A migrant worker rights group, a worker-owned construction cooperative, and an efficiency utility are collaborating on new housing designs and financing to improve farmworker living conditions and reduce energy waste.

José Ignacio is taking his fight home.

After four years working on dairy farms in northern Vermont, he’s among those leading the push for humane, affordable, sustainable, and energy-efficient housing for immigrant farmworkers like himself.

Originally from the city of Cárdenas, in the state of Tabasco in southeastern Mexico, José Ignacio is an activist with the group Migrant Justice. The organization brings together Vermont’s migrant dairy farmworkers to improve their working and living conditions. (At the group’s request, the Energy News Network is not using José Ignacio’s last name due to the risk of harassment and threats against immigrants.)

José Ignacio and several other former dairy farmworkers are worker-owners with Vermont-based New Frameworks, a cooperative that uses natural, locally sourced materials to create high-performance buildings. The group, together with the efficiency utility Efficiency Vermont and its manufacturing partners, is working to design and construct factory-made housing solutions they hope will improve living conditions for farmworkers and reduce energy costs and emissions.

José Ignacio has taken on this work to build a better future with fellow members of the immigrant farmworker community.

“To support each other in our community and achieve dignified housing, that would be the best,” he said, speaking in Spanish. Beyond that, he said, it’s an effort to be more environmentally responsible.

An urgent concern

Migrant Justice estimates Vermont is home to about 1,200 immigrant dairy farm workers, mostly from southern Mexico and Guatemala. Many live on the farms where they work. This is especially true for dairy farms, which generate about 70% of Vermont’s agricultural revenue and employ almost all of the state’s migrant workers who aren’t fully authorized to work in the United States, according to a recent report commissioned by the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board.

Housing is an urgent concern for migrant farmworkers. Although farm owners are required to provide workers with sound living conditions, standards are rarely enforced. 

For José Ignacio and the workers with whom he spent his first years here, this means living situations can be unsafe and far below what most people consider acceptable. He spent a year and a half at one farm living in the same garage as the tractors, sleeping on makeshift beds — for example, a mattress laid over an old water fountain for the cows.

Workers often live in decades-old trailers that haven’t been kept up, aren’t sufficiently heated and lack proper ventilation. They often share tight quarters — and beds, alternating who’s sleeping with who’s working. The crowded conditions are unsanitary, and, during the pandemic, they’ve left workers vulnerable to COVID-19. And since many workers are undocumented, they lack the leverage to demand fair conditions.

“This affects all of us, even our employers,” José Ignacio said. “Because if we are sick, we can’t work, so it’s a loss for everyone. We can even lose our lives.”

Advocates say farmers don’t want to create those conditions, but often they’re financially strapped themselves. The dairy industry has dealt with falling milk prices for years, and the pandemic, which has brought a drop in restaurant and school food service demand, has exacerbated the uncertainty the industry faces.

“We sincerely want to improve worker housing but we can’t afford to,” read one response to a survey of farmers included in the Housing & Conservation Board report. “We need financial assistance to make this happen.” Other responses were similar, citing lack of funding as a key barrier to improving the quality of housing.

Aside from the poor conditions it creates for workers, the housing in many cases was designed without considerations of energy use.

“Existing farmworker housing is some of the most energy-intensive building stock in Vermont per square foot,” said Peter Schneider, a senior consultant at Efficiency Vermont. Many of the old mobile and manufactured homes that workers live in were built decades ago, often before code standards existed, he said.

A 2012 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that in 2005, occupants of older manufactured housing on average paid more than twice as much per square foot for energy than owners of site-built, stand-alone, single-family homes. (The agency focused on manufactured housing built prior to 1976, when federal energy efficiency standards were implemented for manufactured housing. Many farmworkers live in this type of housing, Schneider said.)

Construction workers assemble a prototype of a sustainably made and energy-efficient modular building made by New Frameworks in Winooski, Vermont. Photos by Glenn Russell / for the Energy News Network

Building solutions

José Ignacio and his fellow workers pushed their employer to improve living conditions, but he said the employer kept delaying, citing permitting and financial issues. José Ignacio left that farm and now lives with his partner. Those who stayed worked with Migrant Justice and eventually pressured the employer to get a new house. But it’s not enough, José Ignacio said.

