Got leche? State offers Spanish lessons to farmers


Saturday, January 6
VERNON -- Throughout the years of working on his family's farm -- Vern-Mont Farm LLC, near the Massachusetts state line -- Jeff Dunklee has tried to keep up on the latest agriculture news.

There are always new computer programs to learn to run the business more smoothly and breakthroughs in animal science to keep the 470-cow herd healthy.

Learning enough Spanish to be able to ask an employee what time he is coming in tomorrow was never an issue for his father, who ran the farm for years before him.

But times have changed.

For the past six years, the Dunklees have employed four Mexican workers to handle some of the responsibilities required to run a successful dairy operation in Vermont.

The family works with an agriculture labor agency that helps find the workers and get the necessary immigration papers.

And while the crew can make it through the days of repetitive chores, communicating with hand signs and regular routines, Dunklee said the language barrier is sometimes hard to maneuver.

"I took two years of French in high school and that turned out to be a waste of time," Dunklee said. "I just thought that Quebec always seemed closer than Mexico, but that's not the case anymore."

To meet a growing demand from farmers across the state who are employing Hispanic workers, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture announced recently that it was offering Spanish classes for dairy farmers.

The program was designed to specifically address conversational topics related to the dairy industry, including teaching Spanish words for the parts of the cow and farm machinery along with words related to business basics needed in scheduling, handling employment issues and dealing with medical problems.

Louise Waterman, the education coordinator for the agriculture agency, said her office routinely offers farmers business courses and property transition planning, but this is the first time Vermont farmers were given the option of learning Spanish.

The state received a $12,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant, which will cover part of the program. Waterman said the whole course will cost the state about $20,000.

"In the last five years, the number of Hispanic farmers working here in the state has grown," Waterman said. "We heard from farmers that language is a challenge."

Waterman said there is no way to tell how many of the dairy workers in the state come from Latin American countries.

Estimates have run from 40 percent to as much as 75 percent.

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Whatever the number, Waterman said enough farmers have contacted her asking for the course, and at this point it is clear that the Hispanic workers have assumed an important role.

"It is difficult to get local labor and this is an available workforce," said Waterman.

Dunklee is more direct in stating the role his staff plays.

"This farm would not be in operation without these guys," Dunklee said about his staff. "We are very happy to have these guys work for us."

There is no local workforce available to handle the demanding job of keeping a dairy farm running 365 days a year, Dunklee said. He has never had any trouble with the workers, though he said he still gets some stares when he goes into Brattleboro to shop or go to the bank.

"This isn't California or Texas and people are still curious about them," he said. "I tell them to be wary, they still are different. The guys I met are all good guys, they are here to work. They don't want to cause trouble. We've got plenty of local people here that want to do that."

Dan Baker, a professor from the University of Vermont who helped develop the Spanish language program, traveled to a handful of farms to speak with Vermonters and with Hispanic workers.

He is helping to put together the language course that is specific to dairy farming in the Northeast.

"Six years ago, there were very few Hispanic workers on dairy farms in Vermont. In the past two years, many, many more farmers have hired Hispanic employees," Baker said. "We wanted to find a way to help Vermont farmers with this and we found out that language was an issue."

Baker is working with a company that produces Spanish manuals and CDs, and will help develop the special dairy program and organize the classes.

Dunklee said he will probably not take the Spanish course, which is only being in offered in central and northern Vermont.

But anyway, Dunklee said there is communication that happens beyond language.

"We are able to communicate to get work done, but we are not getting in to any deep philosophical discussions," Dunklee said. "You get close working together every day. We have mutual respect. If they take care of us and our animals, we take care of them. That is easy enough to translate without speaking the same language."

For information, call Waterman at the Agency of Agriculture, (802) 828-6900.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at or (802) 254-2311, ext. 279.


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