Milk Cows, Not Workers: An Ithaca Forum on the “Milked” Report

Milk Cows, Not Workers: An Ithaca Forum on the “Milked” Report

It’s lunchtime right now in the Groundswell office, and I’m enjoying a Black Cherry Chobani yogurt. My mind immediately goes to the panel of dairy farmworkers who spoke in Ithaca on Monday night, sharing their experiences and the findings outlined in the 2017 Milked Report*. The report from the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York shared conditions in the dairy industry for immigrant dairy farmworkers based on interviews with 88 workers on 53 farms in the Central, Northern and Western parts of New York state. Many of the farms in the report sell directly to Chobani, a leading dairy purchaser in upstate NY. Monday night’s event, organized by the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition and titled “Milk Cows, Not Workers!”, and of which Groundswell Center was a sponsor, asked the audience to consider our own dairy consumption and whether we’re aware of the abuses that take place in the industry, as well as action steps consumers can take to support those who bring dairy products to our tables.

The co-authors of the report who were present, Carly Fox, Kathleen Sexsmith and Rebecca Fuentes, shared that the goal of the report is not about one particular farm or farmer but rather about a system that excludes farmworkers from basic labor rights. Farmworkers (along with domestic workers) are excluded in national labor law from basic protections guaranteed to other workers since the 1930s, such as workers’ compensation, health insurance, disability and the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. This makes fighting back against injustice in the industry even more difficult for immigrant workers, many of whom are also living in isolation on rural farms and are at risk of detainment and deportation by immigration enforcement.

Photo Credit: Milked Report

The Milked report outlines the various ways that farmworkers may struggle, including working 12 hour shifts 6 days per week, dismissals and threats from bosses when asking for a break, low wages, wage theft, inadequate training for dealing with workplace hazards such as aggressive cows/bulls, heavy machinery and chemicals, substandard and unsafe housing, isolation and retaliation from bosses. Some harrowing statistics included 2 out of 3 workers experiencing workplace injuries one or more times (68% of whom needed medical attention), workers leaving the farms on average once every 11 days, 41% of workers being detained by immigration enforcement when they have left the farm, and 80% of of dairy farms not qualifying for OSHA inspection because they have fewer than 11 employees.

Hearing from the farmworkers themselves was the most powerful part of the evening for me. Crispin Hernandez, a leader in the farmworker movement who is currently fighting for the right for farmworkers to organize in NY State, worked at his previous place of employment for 3.5 years and received no on-farm training. Milking 2,800 cows every 7 hours, he experienced insults from management, health impacts from the chemical sprays used on the cows’ teats, and witnessed a manager physically assaulting a coworker in front of the crew. When he took initiative to organize a protest in front of the farm and for all of the workers to receive longer gloves to protect them from chemical residue, the police were called and he was fired. Another worker spoke of an insect infestation in his on-farm housing, sharing a bed with other workers who were on different shifts, extreme cold and extreme heat without proper gear, and the fear that comes when you’re isolated and being exploited by your boss.

But these workers have also been organizing. With the support of advocates from the Workers’ Center of Central NY and the Worker Justice Center of NY, they have been working to pass legislation that ensures equal access to driver’s licenses for all residents of New York State, regardless of immigration status”. Those on the panel spoke of the irony of not being able to drive to the store to buy the products that they’ve worked to produce, and how a lack of drivers’ licenses restricts the human right to movement, connection with friends, buying food and more. Crispin Hernandez is also currently suing NY State for the abuses he experienced on the farm, and fighting for the right for farmworkers to organize in the state Supreme Court.

Take Action

So as I sit here finishing my yogurt, I think of the action steps provided to us by those on the panel risking so much to fight for their rights. One was to sign the Driver’s License Campaign petition – you can do so here. Another was to write to Chobani, asking that they read the Milked report and commit to ensuring the rights of farmworkers from the suppliers they purchase from. To write your letter, click here. There are organizations locally such as the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition that work to support the rights of immigrants and need help– reach out and see if there’s work you can plug into. You can also read the Milked report and share it with friends and family, or even host a discussion group about ways to help advance farmworker organizing. Groundswell is in the process of organizing a “Farming for Justice” group, to support farmers and food producers to plug into these issues– stay tuned for more

As one of the panelists stated, dairy farmworkers help cows stay alive, which keeps our economy and this country alive. Without basic labor rights guaranteed by law, farmworkers will continue to feel like “ghosts who don’t really exist” as another panelist shared. At Groundswell we advocate for a local food system that is ecological, viable and equitable, and we see no equity in the current arrangement. We can’t let racism determine who has the right to protection from workplace abuses. We need a more just way of bringing food to our tables that supports the human rights of those who get it there.

