Down on the Farm: Living under the Cloud of COVID-19 as an Immigrant Farm Worker in Addison County

Down on the Farm: Living under the Cloud of COVID-19 as an Immigrant Farm Worker in Addison County

by Priscilla Baker, Rokeby Museum Trustee

Vermont is home to over 1,200 Latinx farm workers, most from southern Mexico and Central America. Several hundred live and work in Addison County.

While some would call the labor of immigrant farm workers “unskilled,” this is an unfortunate misnomer according to Teresa Mares, UVM professor and author of the book, Life on the Other Border: Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont.

When Dr. Mares spoke at Rokeby Museum in July, 2019, she made a strong point that the work these farmers do requires a variety of skills and is often dangerous. Further, the suffering and the daily challenges immigrant workers face remain invisible to mainstream Vermonters. Always vulnerable to the fluctuations of the dairy industry and the needs of each individual farm and farmer, immigrant farm workers live with the anxiety of job insecurity, the physical toll of hard work, and the fear of being picked up by ICE. 

Since Dr. Mares’ compelling talk, the world has become the stage for a global pandemic that has changed nearly every aspect of daily life — from how health care is delivered, to schooling, commerce, employment, travel, recreation, social interactions, as well as the availability and distribution of food. From the outset, farm workers were considered “essential” to the health and well-being of our community, including the hundreds of immigrant workers who have continued to work, for the benefit of all, in the barns and fields of Vermont farms. 

While workers in the dairy industry are considered essential Dr. Mares suggests, “perhaps a better classifier during these harrowing times is “sacrificial.” This is how Dr. Mares cogently presents the situation in an update,  “What the stay-at-home order means to migrant farm workers” for the Nature Public Health Emergency Collection, May 2020.

Knowing of these challenges, I began to wonder how immigrant farm workers in Addison County are faring, at this time, with the added stress of COVID-19. To learn how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the lives of local immigrant farm workers, I spoke with Heidi Sulis and Julia Doucet at Open Door Clinic (ODC) in Middlebury, and Veronica Chiambra of Addison Alllies, all service providers who are in regular contact with farm workers. Open Door Clinic responds to medical needs. Addison Allies responds to requests for transportation, English language tutoring, finding house furnishings, help navigating bureaucratic systems, preparing for the GED exam (General Education Diploma), securing food, and relief from financial hardship. 

Beyond stay-at-home, masks and physical distancing

It became clear that COVID-19 has impacted immigrant farm workers in many different ways. Here is a partial list of some of these impacts:

  • For many immigrant farm workers daily life and work are not that different from before COVID-19 because, for the last 3 years, they have stayed on their farms, in large part to minimize risk of being stopped by ICE. However, now there is little choice about going out, which makes daily life feel even more suspended and uncertain.
  • Health care visits now take place over the phone and, when possible, video conferences. The nurses at ODC, using interpreter services when needed, assess the best path for treatment and help set that in motion. Because, when money runs short, medications is often the first expense to be dropped, they help find ways to make sure their patients have the medications they need. 
    • If a farm worker requires emergency inpatient medical care they may suddenly be strapped with a high bill. As hospitals face increasing budget difficulties because of COVID-19, they are unable to offer significant bill reductions for low-income patients, which means a farm worker may have a much higher hospital bill than before the pandemic.
    • When sheltering in place began and ODC stopped seeing patients in their office, they assembled Emergency COVID Kits to be delivered to each farm. Kits contain thermometers, hand sanitizers, ibuprofen, two handmade masks per worker, as well information sheets in English and Spanish. Kits have been delivered to over 50 Addison County farms. Recently, a United Way grant has enabled other Vermont counties to put together their own kits, modeled after the Addison County initiative. 
  • Some dairy farms have cut back on production, others have ceased operations, and some hemp farms have closed, resulting in some farm workers losing their jobs and housing, or reduced work hours. In some situations, employers have used the pandemic as a reason to withhold or delay paying their workers. 
  • Some bureaucratic processes have been suspended or slowed down, such as court cases and paper work for documentation which means waiting indefinitely for necessary documents
  • Some farm workers have lost family members in Mexico and Central America to COVID-19 and probable COVID-19. While it might be difficult for them to travel home for funerals and to see family, in the best of times, the world situation increases farm workers’ sense of isolation from family and friends.
  • Face to face English language instruction has been suspended by 26 volunteer teachers, although a few are able to continue by phone and video meetings. Farm workers receiving GED support from Vermont Adult Learning have also had classes suspended indefinitely. 
  • Auxiliary incomes have decreased or disappeared. Several women had created their own businesses of preparing culturally familiar food and selling meals to farm workers.  Now they are unable to travel out of state to buy necessary food supplies, nor can they deliver to some farms since non-farmworkers are not allowed to come onto these farms.
  • While other workers in the country, and in Vermont, have received assistance in the form of federal stimulus checks and unemployment, immigrant farm workers are excluded from these programs simply because of their citizenship status. This is true despite the “essential” work they have performed, taxes paid to state and federal governments, and their role in keeping food chains in operation.
What does the immigrant farm community need?

