The Real Price of Milk

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Here in Vermont, there has been no shortage of heart-wrenching evidence that this country's dairy farmers face a financial crisis of epic proportions. Last August, I attended an auction where a farm that had been in the same family for 144 years--six generations--was sold off during the course of a single day, tractor by tractor and cow by cow due to low milk prices.

My neighbor, Henry, a small operator who works 365 days a year to tend about 55 Holsteins, stopped beside the road to chat the other day. In order to make it through the winter, he told me he needed to sell some of his animals. But even though he is asking only $500 a cow, about a third of the usual price, he's found no buyers. "Everybody's as broke as I am," he said. "I don't know what I am going to do."

Then, at about 4:00 in the afternoon of December 22, José Obeth Santiz Cruz, a 20-year-old youth from Las Margaritas in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, died after becoming caught in a manure-removal conveyer inside the barn of the Vermont farm where he worked. Because he lacked documentation, it took more than a week for officials to determine who he really was, how old he was, and where he came from.

"Vermont's dairy farms depend on migrant workers," said Brendan O'Neill, coordinator of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project. "These people live and work in the shadows."

Vermont likes to promote itself as a verdant, wholesome state with picturesque black and white Holsteins grazing on hillside pastures. But the postcard image hides an ugly truth. Santiz Cruz was one of 1,500 to 2,000 immigrant workers, most lacking legal papers, who toil invisibly behind the scenes in the Vermont's beleaguered dairy industry, working 80-hour weeks and living in total isolation, often sleeping in the very barns with the cows they tend.

"Vermont's dairy farms depend on migrant workers," said Brendan O'Neill, coordinator of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project. "But there is no dignity in performing important work for that amount of time and having to hide yourself, never seeing the light of day. These people live and work in the shadows."

Even when faced with tragedy, the workers stayed in the shadows. Santiz Cruz had 80 extended family members and friends working on nearby Vermont farms, but according to O'Neill, they feared gathering to hold a memorial service for the youth because of the possibility of prosecution and deportation. It was left to a handful of workers' rights advocates to hold a quiet candlelight vigil in his honor.

As a further grim reminder of how dispensable laborers are to modern agribusiness, there is some question about how the young man's remains will be returned home for burial--an effort that could cost as much as $10,000. The Vermont Workers' Center has started a memorial fund and is working with the Mexican consulate in Boston and the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to get the body back to Las Margaritas.

The story of Santiz Cruz is worth thinking about the next time you stand in front of the dairy case at your local market. Despite their colorful labels depicting happy cows and bucolic red barns, those inexpensive bottles and cartons come to us with an incalculably high human price tag.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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