BREWER, Maine — A group of farmers and labor leaders gathered on Saturday to discuss the plight of dairy farmers and conditions of workers in Maine and around the country.
Brewer-based Food AND Medicine, a nonprofit group focusing on workers rights, access to local food and medicine, hosted the event. Eastern Maine Labor Council, Food for Maine’s Future, Family Farm Defenders based in the midwest and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a labor group based in Florida, are all part of the effort.
Bob St. Peter, a Sedgwick farmer and director of Food for Maine’s Future, will tour 4,500 miles from Maine to Wisconsin and then to Florida for the Farm Labor Reality Tour. He left on Saturday and will end with a two-week 175-mile March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food on March 2. The march, led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, will begin in Immokalee, Fla., and conclude at Publix supermarkets chains’ headquarters in Lakeland, Fla.
“Our tour aims to draw attention to our shared struggles as people who work in America’s fields and farms,” said St. Peter.
St. Peter said it’s hard for small to midsize farms to compete with large farms at the grocery store.
“We’re in rural Maine and a dollar is hard to come by,” he said. “If you have $100 in your food budget that week and you have three kids to feed, then you have to be careful where you spend those dollars. If the chicken in the grocery store is $.79 a pound, and it’s $4 a pound for a local farm, ethics aside, it’s a pretty easy choice.”
Scott Belanger, owner of Olde Oak Farm in Maxfield, said the fixed price of milk forces dairies to sell milk at a loss.
“It takes understanding [from the public] that the $3.69 for a gallon of milk people say is expensive is not,” he said. “It should be $8.”
Belanger said he works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in order to supplement his income as a farmer.
“Farmers continue to take loans and then go into debt,” he said. “I work extra to not take loans.”
Due to mounting debt, some farmers turn to suicide, said Belanger.
“Operational costs are skyrocketing, but the return cost of our sales are plummeting,” he said. “Because of this, we’re having a lot of internal stress within our families. Divorces are running rampant and suicide is once again becoming a problem in the Maine dairy industry.”
Belanger said he has learned of three suicides committed by dairy farmers in the past few months.
“It’s tough,” he said after a long pause. “What I’ve seen is anger, depression, hopelessness, helplessness. I have not seen optimism, happiness or excitement from my [dairy farming] friends.”
“It’s a constant feeling of you’re doing the right thing, but we’re getting further and further behind. The [financial] hole keeps getting bigger,” said St. Peter. “The option is, we give up our livelihood, we give up our way of life, we give up our jobs, and that’s not what people are asking for right now. People are asking for more family farms, localized food systems and we’re trying to provide that, but we simply can’t.”
The Farm Labor Reality Tour will also draw attention workers’ rights, said Jack McKay, president of the Eastern Maine Labor Council.
“Working conditions in the labor movement we saw in the 19th century in this country … with some of the most horrid working conditions … are happening again,” said McKay.
St. Peter said there have been nine cases of slavery prosecuted in Florida in the past 12 years.
“A big part of the tour is to confront the long, dark history of agricultural labor in this country,” he said. “From its beginnings of chattel slavery and sharecropping to today’s oppressive commodity contracts and the migrant farmer system we have in this country.”
There are still cases of workers being exploited, said St. Peter.
The march in Florida aims to persuade Publix to join the list of 11 other major companies in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program. Other companies on the list include McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and Yum Brands.