A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Advocating for the Voiceless: Rural & Migrant Ministry Brings Hope and Organization to Food System Workers

by Terence P Ward

Agriculture plays a significant role in the lives of Hudson Valley residents, whether they are farmers themselves or not. In this area, many families and restaurants prefer to source their food locally, buying from the copious farm stands, markets, and local grocery stores. Farmers markets and CSAs in New York City are often supplied with produce from Hudson Valley farms, which greatly strengthens the demand for an agricultural economy here. Historically, the Hudson Valley was called the breadbasket of New York City.
The task of harvesting and processing the crops of these abundant and fertile fields falls mostly to the migrant farm workers, a group of people that does not always get treated with the respect and dignity one might expect, given how important their work is to our food supply. However, for the past 34 years these workers have found allies in Rural & Migrant Ministry, an unusual partnership of faith communities that focuses not on evangelism but equality.
Reverend Richard Witt. Photo by Ilene Cutler.
RMM began its story in 1981. According to the organization’s executive director Richard Witt, who has been in that job since the beginning, “It was created in Rosendale by a group of different faith communities that were concerned about rural workers, especially farm workers, and their families.” Specifically, those concerns centered around questions of living and working conditions. “From the beginning, we were concerned with systemic issues, rather than social services. We were also not interested in evangelism, figuring that that’s the responsibility of congregations.” Witt is himself an ordained Episcopal bishop. Today, there are 12 denominations that support the RMM’s work statewide, including Roman Catholic and Episcopal dioceses, associations of Baptists, conferences representing Methodists and the United Church of Christ, two regional Presbyterian groups (referred to as a Presbytery), a synod of Reformed Church in America, and the New York Yearly Meeting of the Quakers.
Its first project was to create a child care and HeadStart center, still located on Route 32 in New Paltz, to give children of farm workers the same leg up that others had. “Children were either working in the fields, or sitting on the sides of the fields, or at home being watched by slightly older children,” Witt said. “They were not getting any sort of pre-developmental advantage.”
After that first success, RMM ran into some snags with its next initiative, turning an old bungalow community in Plattekill into safe and affordable housing for these workers and their families. This was in the mid-1980s, and Witt recalled that the process was long and ultimately fruitless. “Zoning requirements kept changing. New impact studies kept being required. Lots of bureaucratic challenges seemed to appear.” With housing being a challenge that the organization was unable to crack, the ministry shifted gears.
The model since adopted has worked well in the intervening decades: RMM provides support when migrant workers need allies or organizational skills. “We’ve moved on to helping people to create their own organizations and ministries,” Witt said. Exactly what form that support takes depends on the situation. For example, a group of teens discovered that a nearby shopping center had a quota of hiring no more than one person of color per store and wanted to create a group that would work for racial justice. Many migrant workers are members of ethnic minorities, so there is an undercurrent of racial bias that is often present to some degree. Not all of the bias they face is specifically racial, even if many are the workers are from ethnic minorities.  An example is the situation faced by the group which wanted to create a food coop in Orange and Sullivan counties:  farm workers don’t get a fair shake under the law. “Most workers are entitled to a day of rest,” said Witt, but not in agriculture. While that may seem understandable in the fields, the bulk of farms in New York are dairy, and livestock need to be tended every day of the year.
“When they discovered that they didn’t have the same basic rights as other workers, they asked us to add our voice to theirs,” Witt said, “and that was controversial. In our mandate to work for equality, some people have assumed that if we stand for farm workers, we stand against farmers, and that’s not true. Our position is treat everybody fairly, and get everybody to the table where decisions are made that impact their lives.  It’s not about kicking people off the table, it’s about inviting people to the table.”  RMM is still standing with the farm workers, who still are not entitled to one day of rest in seven.
The ministry also developed a summer camp for children of migrants, who often can’t attend other programs due to summer school or farm work of their own. It was held for many years at Camp Epworth in High Falls until that facility closed. Other youth-focused programs have included an arts program and an economic development group in Sullivan County, where kids found themselves competing against adults for scarce jobs. “They created a business, Basement Bags, a printing company that creates t-shirts and bags featuring issues of concern to them on the designs,” said Witt. The Youth Arts Group, now in its 18th year, produced the documentary DREAMers Among Us, recently screened at the Rosendale Theater and at Rondout Valley High School.
Today, even with the support of its covenanted denominations, RMM survives mostly on donations from individuals, supplemented as well by grants from the Local Economies Project and the Dyson Foundation, among others. Witt said that volunteers are also sorely needed, particularly adults qualified to provide mentoring in business skills such as budgeting and marketing. Indeed, much of the support received from the faith communities comes in the form of time, rather than dollars.
“A lot of people we work with are hidden and isolated,” Witt said. “We work to get people to see and acknowledge and value them, especially the ones working in our food systems, who are helping to feed and nourish us.”
More information on the various programs offered, as well as how to help, can be found at ruralmigrantministry.org.