Last month, The Campus ran an investigative piece discussing alleged issues of wage theft and human rights abuses on Goodrich Family Farm, a farm the college partners with to meet its sustainability goals, as outlined in Energy2028. This was followed by an editorial calling for the college to take accountability and ensure fair living and working conditions for farmworkers, especially on college-partnered farms.
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Two weeks ago, Middlebury College joined thousands of other schools when it was forced to shut down on-campus operations due to the novel coronavirus. Suddenly, what seemed like an overseas crisis became our reality. Many of us were left without a safe home to return to as we packed up our lives indefinitely. Scrambling to say our goodbyes, we were gravely aware of our time lost at Middlebury and the difficult months ahead. Taking shelter across the country, we have helplessly watched this crisis disrupt our world while taking thousands of lives. As we are writing this, the United States has the highest prevalence of Covid-19 in the world with 431,838 confirmed cases (likely a drastic underestimate due to a shortage of testing kits, healthcare disparities and asymptomatic carriers). We have seen mass layoffs disproportionately affecting low-wage workers, small businesses and at least 27.5 million uninsured Americans; nearly 40% of New Yorkers of New Yorkers are unable to pay rent and almost 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance. Government officials across the country have scrambled to take action. Seattle has enacted a rent moratorium, New York state temporarily waived foreclosures and Congress has approved a two trillion dollar economic stimulus package. While this unprecedented resource mobilization to fight the coronavirus is certainly warranted, it is shocking compared to our inaction tackling the climate crisis. The economic restructuring and dramatic lifestyle changes we have seen in the past weeks prove the kind of large-scale action needed to address climate change has been possible this whole time. We were in a global crisis even before this pandemic. In the past year we witnessed large parts of California, the Amazon and Australia burn, and floods devastated the central United States, Brazil and Ecuador. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations reached 415 parts per million, far above scientifically accepted safe levels needed to maintain a livable planet. Globally, black, brown and low-income people are disproportionately impacted by toxic drinking water, industrial waste, and other forms of environmental degradation. And climate change promises a future of more pandemics, more fires, more floods and more frequent and devastating events of every kind. These crises will shut down our country (and the world) time and time again, just like Covid-19 has. Without a concerted effort, the fear, sadness and destabilization we are currently experiencing as a result of Covid-19 will define life for generations to come. But we also cannot ignore that coronavirus is part of climate change; both are symptoms of the same capitalist system that values profit over lives. The U.S. government's response to the mounting economic crisis is to bail out airline companies and fossil fuel corporations instead of reaching out to those most vulnerable — especially undocumented and migrant workers whose needs and essential contributions are consistently overlooked. Whether it be our overwhelmed healthcare sector or the lack of supportive infrastructure for at-risk populations, this crisis has and continues to reveal the cruel inadequacies of our social and economic structures. Right now, we have the opportunity to radically rebuild our country. And many are already trying: workers at Amazon and Instacart, for instance, are striking to demand just labor standards. General Electric employees are protesting to shift production to medical equipment. Tenants struggling to pay rent are threatening rent strikes. Politicians like Stacy Abrams are advocating for bailing out people who have been hit the hardest by the crisis, rather than large corporations. College students all around the world are building mutual aid networks to help classmates and community members facing sudden displacement. All around us, people are beginning to imagine and enact a world in which they want to live. And so as Covid-19 continues to take and change lives we have a choice: do we allow governments and corporations to profit off of the increased vulnerability of people and devastate our planet, or do we learn from this crisis and replace the broken systems that got us here? Please, choose consciously. Sophie Chalfin-Jacobs ’22, Claire Contreras ’22.5, Divya Gudur ’21, Jaden Hill ’22, Hannah Laga Abram ’23, and Asa Skinder ’22.5 are all members of Middlebury Sunday Night Environmental Group.