“Farm by farm is not how you’re going to achieve change,” he said. A larger worker-led movement is necessary, he said, to push not just for better housing but for fair labor conditions like minimum wage and standard working hours. José Ignacio often worked 16 hours a day as a farmworker.

He joined New Frameworks at the beginning of this year. The company is a worker-owned cooperative, and José Ignacio and three other former dairy workers are worker-owners like New Frameworks’ other members. They work with a segment of the company called Gryphon, constructing straw wall panels in the company’s workshop and installing them at construction sites.

New Frameworks’ goal is to have a design ready by the end of the year for net-zero energy, readymade farmworker housing.

The design José Ignacio and his colleagues at New Frameworks have been constructing recently, which is planned to serve as a starting point to create the forthcoming farmworker housing, is called Tu Cabañita. Two prototypes have been built so far, the first of which was recently raised at the home of Ace McArleton, a co-founder and managing partner at the cooperative.

The one-room design “was initially meant to be a rustic cabin, accessory dwelling unit or studio space,” McArleton said. His will be used as an office and family space. It’s not grid-connected, though it has the capability to connect in the future.

Some things will be adapted for a new housing solution, like its panel design and elements of the roof engineering. Other things will have to be changed. For example, aside from grid connection and utilities, more “modules” — bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen — will have to be added to the central room. And McArleton said the loft design will likely be more practical if it’s walled off as a second-floor bedroom, so workers on different shifts can sleep while others sharing the home are awake.

It will require input from the workers themselves, he said.

“That’s why we are designing this with the migrant worker community,” McArleton said. “The people using the space will know best what they need.”

The workers view the construction with New Frameworks, which uses natural, locally sourced materials, as more environmentally sustainable in the long term than traditional construction. By learning how to build with these resources, they hope the method can easily be adapted elsewhere, including their home countries.

In Mexico, José Ignacio worked for Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos), the state-owned petroleum company. The company’s sites are prone to fires that often lead to injuries and deaths. The construction he’s doing with New Frameworks may offer an alternative that’s less reliant on fossil fuels and less dangerous.

Energy-efficient housing will ideally make the transition more affordable in the long run for farm owners.

Other construction companies have their own energy-efficient designs. With outside funding sources, including a program launched by Migrant Justice as well as efficiency incentives and low-interest loans, farmers may be able to viably make the transition.

  • Construction workers assemble a prototype of a sustainably made and energy-efficient modular building made by New Frameworks in Winooski, Vermont, on Monday, April 19, 2021.
  • Construction workers assemble a prototype of a sustainably made and energy-efficient modular building made by New Frameworks in Winooski, Vermont, on Monday, April 19, 2021.
  • Construction workers assemble a prototype of a sustainably made and energy-efficient modular building made by New Frameworks in Winooski, Vermont, on Monday, April 19, 2021.
  • Construction workers assemble a prototype of a sustainably made and energy-efficient modular building made by New Frameworks in Winooski, Vermont, on Monday, April 19, 2021.
  • Construction workers assemble a prototype of a sustainably made and energy-efficient modular building made by New Frameworks in Winooski, Vermont, on Monday, April 19, 2021.

Construction workers assemble a prototype of a sustainably made and energy-efficient modular building made by New Frameworks in Winooski, Vermont. Photos by Glenn Russell / for the Energy News Network

Partnering for results

Efficiency Vermont has a program to help owners replace outdated mobile homes with zero-energy modular homes, as well as a program to help ensure new homes are energy efficient. The organization is using both programs, in addition to other farmer-specific incentives, to improve farmworker housing in partnership with Migrant Justice.

“We are working to replace these buildings with homes that eliminate fossil fuel use and produce most of the electricity we anticipate the homes will use on an annual basis,” Schneider said.

In many cases, farmers may only want to weatherize or upgrade their existing housing. That costs less upfront than new housing, though it’s often expensive in the long term to continually update housing. The large upfront investment for new housing could end up being worth it if the farmer wants a long-lasting solution.

