A Real Cowman: Portrait of a Migrant Farmworker

By Kathyrn Kramer from Vermont Almanac

Gabriel says that the way to help cows not be scared of you is to touch them. Lay a hand, be gentle – it cuts down on their stress. You don’t want cows stressed because then they give less milk and have more difficulty conceiving. Since cows learn to recognize people by their smell, not by their looks, the more often they smell you and the kinder you are, the more they trust you. Contrary to what many people think, cows are curious, intelligent creatures. Gabriel’s current favorite is a Brown Swiss named Charlotte, Charlo for short, because, among a herd of Holsteins, she’s unica, unique. Other than that he can’t really explain why – nor can one of the dairy owners, when I ask her if she knows. Just as with people or dogs, you like some better than others. I ask Gabriel if the Holsteins ostracize the few Jerseys and Brown Swiss among them, and he smiles at this ridiculous notion.

Twelve hours a day, six days a week, Gabriel checks up on a herd of 1,500 heifers, locating the ones who are in heat and ready to be bred. All the heifers wear in their ears a computer chip that communicates, among other things, how much the heifers are moving around. When they’re “running around like crazy,” chances are good they’re in heat. And when he first checks on the heifers in the morning, Gabriel carries a can of pink paint that he sprays on the rump of cows not already painted. Then he notes which cows have lost most of the paint they wore before. This occurs because other heifers, aware that another is in heat, are inspired to impersonate bulls and mount her. They rub against the paint and the paint comes off. I can’t help but wonder who thought of this – shall we say – interesting method. For those of us who grew up thinking that to milk cows you brought them in from the field, filled a bucket with milk, and dumped it into a bulk tank – not to mention persuaded a sometimes recalcitrant bull to fulfill his fatherly duty – this is a futuristic world.

Like all the larger dairy farms in the state, in order to survive this one has to work the economies of scale. With about 1,500 milkers, despite the sophistication of their own systems (the quantity of milk each cow gives is measured daily by computer), the owners still don’t know from month to month how much money they’ll be able to count on. Trying to comprehend the complex regulations governing the milk industry is more mind-warping than trying to make sense of the I.R.S. tax instructions. Says one of the owners, “There are only two people in the country who understand milk pricing, and one of them just died.” To be able to make a profit, the farms have to milk the cows three times each on a 24-hour cycle, so a lot of help is needed.

Modest, unassuming, completely reliable, with a gently wry outlook on the world, Gabriel is a trusted and valued employee, one of a dozen or so migrant workers on this farm, and one of the between twelve and fifteen hundred in the state. Without them, the dairy industry, which has steadily declined since its high point in the 1920s when there were almost 30,000 dairy farms, would collapse. In Vermont there are now around 650 dairy farms, large and small. As one of the owners says, there are not enough people locally who want to do this work: the long hours for the kind of pay that the industry can afford. The situation is manageable for these workers, as most of them are provided housing as well as a paycheck, much of which they send back home. (There are a few workers in Vermont from places like Honduras and Guatemala, but the great majority are from Mexico.) Few of the workers at Gabriel’s farm have cars, so once a week a farm van drives them to a local grocery store. Some favorite foods that they can’t buy there – certain kinds of chiles, for example, or canned cactus – are supplied by someone who travels around peddling to farm workers. It used to be you could tell when the local workers had been to the grocery store because all the corn tortillas would be gone, but somewhere along the line the management has seen fit to order a lot more.

When Gabriel first came to this farm, he milked and cleaned the barns for three years. Says one of the owners, “He’s very talented. It’s like being an artist: either you have a feel for it or you don’t. Gabriel is a real cowman.” The owners have a vested interest in keeping Gabriel learning and stimulated, so he was sent to “breeding school,” where besides learning how to inseminate the heifers he learned how to give shots and check their feet to see if they need their hooves trimmed. He inseminates between five and ten heifers a day, and on Fridays forty or more. On that day he has help, because it’s hard, tiring work. But it’s critical work. Cows who don’t get pregnant end up on the beef truck.

Gabriel has been in the US now for 14 years. The first two he spent in North Carolina, working in construction, which he liked, but during the recession of 2008 the work was cut back to two or three days a week and an uncle who worked in Vermont told him about a job opening here. Besides being good at his job, he likes cows – and he likes the state. Just like Guerrero, the state in Mexico where he’s from, Vermont is mountainous and still part wild. There are many of the same animals in Guerrero: deer, raccoons, skunks, squirrels – although no chipmunks or wild turkeys. And there, he tells me, there’s a kind of mosquito that makes honey. When Gabriel was young he and his friends would look for their nests on trees to collect the sweet treat. “Are they really mosquitoes?” I ask, making a buzzing noise. We have that kind too, he says, but these are different. “Not wasps? Avispas?” “No, we call them mosquitoes,” he says. Sensing my skepticism, he had a friend at home take a video to show me: the mosquito crouched on a tree and, nestled in the bark beside it, its tiny golden-colored nest which it closes up at night.

When I asked him once how he learned so much about the natural world, he said, “Los abuelos.” All the grandparents in town. Town is a village of 20 to 25 houses. Gabriel’s daughter, who is 15, lives there with Gabriel’s mother. Her own mother is in another town, because that’s where she can make a living. There’s little work for anyone there. To keep in touch, Gabriel and his daughter talk by phone or video-chat a couple of times a week. She’s in school and is interested in computers but just as in many remote locations in Vermont the internet there is unreliable. Gabriel currently has no plans to go back, though he says he supposes he will one day.

He would like to have a farm of his own, but he owns no land and the land in Guerrero is very expensive. Many of the men who have returned from the US farm corn, but it’s subsistence living. Here, Gabriel likes the work, though the winters can be difficult, when so many things are frozen. He doesn’t complain about his circumstances – about feeling encerrado (literally, encircled), unable to move around safely outside of the farm. Like Gabriel, most of the workers are here without their families and haven’t seen spouses and children for many years. And rarely are they able to get to know people off the farms or meet a spouse, if they haven’t one. If the immigration laws were to change, Gabriel would like to stay and bring his daughter to live here. So would many of the other workers. In a state that urgently needs more young people to start and nurture families here, one would think that providing these essential workers with visas, if not citizenship, and welcoming them into aging communities would make sense. Yet, despite Vermont’s having been in the vanguard of a number of political and social advances over its history, immigration laws are under federal purview, so it’s not up to us. —Kathyrn Kramer