While beginning my research on the situation of Hispanic migrant dairy farmworkers in the North Country back in September, I had the opportunity to meet with North Country Public Radio (NCPR) journalist David Sommerstein, who has investigated and published extensive coverage on this topic throughout the last twelve years. When I met with him he shared valuable insight about some of the experiences and challenges faced by migrant workers in this region. He also put me in touch with other individuals who have engaged in advocacy work to promote migrant farmworker’s rights. In this post David shares how he began reporting on this topic, how North Country residents have responded to the presence of migrant workers in this region, as well as his thoughts on the role of journalism in bringing more needed awareness to this situation.

David Sommerstein at work at NCPR. (Photo: Jason Hunter/WDT)

JD: How and why did you decide to investigate and cover several stories on the situation/presence of Hispanic migrant workers in the North Country?

DS: Around 2005, I heard about a program Cornell University was doing to send dairy farmers to Mexico. I thought it was a typical junket farmers often do to travel to foreign countries to learn how farmers there do things differently. I interviewed a farmer, and she told me she had gone down to meet the family members (wife, children, etc.) of a Mexican man who had been working on her farm. I asked, pretty innocently, “is he here legally?” She paused a long time and asked me to turn off the recorder. That’s when she started to explain to me a huge new trend in Upstate New York dairy. It was something very few people in the North Country knew was even happening.

That interview led to me to do a series on the basics on Latino employees on New York dairy farms – how dairy farmers don’t have to prove working papers, like Social Security #s, are legitimate, how they can cross labor laws if they question such papers because of someone’s race, how Mexican and Central American men were drifting North with fake SS cards to work long hours on dairy farms, sock away their earnings, and send the money back home. This was some of the earliest reporting done in the state on this issue.

I ended up going on that Cornell program to Mexico, reporting the whole story

This trend brought up huge issues that we needed to report – of border enforcement and crossing federal labor law, of potential abuses from wage theft and disregard of health care issues to human trafficking and housing issues, of whether North Country natives were losing jobs to immigrants, of the future of the North Country’s biggest economic driver (dairy). Those issues have led to coverage that continues to this day.

JD: I just listened to your "Farm to Farm, Family to Family" stories on the link that you sent. What an awesome experience! In some of my research I have read that Veracruz was severely impacted by NAFTA because of the ejido, or small scale, communal farming communities, which caused a huge influx of migration from that region in the last 20 years. In your second story, the woman you interviewed discussed how due to such high migration rates there is no one left to farm. Is/was Malacatepec an ejido community, or in general what else did you learn about the farming community there? Along with this, in some of your interviews did you learn about some of the specific causes of migration from that town? I'm curious as to how your conversations and experiences may align with some of the research I have done on the causes of migration. 

DS: I was only in Malacatepec for a few days (truly “parachute reporting” unfortunately), so I didn’t get to the root of why so many people left to seek work in the U.S. I suspect the background radiation is same as it is in many places – loss of small-scale farming to giant multinationals, global trend of migration from the country to the city, and the allure of a better life in the U.S. Once the first men got jobs on Upstate NY dairy farms, they summoned their cousins and friends by cell phone, and the cycle of migration had begun. But no, I didn’t hear anyone talk specifically about ejidos, not that I can remember.

JD: What aspects of the trip had the most impact on you or were the most eye-opening?  How did these experiences shape your research on this issue in New York after the trip?

DS: Hearing people tell their stories so matter-of-factly. They see themselves as part of a global system. When workers return home after a 2-3 year stint on a dairy farm, they see material benefits to their lives and those of their families – new houses, cars, businesses, etc. They said they live better when they return home. They said all that makes the terror and uncertainty of the border crossing and time away from home worth the risk. What that told me is they were at such a level of desperation that those risks were worthwhile to begin with.

Understanding that background, and having those stories in my head, helped me enormously in my reporting. When I met new workers, I had a sense of where they were coming from. Sometimes I met people who were from a village I had actually visited. We were able to make a connection over that.

JD: Since you began this research in 2005, have you noticed any cultural changes in the North Country in response to the presence of Hispanic migrant workers? Is there more community awareness about their presence than there used to be or has their invisibility remained stagnant?

DS: Not much, really. While many more people are aware of the presence of Hispanic workers, they remain largely invisible because they remain on the farm to avoid detention by Border Patrol. The fear out there among the workers and farmers has drastically increased since the Trump Administration began promising a “crackdown”.

You do see more “Mexican” foodstuffs in places like Wal-Mart and the dollar stores. But I think people just forget who is milking the cows in this region.

During the Obama Administration, there had been an increase in publicity and activity among worker advocates trying to publicize the vulnerability of these workers – to wage theft, health problems, human trafficking, indentured servitude, etc. They held demonstrations at a farm in Lewis County, with workers as marchers among them. That was an interesting development, but I think the new climate of fear and threat of deportation will change that.

The issue is much more politicized today, of course. Any story on this issue becomes a loud, emotional debate in the comments section, with many people insisting the farmers should start paying better wages so local people would want to work on the farms. Trump’s anti-immigrant statements have certainly ratcheted up the vitriol among his supporters in the North Country.

I recently found a small group of white workers who actually do work alongside Hispanic immigrant workers. I’ll have a story coming out on that next month.

JD: In Part 3 of your "Farm to Farm, Family to Family" series you discussed that there hadn't been very much backlash towards the presence of migrant workers in the North Country compared with other areas. Would you say this has stayed the same or changed since you published this story?

DS: You see the backlash in the comments section of stories and on FB. But nothing I’ve seen in public. Dairy is almost akin to patriotism in the North Country – people are wary of criticizing the industry because it’s such a backbone of the North Country’s economy and culture.

JD: What types of responses have you received from publishing these stories? I have read some of the comments on some of your articles and have noticed that there are a wide variety of responses expressing various opinions regarding this topic. What kind of feedback have you received about your work on this issue and how has that affected your continued research? Have these responses changed over time?

DS: Aside from what I’ve mentioned above, not much has changed. Many people thank me for reporting these stories, as casting a light on a phenomenon that by definition is cast in shadows. I also try to connect the issue to the pricing of our food and larger agricultural issues. Dairy farmers have no control over the price of their milk – it’s set by a federal system. The notion that farmers should just raise their wages ignores that fact. Americans want their food to be cheap, far cheaper than it is in other developed countries. Buying a cheap gallon of milk is directly related to the use of undocumented immigrant labor on the farms.

JD: And finally, do you find that this issue continues to be an underreported story or has there been more coverage in recent years? Has journalism played a role in influencing the visibility or invisibility of this workforce?

DS: There has been more coverage, but there can always be more - understanding the big issues in our food system (see above), more investigations into human trafficking and the “middle men” who traffic many workers up here form the southern border, prostitution issues on the farms, etc. I think journalism has played a very important role in exposing to the public a complicated issue that Congress has failed to address (there is no legal visa program for dairy workers). But we could use a lot more reporters to spend more time on it…