Olga, an immigrant farm worker, who has worked in Vermont the past two years, makes the point clearly and strongly in an interview, in May, with VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld. Policy makers distributing coronavirus aid, she said, “need to recognize we immigrants are a really important part of this country… we’re continuing to work in spite of everything that’s happening. So what the government needs to do is include us.”

The federal government prohibits states from using any federal coronavirus relief funds for direct support to undocumented people. Because of this serious exclusion from federal support, Vermont legislators are exploring ways the state can offer support in areas including housing, health care, and lost or reduced income. Both the Vermont House and Senate are working on ways to provide some financial relief to immigrant farm workers. Xusana Davis, Governor Scott’s Director of Racial Equity advocates for a fund to support immigrant farm workers.

What can we do?

We all can learn more about our immigrant farm worker community members by accessing resources and participating in action plans provided by organizations such as Migrant Justice, a Vermont organization whose mission “is to build the voice, capacity, and power of the farmworker community and engage community partners to organize for economic justice and human rights.”

We can contact our local legislators to express concerns as well as our desire for legislative action to address the basic needs of immigrant farm workers in Vermont. Both the Senate Agriculture Committee and the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee have been working on this. 

Vermont’s Racial Equity Director, Xusana Davis, works with state government agencies and departments to identify and address systemic racial disparities. She can be reached at or 802-828-3322

To learn about offering hands-on financial and volunteer support to Addison County immigrant farm workers, contact Addison Allies

To learn about supporting health care services to Addison County immigrant farm workers, visit Open Door Clinic.

About the illustration above: this is from the comic, A New Kind of Work, by Delmar, and illustrations by Tillie Walden. The comic is part of a project called The Most Costly Journey, an enthnographic cartooning project that employs collaborative storytelling as a tool to mitigate loneliness, isolation, and despair among Latin American migrant farm workers on Vermont dairy farms. Learn more about this Open Door Clinic collaborative project. 

Besides serving as a Rokeby board member and volunteer tour guide, Priscilla Baker was a volunteer English Language tutor for two immigrant farm workers in Addison County — until March 2020, when COVID-19 ended face-to-face activities. Of the many reasons why Priscilla serves on the Rokeby Museum board, particularly important to her is the museum’s commitment to use its history, archives, stories, and land as a platform to not only learn about the past, but to advocate for, and work toward, a more racially and socially just community and world.

COVID-19 and Systemic Racism in the U.S.

COVID-19 and Systemic Racism in the U.S.

by Richard Bernstein, M.D., Rokeby Museum Trustee

“A common danger unites even the bitterest of enemies,” said the philosopher Aristotle. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fault lines that separate people of color and whites, and it continues to shine a light on the terrible effect that white supremacy and structural racism have had historically in America.

COVID Emerges, and with It, Disparities

Although the first known case in the U.S. was January 20, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t make it into national news until early February. Several weeks later, on March 27, five U.S. lawmakers (Sens. Harris, Brooker, Warren, Pressley, and Rep. Kelly) pressed the agency of Health and Human Services to release available data on the racial disparity of infection and death rates in the country. The American Medical Association followed with their demand for release of racial data on April 3. The data showed that 30% of COVID-19 cases occurred among African Americans, who make up about 13% of the population. In some places the incidence was even higher: In Louisiana, 70% of victims were African Americans; in Alabama, 44%; in Milwaukee, 39%.
This disparity shocked no one, especially Dr. Uché Blackstock, a physician working in Brooklyn. Speaking on Public Radio’s Science Friday, Dr. Blackstock noted that staff were being pulled from immediate-care health centers in the white sections of the New York borough, where they were underutilized, and transferred to the health centers in the black sections which were seeing a huge increase in the new illness.

