Most seventeen-year-olds in Middlebury spend their days in high school, but this one does not.
This one is an immigrant from Mexico, and he works long hours at a local farm milking dairy cows, five hours per milking, twice a day.
His English is poor, and he shares living quarters with three other Mexican immigrants, who also work on the farm for wages their boss says meet or exceed the state minimum of $8.06 an hour.
They are part of a vast underground workforce that helps to keep farms in Addison County, and across Vermont, alive.
Vermont employs 'guest' workers, many of whom work on farms
The state Agency of Agriculture estimates Vermont dairy farmers employ as many as 2,000 "guest" workers across the state, many of them from Mexico and many of them working long hours at physically demanding jobs that local residents find unappealing. Others say that estimate is low.
Milking large herds can be a nearly round-the-clock operation. Milking is done twice a day, with one shift often falling in the middle of the night.
"What we do know is there is a need for labor on farms, particularly dairy farms, and there aren’t enough people in the state of Vermont who are interested or willing to do the work that needs to be done," said Kelly Loftus, a spokeswoman for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
"It’s hard work. So they need to go out of state for labor."
Like his boss and the three other Mexican immigrants interviewed for this story, the 17-year-old agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his name be withheld. Their boss said the workers have papers indicating they are in this country legally.
But he also acknowledges he can’t vouch for the documents’ authenticity. When asked whether he knew if the papers were legitimate, he answered "I couldn’t tell you."
Leaving families behind in Mexico
The workers live away from their families, who stay behind in Mexico. They also are in isolation from the rest of the community. They almost never leave the farm. The workers do their job and then return to their living quarters to eat and sleep.
The workers come to this country with the same personal goals most of us have. They want to improve their lifestyles and find better opportunities for themselves and their families. The four farm workers interviewed for this story are from Veracruz, Mexico. The 17-year-old is the youngest; the oldest is 44.
"We are here in order to find new opportunities and change our future lives in Mexico," the 17-year-old said in an interview. Their prime concern is to milk the cows and earn a salary. They described their lives here as easy, compared to the hardships and poverty they face at home in Mexico. They have regular communication with their families in Mexico by phone. They plan to go back home in one to four years.
One of their major complaints is their isolation from their families. Because of the cumbersome paperwork that is needed to travel in and out of the country, they rarely return to Mexico to visit Veracruz.
"The only thing that we will like to change in our lives is the migration papers so we can travel and visit our families in Mexico," the 17-year-old said.
Helping workers assimilate
The four workers at this dairy farm have been in the United States for more than three years. As they speak, there appears to be a sense of camaraderie between them. They have a good relationship with their boss. These workers said that they are happy with their lives here, although they would like to be able to visit their families at home.
Although it might not be immediately apparent to outsiders, significant cultural differences stemming from their heritage separate the four workers at this farm. Some are native Mexicans and the others are of European descent. The friction between the two groups can be strong, and their employer tries to prevent conflict by assigning the workers different schedules and offering them separate housing.
Their employers want to learn Spanish to make it easier to communicate with the workers. They also want to make it possible for their employees to participate in religious gatherings, to accommodate their holidays, and to provide schooling. A community group offers a "migrant education" program to help them feel more comfortable and familiar with this foreign land.
In Middlebury, town police have adopted a sort of "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy toward Mexican dairy farm workers. Officers won’t detain undocumented foreign nationals unless they suspect they have committed a crime.
The policy allows Mexican workers who may have been victims of crimes, or witnessed crimes against others, to speak with police without fear of being sent back across the border. Middlebury police were the first in the state to adopt such a policy. Vermont state police take a similar approach when dealing with foreign farm workers.