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  • Ernest (Buster) Caswell

Opinion: Farmworker Housing

By Ernest (Buster) Caswell

As I continue to advocate for housing for agricultural workers across the State of Vermont, multiple parties have worked tirelessly to address this important factor of our population’s livelihood. In the past few months, at least three meetings concerning the subject were held at UVM, and Gov. Phil Scott recently issued an executive order to study the long-term viability of the state’s agriculture. Despite this traction, however, we have yet to see an organization willing to take a stand and push toward affordable housing for our agricultural workers.

The push for support comes in light of recent federal cutbacks, as evidenced by reports from the National Rural Housing Coalition. In their Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal, the United States Department of Agriculture plans to eliminate farmworker housing loans and grants as authorized by Sections 514 and 516 of the Housing Act of 1949. Similar cuts to the Multifamily Preservation and Revitalization, the Mutual Self-Housing, and the HOME Investment Partnerships Programs are planned as well. Between the dependence on funding from the USDA and an average annual income of $13,112, these reductions would place a financial burden on rural American tenants and would neglect over 470,000 housing units. In addition, the proposals would remove over 100 self-help organizations nationwide, abandoning over 50,000 families in need of housing assistance and depleting funds necessary to repair existing housing units.

This burden disproportionately affects our country’s most vulnerable populations, with over 64 percent of Section 515 tenants being elderly or disabled, over 32 percent of households headed by persons of color, and over 71 percent headed by women.

Where does Vermont fit into this matter? Simple: to say that agriculture plays a vital role in the state’s economy would be an understatement. The USDA’s 2019 State Agricultural Overview showed about 1.2 million acres devoted to farm operations, with almost 7,000 farming operations across the Green Mountain State. In the same year, Vermont’s farms produced over 2 million gallons of maple syrup, almost 2.7 billion pounds of milk, and almost 1.4 million tons of corn, yielding a net profit of over $265,000,000.

Unfortunately, Vermont ranks fifth in the affordable wage/income gap, and affordable housing in the state is more challenging for those in its agricultural community. How can a state that celebrates its farming heritage and promotes the consumption of locally produced goods leave the hands that make it all possible bound and empty? Furthermore, the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic has now, more than ever, demonstrated the significance of Vermont’s agribusiness sector.

So, as a proud member of the agricultural community, I fervently recommend the creation of a task force committee to address these issues. I ask our legislature, as well as Gov. Scott, to please prioritize this matter so that our agricultural workers, our essential workers, are assured adequate housing both on and off the properties they make their living on.

Ernest Caswell is a farmworker in VT and many times, farmworkers are left out of the conversation that affects their lives.

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