-Kate Cardona, Outreach & Equity Coordinator, Groundswell Center


*Carly Fox, Rebecca Fuentes, Fabiola Ortiz Valdez, Gretchen Purser, and Kathleen Sexsmith. 2017. “Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State.” A report by the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York.


2 Comments for “Milk Cows, Not Workers: An Ithaca Forum on the “Milked” Report”

Matthew Hobart


Wow! I am kind of shocked and disappointed in Groundswell for publishing this very one-sided article. I didn’t think that such a great organization would take
a side on such a political topic that doesn’t even take into account the perspective of farmers. Did the BOD at Groundswell all sign off on this article? Did the author even speak with farmers or experts at Cornell for their views of this report? Instead of working together to fix the issues of immigration reform to the benefit of farmers and farm workers Groundswell has just pitted farmers against farmers. Obviously, with this list of speakers, organizers, and backing groups one could easily deem this forum and report as biased. The issue of immigration and farm labor is very complex. Yes there are situations where farm workers are not treated the best and our current immigration system does not make it easy to expose these bad actors. However, I greatly disagree with the report, in regards to the H2-A visa program, in that a reformed and expanded H2-A visa program would help get farm workers out of the shadows. Dairy managers who employ Hispanic workers strongly support an immigration reform policy that would provide a legalized status for current undocumented workers and provide a guest worker program for dairy workers. I would encourage people to also read the Survey of Hispanic Dairy Workers in NYS 2016 from Cornell University. While I am sure some people will also question this reports bias, I think we can assume that reality is somewhere in between these two reports. Milked surveyed 88 farm workers on 53 farms. Cornell surveyed 205 workers on 36 farms. This is only 3 and 7 percent of the estimated 2,600 immigrant farm workers in NYS (2009). Milked claims there are 60,000 farm workers in NYS but this number doesn’t jive with the 2009 estimate of 2,600 immigrant farm workers or the January 2017 numbers of total farm workers for New England and NY combined at 20,000. Nationally there were 533,000 farm workers as of January 2017 (NASS). Milked admits that the vast majority of farm workers get a day off and that 38% of their respondents get vacation and 25% of those get paid vacation. Milked sets the average pay at $9.32 an hour and Cornell at $10.30 – not including the free housing and other benefits many dairy workers get. This was prior to minimum wage going up to $9.70; which is what I get paid at the winery I work at. NYS has some of the strictest farm labor laws in the country. Many farm owners and family members work right alongside hired farm workers and average more than 12 hours of farm labor a day. The margins of profit on a dairy farm are very slim and farmers don’t go into the industry to get rich. I have heard many first person stories of farm owners who consider their immigrant employees as part of their farm family and many who have tried hard to protect them from aggressive ICE enforcement. I think it is wrong to paint a picture that all farm workers are being taken advantage of, especially when you are only surveying 3% of the estimated immigrant farm workers in the state, with a biased glossy well formatted report with dramatic stories and images (some would call this propaganda). We should focus our efforts on fixing the immigration system in our country which will help both farm workers and farm owners in NYS.

Kate Cardona


Hi Matt, thanks for your comment. The intention of this article is not to pit farmers against farmworkers. It is to lift up the voices and experiences of farmworkers in this struggle, whose stories are so often unheard for all of the reasons outlined in the article and the report. It’s also not about any one farm or farmer, it’s about a system that excludes farmworkers from labor laws in this country because of well documented racism in labor law creation in the 1930s. It is great that you know farmers who are supportive of farmworkers. That’s how it should be. Unfortunately there are instances where this is not the case and we support the amplification of those stories so we can move toward justice. I agree completely about the failed immigration system in the US and the need to make systemic change on that front in this country. There are also other steps that need to be taken in the meantime. If you want to talk more about this issue, our doors are always open at Groundswell Center to engage further! – Kate Cardona

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