Imagine this: a local farm uses food waste and manure from 900 cows to produce renewable natural gas. This gas is funneled through a 5.6 mile-long pipeline from the farm to Middlebury College. The school then uses the gas to produce 500kW of renewable electricity that powers 50% of the campus. College community members turn on their lights and feel content believing the energy powering them is not draining resources from the aching earth, but is instead sustainable, ethical. This vision is part of Middlebury’s Energy2028 plan, which involves a transition to 100% renewable energy, 25% consumption reduction, fossil fuel divestment and engagement in education and research. The project depends on a partnership between Middlebury and Goodrich Family Farm to construct an anaerobic digester on the farm. Vanguard Renewables owns and will operate the plant. Vermont Gas is connecting the system to its pipeline, from which Middlebury pledged to purchase gas. In return, Goodrich will receive free heat, byproduct bedding and fertilizer, as well as annual lease payments. This partnership has been described as an “innovative approach to the climate crisis.” However, this plan is neither sustainable nor ethical. Several weeks ago, the Goodrich family allegedly denied José Ramos, a migrant farmworker, his paycheck and physically assaulted him when he asked for his earned wages. A few days later, a Migrant Justice organizer accompanied José back to the farm to ask for his wages. Yet again, they were met with physical and verbal violence at the hands of his boss and supervisor. On Feb. 29, Migrant Justice organizers and community members rallied in front of Goodrich Farm. Over 60 protesters (including 20 Middlebury students) stood in solidarity with José, demanding justice. Protestors said the farm owners met them with aggression: charging at the marchers, pushing people and yelling obscenities. José is not the only worker at Goodrich Farm to have experienced abuse. Following the rally, several farm workers previously employed on the farm came forward to speak about similar violence they endured during their time at Goodrich. The partnership between Middlebury College and Goodrich Farm has been framed as mutually beneficial, helping the college achieve its energy goals and the Goodriches to diversify income. However, this mutual beneficiality is only surface level. As it stands now, the partnership perpetuates deep harm. If Middlebury proceeds with this partnership without demanding the Goodriches afford their farmworkers dignified working and living conditions, we will be directly implicated in violence towards our neighbors. We must face the reality that 100% renewable does not equate 100% sustainable. “Sustainability,” narrowly conceived, aims to reduce carbon consumption and prevent depletion of natural resources. However, this understanding separates humans from the environment by framing them exclusively as consumers rather than inextricable parts of the environment. These ideas of sustainability perpetuate transactional systems devoid of justice. People and energy sources are not separate. Generating renewable energy must be grounded in reciprocal care. Reimagined, sustainability can support ecosystems and promote equitable social systems. Middlebury must hold the Goodriches accountable for their actions if this partnership is to be sustainable. José’s case and similar cases show the irrefutable need for the expansion of Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program. The Milk with Dignity Standards Council enforces legally binding standards of living and working conditions. If farmworkers at Goodrich were protected under Milk with Dignity, the violence José experienced would not be tolerated. The farm would benefit as well, receiving a premium for their milk as well as other supports. Middlebury has the leverage and power to demand that Goodrich Farm pay José Ramos his wages and apologize. We must also support the Milk with Dignity Campaign, currently targeting the Hannaford supermarket chain. If Middlebury wishes to be a national leader in sustainability, we cannot pursue our energy goals through unjust means. Middlebury faces two choices: use our position of power to be an instrument for change, or continue to remain tolerant of deeply troubling labor practices. At the end of the day, the energy produced by this project is not just coming from food and agricultural waste. It is also coming from human beings who expend their own energy laboring in extremely difficult conditions to care for the animals producing the waste that is turned into power. If farmworkers’ energy is not valued, the very root of Energy2028 will be corrupt. We are calling on the Middlebury community and the Energy2028 team to entertain a broader definition of sustainability, one that does not continue to perpetuate violence and dehumanization. Sustainability cannot be surface level. Instead, it must be deeply rooted in respect, justice and humanity. Signed by Alex Cobb ’20, Hannah Ennis ’22.5, Olivia Pintair ’22.5, Jaden Hill ’22 and Connor Wertz ’22