Why Racial Disparity?

The reasons for the racial disparity in the COVID-19 pandemic have been studied and published. On average, African Americans live in poorer circumstances than their white counterparts. In major cities, 34% of blacks use public transportation, mainly for work, vs. 14% of whites, and a preponderance of bus drivers and subway workers are African American. Blacks make up a large percentage of other “essential workers” that include nurses and other health care attendants, grocery store clerks and stockers, and sanitation workers. Fewer black workers have been able to work from home and thus must face the public where they are more at risk to contract the virus. Jobs in food processing and manufacturing industries require close contact with co-workers. Low-wage jobs come with no sick leave, forcing many to come to work even when symptomatic. What’s more, lack of adequate health insurance impedes access to prompt medical care.

Housing plays a part in the racial disparity of COVID-19: 44% of blacks own their own homes, whereas 74% of whites do. Rental housing is often cramped, with several generations living together in one unit. Much of the rental housing in large cities is substandard and difficult to sanitize. Social distancing is nearly impossible to accomplish.

Those suffering from chronic diseases such as asthma, hypertension, and heart disease are more vulnerable to COVID-19. Often linked to obesity, diabetes strikes 30% of blacks overall, but only 18% of whites. A larger percentage of African Americans than white Americans are obese (47% vs 36%). 

These statistics have led to the first dangerous counternarrative in the COVID-19 crisis. This narrative holds that COVID-19 infection and death are largely a result of behavioral failings, and that if African Americans would only eat less, exercise more, smoke less, and adopt healthier life styles, there would not be as much of the infection in their communities. 

And this brings us to the more important reason for the racial disparity in the incidence of COVID-19 infections and death — the awful persistence, if not increasing emergence, of racism and structural racism in this country.

Racism, according to Merriam Webster, is a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. This belief is particular to individuals. Structural racism, however, is enshrined in policy at all levels of government and has been since the beginning of American history. It is the public policies and institutional practices that perpetuate racial group inequity in ways that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color.”

COVID-19 Spreads, and Disproportionate Death Rates Emerge

As soon as it became clear that COVID-19 struck with greater ferocity and greater frequency among people in the African American community, the federal and some state governments, rather than working to roll out measures to protect those most vulnerable to the new infection, began to steer a new course. According to Linda Villarosa [New York Times Magazine, April 29, 2020], “… like clockwork, after cities with sizable populations of black people began to report large numbers of COVID-19 infections at the beginning of April and statistics showed disproportionate death rates for African Americans, a second counternarrative began to arise: The national, state and municipal shutdowns were too draconian; the coronavirus pandemic was not as much of a threat — at least, not to all Americans — as had been argued. A smattering of demonstrations broke out the week of April 13 as protesters gathered in a handful of states to push back against stay-at-home orders.”

Root Causes in Systemic Racism

Sunjayta Gupta wrote in a recent article in Science News, “African Americans’ risk of higher exposure to COVID-19 has historical roots — including legal segregation in schools and housing, discrimination in the labor market, and redlining, the practice of denying home loans to those living in predominantly African American neighborhoods. Those forces have contributed to a persistent racial wealth gap, with African Americans continuing to struggle to move into neighborhoods with the sorts of socioeconomic opportunities that allow white families to better avoid exposure to COVID-19.”

While housing discrimination has forced generations of African Americans into dense, poorer neighborhoods it has denied them convenient access to amenities like supermarkets. In poorer neighborhoods, described as “food deserts” by Michelle Obama, residents buy food from convenience stores and bodegas that don’t sell fresh, healthy produce and protein. Compounding the burden of chronic disease aggravated by poor diet, residents in these neighborhoods are often far from good medical facilities. Even if they could afford the transportation to predominantly white hospitals, many living near the poverty level are uninsured and could not afford the medical care. Preventative care, provided to wealthier populations, is a low priority for those focused primarily on survival. 

The flawed idea that the black body is somehow different and inferior to the white body is a long and persistent thread in the tapestry of American racism. Evelynn Hammond, Chair of Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science, related in a New Yorker interview how the success of Union soldiers in 1863 led to a parade of newly freed slaves following the troops as they left the plantations. Ill-clothed, ill-fed, lacking proper shelter, the refugees were particularly susceptible to smallpox when the disease broke out. A smallpox vaccine and treatment existed at the time, but these were not made available to the black refugees, and they died in great numbers. Some white newspapers at the time said that this is what freedom had brought to the slaves and that the disease proved that they were not fit for freedom.

Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, the false belief of genetic variance from white standards continues to the present, along with the tendency to blame the victims for suffering endured under the structures that oppress them or effectively exclude them from adequate treatment opportunities.

And it is likely that continued exposure to the stress of racism and prejudice has detrimental effects on health as well. Living and working under poor conditions and with the every-day stress of inequality and fear, many people of color suffer disproportionately from what Dr. Arlene Geronimus calls “chronic and toxic stress.” (New Yorker, April 7, 2020) She contends that this leads to “weathering” or accelerated aging and plays a large role in various chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
Racism and prejudice can take many forms. Currently, the three counties in Georgia with the highest incidence of COVID-19 — with death rates per thousand higher than New York City — are Early (49.6% African American) Randolph, and Terrell counties (both 62% African American). All are in the so-called “Black Belt,” a sparsely populated portion of the state where once stood the largest cotton plantations and which in more recent times has seen suppression of black voters.
Georgia as a whole is one of the states that refuses the Medicaid expansion provision of the Affordable Care Act. The fact that the high death rates include many of the poor whites in Early County is noteworthy, and likely did not escape the attention of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in April 2020, Coates noted that racism is so deeply ingrained in some areas of the country that whites avoid measures that would help the community as a whole because they would also help blacks. 

Looking Back and Going Forward

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic this country has endured. Rachel Robinson Elmer (1878–1917), great granddaughter of the first Robinsons to inhabit the site of the Rokeby Museum National Historic Site in Ferrisburgh, VT, was an artist living in New York City when she contracted the flu in 1919 and died at age 40. The 1918 flu killed 625,000 Americans at a time when the population was a third of what it is now. The 1968 Pandemic (H3N2 virus) killed 100,000 in the United States.

COVID-19, however, seems more disruptive than either of those because its impact is not just the high and growing number of dead. This disease has held a mirror up to our society, and we do not like what we see. The social order seems to be fracturing, and, looking closely, many have begun to see that the social compact that we rely on and celebrate as the underpinning of a just society has been a mirage all along, at least for a sizable percentage of our neighbors and fellow citizens. To those directly affected by it, racism has not been subtle nor hidden, but the Corona virus has pulled back the curtain on the various forms of racial injustice and brought them out to the light for all to see. For this we may come to be thankful in time.

Rowland Thomas Robinson (1796–1879), son of Rokeby’s original settler, and his wife, Rachel Gilpin (1799–1862), returned to Vermont from a Quaker boarding school in New York to become founders of the Ferrisburgh Antislavery Society and the Vermont Antislavery Society in 1833. They corresponded with other abolitionists, refused to eat imported sugar or wear cotton clothing, and they harbored freedom-seeking refugees from slavery. Their life’s work, the ending of slavery, may have been accomplished with the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. But now, nearly 150 years later, we can see that the task is not yet done. There will need to be much healing of our society — and there is much work to be done — once COVID-19 passes.

Rowland Thomas Robinson recognized the work to be done when he wrote in 1839: “We are bound to confess our great delinquency in the fulfillment of duty to our brethren groaning in bondage, being sensible that were we fully to sympathize with them in their wretchedness, our sacrifices on their behalf would be more abundant, our labors more unceasing, and our patience and perseverance more unfailing.”

What can you do to join the struggle for social justice?
As a stanch to despair, here are some links to explore:
  1. 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. This website, with a self-explanatory title, offers a comprehensive list of local political actions and organizations to consider.
  2. Join an organization dedicated to fighting racism and promoting social justice:
    Black Lives Matter
    SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center)
  3. For those moved to action, Showing Up for Racial Justice has chapters in Middlebury and other parts of Vermont.
  4. SURJ also has list of activist black-led organizations
  5. Finally in a recent article, Rev. Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, Vermont, and moderator of the Racism in America Forums, discusses the ongoing problem of racism in America and offers ways to become move involved and aware locally.

