Farm safety training program on a Vermont farm. People sit in a circle listening to two presenters inside a barn.

Migrant Farmworker Research Roundtable: Digging Into Dairy Farmworker Safety

by Dan Baker, Dept. of Community Development & Applied Economics and Naomi Wolcott- MacCausland Migrant Health Programs, UVM Extension 

Current Findings from Projects Seeking to Understand and Assist Vermont’s Migrant Farmworkers Community 

Migrant farmworkers are essential to Vermont agriculture, from dairy farms to our fruit and vegetable farms.  Vermont has an estimated 750 to 850 year-round migrant farmworkers, primarily on dairy farms, with about 150 partners and children. Since no visa program exists for year-round dairy farmworkers, most of these workers likely do not have documentation status. In contrast, about 500 Jamaican farmworkers arrive seasonally to work through the H2A visa program.  

The well-being of these workers is essential to the future of farming in Vermont, as well as the families and communities these folks support back in their home country. The University of Vermont’s Extension Program and the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics have long engaged applying action research to understanding the priorities of the migrant community leading to the design of programs to meet their needs and help them thrive.  

Roundtable Gathering Grows Understanding  

A video of a recent roundtable on research projects advancing understanding of Vermont’s migrant farmworkers perspectives and projects aimed at addressing farmworkers needs is now available in both English and Spanish.  

The roundtable, held in person and online in March, 2024 presented findings and outcomes from three programs focused on migrant farmworkers in Vermont and lead to a facilitated discussion in the afternoon about how Vermont can move forward toward improving farmworker well-being.  To engage a broader audience than is typical for many of these discussions, simultaneous interpretation was available so that Spanish-speaking farmworkers were able to attend and join in the proceedings. 

Dr. Dan Baker, Associate Professor Emeritus of Community Development and Applied Economics, Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland, Migrant Health Programs lead, along with UVM partner Julie Curtin, Director of Homeownership with the Champlain Housing Trust invited stakeholders to hear three presentations in the morning on farmworker safety, assessment of migrant farmworker mental health, and outcomes from a program to housing for farmworkers. 

A Focus on Farmworker Safety  

Dan Baker opened the meeting with a presentation on dairy farmworker safety. He has been researching migrant farmworker issues for more than 15 years, including interviews with US and migrant dairy farmworkers, dairy farmers as well as tracking public opinion on the migrant workforce. Baker’s previous research found high levels of stress amongst migrant dairy farmworkers. 

His current research, funded by the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, interviewed 198 migrant dairy workers in Vermont and New York, as well as the farm safety training programs in Vermont and New York. Working with the Northeast Center for Occupational Safety and Health, the project is conducting on-farm safety trainings in English and Spanish to address this need. Farmers interested in hosting a farm safety training are invited to contact Baker at daniel.baker@uvm.edu to arrange a training on their farm. 

Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the US for farmers, their families and farmworkers.  Few dairy farmers in Vermont speak Spanish and more than three-quarters of workers interviewed by Baker’s team said they spoke little or no English, with more than 60% reporting language barriers as a significant safety issue.  Less than 60% of migrant farmworkers in Vermont said they had received any farm safety training, and of those more than 50% said the training they had received had been from other workers.   

The combination of inherent risk, limited training and language barriers contributed to the fact that more than half of respondents had been injured, with nearly a third still suffering from that injury.  Baker’s project is now addressing this issue with Spanish on-farm trainings in Vermont and New York.  His team also found that perspectives on what safety training workers prioritize differs between farmers and farmworkers.  In addition, farmworkers expressed interest in several non-conventional trainings related to well-being, notably 77% expressed interest in receiving training in personal practices to manage and reduce stress.  

The Need for Mental Health Services 

Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland shared findings from work that she led along with Dr. Baker assessing the availability and need for mental health services for migrant farmworkers in Vermont including both dairy and H2A seasonal visa holders, who primarily hail from Jamaica.  This project, funded by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and the Farmer and Rancher Stress Assistance Network involved stakeholder meetings with service providers within farmworker serving organizations as well as three meetings in Spanish and one in Jamaican patois.   

Though strong indicators of need for mental health services were found, there is a severe shortage of counselors who have familiarity with the migrant worker context, are affordable, and have language skills to speak directly with individuals needing these services.  Wolcott-MacCausland noted that across federally qualified health centers, Designated Agencies who provide mental health counseling and the 5 free clinics in Vermont, only two have access to a Spanish speaking mental health provider and no providers were found to have counselors who are Jamaican or have a unique understanding of Jamaican culture.  Although initially assumed to face fewer barriers to mental health care than Spanish-speaking workers, interviews with Jamaican farmworkers found a substantial unmet need for mental health and wellbeing services in Vermont. 

Wolcott-MacCausland presented analysis of recent data from the UVM Extension Migrant Education program that documents a doubling of the number of migrant children the program assists accessing education in Vermont between 2019 and 2023, as well as an increase in the number of under 18 youth working on farms. Since January 2024, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children and youth arriving on Vermont farms. 

Findings from the mental health assessment included: 

  • Workplace conditions, compounded by social and structural determinants, cause migrant farmworker stress while also limiting opportunities to maintain positive mental health and wellbeing 
  • Extremely limited accessible and sustained options for mental health services for migrant farmworkers within the health care system in Vermont 
  • Jamaican farmworkers are underserved across the mental health continuum 
  • Migrant farmworkers and their family members will utilize mental health counseling services if they are free, provided by Spanish speakers, and transportation issues are addressed 
  • Availability of, access to, and utilization of mental health promotion activities and counseling services tailored to migrant farmworkers has been inconsistent due to reliance on grant funding, raising issues for sustainability and reliable, trustworthy patient care 
  • Given the rural nature of the state and limited resources, funding a statewide tele-mental health model to improve and sustain access to clinical mental health services is essential. 

Recommendations to Improve Farmworker Health 

Wolcott-MacCausland and Baker’s work included specific recommendations for improving the well-being of both seasonal and year-round migrant farmworkers. These include sustained funding for policies, initiatives, and programs that improve workplace conditions for migrant farmworkers, as well as stable funding for farmworker health outreach programs across Vermont. Given the rural nature of Vermont and limited resources, fund a statewide tele-mental health model to improve and sustain access to clinical mental health services is an essential strategy to be pursued in the short-term. 

Farmworker Housing 

Julie Curtain, Director of Homeownership at the Champlain Housing Trust (CHT) reported on progress to date on two programs to improve farmworker housing.  In 2016 Dr. Baker’s team found that more than 1/3 of farmworkers interviewed experienced moderate to severe stress around their housing.  In response the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has provided funding to meet this need. The project is managed by CHT with farmer outreach through UVM Extension.  Two programs are in place. The first and more extensive focuses on repairs to farmworker housing, offering $30,000, 0% interest forgivable loans to address deficiencies. The second program funds whole house replacements with loans up to $120,000, with $30,000 forgivable. 

The on-going repair program funded 38 projects on 35 farms across Vermont, improving housing for 147 farmworkers.  While many of these projects are on dairy farms, vegetable, fruit and livestock farms have also participated.  A key to success of this program has been listening to farmers needs and evolving the program to assist a greater number of farms.   

The Roundtable concluded with a group discussion focusing on how Vermont can get to the place where all farmworkers experience good, safe, healthy workplaces and living conditions. A summary of that discussion will be forthcoming. 

Funding for the Migrant Farmworker Research Roundtable was made possible by the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant 02200-DBIC-21-06. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA. 

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