”
Sprague has never regretted having Hispanic labor on his farm. He said, “We have some people that are happy to work here. And they’re so thankful to have a job. So that confliction, if it ever existed, lasted but a few seconds.”