Schneider for the past year has worked on a pilot with Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program. Since 2017, Milk with Dignity has sought farms in Vermont to agree to comply with fair standards for workers, including upgrading housing. Farm owners also agree to implement fair working hours, fair pay and adequate health and safety standards, among other things.

In return, milk buyers that join the program pay a premium price for the milk from those farms, giving them a stream of extra income to help fund the improvements. Ben & Jerry’s is currently the only milk buyer participating in Milk with Dignity. The program serves upwards of 60 farms, a number that fluctuates depending on the amount of dairy Ben & Jerry’s buys in any given year and the composition of the company’s dairy supply chain. The program’s leaders want to expand its reach, including more farms and more buyers, so that all of Vermont’s dairy farms, and those in neighboring states, take part.

With funding from Milk with Dignity as well as other sources like Efficiency Vermont’s incentives and government loans, farmers’ monthly costs for new housing will ideally drop down to the same level as monthly maintenance and operation costs of their current farmworker housing. That way, Schneider said, “it’s not an additional financial burden on the farm, but it also hopefully will free up their time so they’re not spending so much time trying to maintain and keep that older housing stock going.”

The prefabricated zero-energy modular homes that Efficiency Vermont provides incentives for are all-electric and built with high-quality ventilation and insulation, officials said. They often incorporate rooftop solar panels as well.

No farms yet have secured these modular homes, but organizers said some are close to finalizing deals.

Efficiency Vermont is working with partners including the Milk with Dignity Standards Council (which enforces the Milk with Dignity program standards) to develop new zero-energy modular housing on a dairy farm in Hardwick, in northern Vermont. The partners are using a government loan program to finance the project.

“The combination of the ZEM’s [zero-energy modular home] significantly reduced annual maintenance and energy costs, paired with initial cost buy-down and concessionary rate financing, results in a package that can achieve monthly payments which are no more than the farm is currently paying for utilities alone on the existing dwelling,” the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board report noted.

“This is about reducing the burden of the housing. And most importantly, probably, is the burden on the farm laborers,” Schneider said. At the same time, he added, “I think what I’m finding in speaking with the farmers is they see this as making their life easier on the farm.”

The scale remains a challenge. The recent report on farmworker housing estimated millions of dollars of improvements are needed on existing dwellings. A survey of farmers indicated the potential for 50 to 75 additional on-farm farmworker homes in the state if financing and permitting allowed.

The completed cost of Efficiency Vermont’s zero-energy modular homes, including installation and connecting to water, sewer and electric services, starts around $150,000 and reaches $200,000 for homes with more bedrooms. That’s a hard sell for a cash-strapped dairy farmer who could find a used mobile home for $60,000.

Participating in Milk with Dignity won’t bring in enough money for new housing, so farmers looking to convert will likely have to use other sources as well. In addition to some incentives from Efficiency Vermont, one important source of funding is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program, which offers 1% interest loans lasting up to 33 years for farmworker housing. Local lenders can also provide assistance.

‘A just and free transition’

Vermont has hundreds of dairy farms, and they’ll need multiple solutions to improve housing. While options like zero-energy modular homes will be important given their scalability, the farmworkers and Migrant Justice’s leadership say working with New Frameworks is also central to their mission.

Having farmworkers build houses with New Frameworks is “like members from our community building houses for other members from our community,” said Marita Canedo, a leader and spokesperson for Migrant Justice. The group sees this as a way to ensure workers are deeply involved, from the beginning, in improving their living and working conditions. “Workers are thinking not for themselves but for the whole industry, starting at the farm level,” Canedo said.

By being part of the worker-owned structure of New Frameworks, José Ignacio and other migrant workers also hope to learn more about organizing, with the goal of one day creating their own farming cooperative. José Ignacio himself plans to return to Mexico to bring the work there.

Their effort to create new housing and their effort to form a co-op are connected, part of a hope to create their own independent future with stable work and living conditions.

“We’re looking for a just and free transition. We cannot wait for the government to do things for us,” José Ignacio said. “Our jobs are not going to last forever. So we need to change the strategy of the work that we do.”

David has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care, and was a Chicago correspondent for the Energy News Network. Now based in New York, David covers northern New England.