Disruptions in Vermont’s Landscape: Vera L. Chang on her Rachel Tanur Prize

Photo of Vera L. Chang

July 11, 2018

Berkeley Food Institute Researcher Vera L. Chang reflects on the meaning behind her prize-winning entry for Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology

By Vera L. Chang

Vera L. Chang is a Berkeley Food Institute researcher and a doctoral student at the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. 

Read Vera’s full submission here: https://www.racheltanurmemorialprize.org/disruptions-in-vermonts-landscape/

In 2015, Ben & Jerry’s made a pioneering commitment—it would become the first corporate retailer to implement Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program among its dairy suppliers. Created by immigrant farmworkers in Vermont, Milk with Dignity is the first major adaptation of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ much-lauded worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) Fair Food Program. Milk with Dignity contractually obligates large milk buyers to fund the costsof more stringent farm labor standards; it empowers workers as frontline monitors of their own human rights; and it enforces compliance through legally-binding agreements with market consequences. By adopting the WSR model, dairy workers sought to reverse the downward pressure on farm wages and conditions that they and farmers experience within consolidating food chains. Those at the bottom of this chain—both workers and farmers—are being squeezed by an increasingly competitive market in which milk prices have been in a continuous downswing and large farms are absorbing small ones.

Photo of dairy worker and cows
“Ray” (name changed) photographed inside of a dairy barn. Photo: Vera L. Chang

I photographed Ray (a pseudonym), a Vermont dairy worker, in August 2016, during the two-year period when Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s were negotiating their contract about what Milk with Dignity would entail and how it would be operationalized. My image was part of a series that documented dairy workers’ everyday lives prior to the inauguration of Milk with Dignity. This image of a farmworker inside a dairy barn hints at expectant energy and tensions before Ben & Jerry’s commitment to the agreement. Migrant Justice’s public campaign had revealed hidden abuses within the state’s bucolic landscape. Designed to the reduce structural barriers to safe, healthy, and fair labor conditions, the program’s launch would signal shifting power relations among supply chain actors. Dairy workers, leaders of the public campaign, were praised by Senator Bernie Sanders as “human rights defenders.” My image features Ray to represent dairy workers’ simultaneous vulnerability, determination, and resilience in the face of an industry that normalizes unfair milk prices for farmers and unfair labor practices for farmworkers.

I pair my image of Ray with Rachel Tanur’s image, “Cow Parade,” a photograph of a sculpture that suggests the dissonance between the laborious nature of food production and an agrarian idealism widely marketed by corporations and rural states. Tanur’s photo of abstract bovine art depicts a hollow, life-sized fiberglass cow, sans people or its agricultural context. The Cow Parade—a project that paraded sculptures far from farms—can be understood as a metaphor for empty social responsibility programs constructed without worker input or oversight. I read Tanur’s photo as critical commentary. It complements mine, which recognizes workers’ insight and expertise to design programs that attend to and understand remedies for normalized exploitation. In truth, there is a fraught, daily grind for both workers and farmers who produce food, and Tanur’s image of a Cow Parade sculpture reminds us that popularized images of agriculture may not tell a complete story.

Fast-forward: much has changed since Ben & Jerry’s signed their groundbreaking agreement with Migrant Justice, and Milk with Dignity finally launched on October 2017. A few farms are nearing compliance with the new standards. As of May 2018, the worker-led program is on its way to full implementation throughout the ice cream company’s dairy supply chain. As farms join, Migrant Justice staff conducts education sessions for workers, who learn about their rights and responsibilities under the program and resources available to them. Now, the Milk with Dignity Standards Council (a third-party monitoring body) receives and resolves worker grievances through a 24/7 worker support hotline.

My Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize “Disruptions in Vermont’s Landscape” photo is already an historic image of dairy workers’ struggles. I see the establishment of WSR as an important breakthrough to shift capital and power to marginalized workers. Throughout my graduate studies and beyond, I will be visually documenting and studying worker-led processes of transformation.