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

This commentary is by Grace Odell, Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association-VT.

Vermont leaders often wring their hands and bemoan the loss of youth, workers and declining numbers of children in our schools from our state. The state is so desperate that it has offered thousands of dollars in moving incentives for workers who will relocate.

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

Vermont needs agriculture to maintain its pastoral beauty and tourism industry, along with claims to fame such as maple and dairy. Agriculture is the engine of our state, and farmers and farm workers are what keep it humming.

And yet, right now, a person who sits at the nexus of talents and credentials the state so desperately needs — 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 ruined, children left without their mothers, not to mention farms left without skilled workers, intensified the critical crisis facing Vermont’s agricultural community.

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

Wundy 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 over and over again.

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Of course, immigration law is a system in dire need of reform at the federal level. Like my friend UVM Professor Dr. Elise Morgenstein Furst wrote, “I doubt that it is necessary to provide a complete account of the history of unjust laws (and I know that it is not possible, due to word count limitations)” — but let me put it simply. Point to my own identity as a woman (not to mention a Jew) who in the past would have been completely legally barred from owning land or voting in this “brave state”.

Legitimacy and justice are two entirely different words – the former only comes about through stubborn, collective effort. We have to do the uncomfortable work of not quietly following certain moments of injustice as unfortunate but “legitimate” explanations, but instead insist on using those moments to create larger conversations, ultimately creating change.

The contrast between how the many affluent remote workers who moved to Vermont after the pandemic have been welcomed, compared to those workers (including both farmers and farmworkers) who have made Vermont a special place for years by tending our land and providing food. Placed on our tables under extreme stress and threat of deportation, it reveals deep, uncomfortable truths about what and whom we value, welcome, ignore—and where we will remain silent on injustice.

Climate change projections suggest that Vermont is well positioned to be a relatively fit and safe place in the coming years, and recent trends show that people have noticed. We must now grapple with how to be a home for everyone — not just people with money and computer jobs (not to mention asking what we’ll all eat when no one farms here anymore).

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How do we ensure that the future is fair – and fed? How do we stand up for both farmers and farm workers to make our state a place where agriculture can thrive?

Vermont needs more people like Wundy — skilled, dedicated, hard-working people who know how to tend the land, feed the community, maintain Vermont’s agricultural economy, and who are eager to raise their children here, parents who face real challenges. Despite that. Vermont. People willing to organize for a better future, who show up for their communities, who speak up for justice.

I stand with and with Wundy – 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 Vermont’s prosperous agricultural future.

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