Richard Bernstein, M.D., is a family physician, practicing in Charlotte until his retirement in 2013. During his active years, he came to see the art of medicine as a communication between two people. The secret of success in the healing encounter was based on the ability to see the other as a person, an equal, to listen fully, and to communicate without pre-judgement. Upon retirement, he joined the staff of Rokeby Museum as a volunteer guide, then as a member of the board of trustees. He embraces the social justice mission of the museum as a continuation of his medical work.

A Time to Listen, a Time to Learn, and a Time to Act

Black Lives Matter protest in Montpelier, VT

Above: Protest against police brutality and racism; Montpelier, VT, June 7, 2020. Photo by Rokeby Trustee Missy Holland.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States in early February, many of us shuddered as we imagined myriad ways in which harm would come to our communities. Three months later the facts are clear that Americans of color, over represented in essential services and receiving inadequate health care, are disproportionately represented among those who have become sick with COVID-19 and those who have died.

The latest abuses perpetrated against African Americans are further evidence of systemic racism as we witness the killing of black men and women at the hands of present/former law enforcement officials and white vigilantes, including, in recent months: Ahmaud Arbery of Georgia, Breonna Taylor of Kentucky, George Floyd of Minnesota and Tony McDade of Florida.

These murders have raised voices of protest that are naming the wrongs and insisting on change.

Rokeby Museum is in full support of demonstrators
seeking racial justice.

We are inspired by Rachel Gilpin and Rowland Thomas Robinson, staunch abolitionists in the 1830s and 40s, who spoke truth to power, and stood firm in their beliefs in the equality of all human beings. Rokeby, in the 21st century, continues this commitment to advocacy work through speaking out and taking action.

We believe this time holds the potential of becoming a defining moment for good. In order for that to happen we must embrace what is before us. Now is a time to listen so that we may understand. We must educate ourselves about historic injustice, systemic racism, and pervasive inequalities, and we must support positive change.

We believe systemic racism, built on the backs of each succeeding generation of black Americans, must be disrupted and dismantled. In this endeavor, Rokeby continues as a valuable resource for learning. From exhibits and programs, to the books we carry in the museum store, we are here to illuminate the past and make connections to current events.  Now is the time for all of us to listen, to learn, and to act.  

Opportunities to Help

The Vermont Humanities Council has compiled a resource page providing suggestions for learn and for action. We support their choices. Read more.

Talking About Race

The National Museum of African American History & Culture has recently launched an excellent website for educators, parents or caregivers, and persons committed to Equity. Project leaders have said that talking about race takes our ideas further, and in support of exploration, they have presented eight highly pertinent topics and provided links to more than 100 separate resource modules featuring everything from classroom games to talks and audio files sharing strategies and successes. Highly recommended for all. 

Please feel free to contact us with resources that will help us all learn. As we’re able, we’ll pass them along here. 

The Rokeby Messenger — Spring 2020: No. 171

In this Spring 2020 Newsletter, read about Rokeby’s unfortunate loss during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, virtual access, a new Education and Interpretation Fellow, newly digitized Civil War correspondence, new trustees, as well as our 2019 Annual Fund Donor and Member lists. View full-screen or download PDF above.

Updates & News from Rokeby — May 1, 2020

Rokeby Backyard
When will Rokeby Museum open for the 2020 season?

Rokeby Museum’s spring opening is on hold as we await guidance from the State of Vermont to determine when we can once again safely welcome visitors. In the meantime, check out special stay-at-home postings on our Facebook and Instagram pages, or sign up for a virtual tour. Stay tuned for our re-opening announcement, and potential date changes for exhibits and programs.

Subscribe to our eNewsletter for news and updates about programs and events happening at Rokeby.

Free & Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont Virtual Tour

Take a virtual tour of this stunning exhibit that chronicles the stories of Simon and Jesse, two fugitives from slavery who found shelter at Rokeby in the 1830’s. Would you like to have your own private virtual tour? Email to make arrangements.

Rokeby Historic House
The Historic Robinson Home Virtual Tours Coming Soon!

Rokeby was home to four generations of a remarkable family. While everyone worked on the farm at one point or another, each of them took his or her singular path through life, and many became highly accomplished. Sign up for a virtual tour and learn about the abolitionists, writers, artists, and entrepreneurial farmers that called Rokeby home. In this time of change, you’ll learn how the Robinsons faced change through the 18th and 19th centuries. A museum guide leads you — in real time via internet video conferencing — through the historic Robinson family home. Email to make arrangements.