This piece is written as an op-ed, with the Middlebury College community as the imagined audience. It is informed by the work done in this fall’s Feminist Engaged Research class and inspired by the Champlain Valley Orchards COVID-19 cases from this fall, as well as the (limited) on-campus response to the impact of the pandemic on other Addison County residents.
Pop open your instagram app, set the location to your apple-picking destination of choice and scroll through the results. Does anything surprise you?
I went through this exercise in mid-fall of 2020, from the comfort of my Middlebury, Vermont dorm room. The stream of photos that came up looked familiar for a small college town setting, where wealthy white college students could be considered a normal aesthetic. The apple orchard photos reflect a fairly homogenous experience: a fun weekend outing with friends, accented by touches of rustic charm like cozy flannels, woven baskets and maybe even work boots all against a backdrop of glossy apples and green leaves. The feed of photos easily blurs together, with a subtle aftertaste of heteronormative whiteness.
As a white college girl myself, these experiences are all quite familiar. I have dressed up in my ‘Vermont best’ and headed to the orchard, often on college sponsored trips, for a fall-themed adventure. But, despite the familiarity, the portrayal of fall in Vermont that I encountered seemed a bit off this year. In response, this article aims to share the context around this Instagram search and the ways in which social media interplays with real life.
2020 has been an abnormal year, to say the least. COVID-19 quickly became the defining feature of the year and in many cases, our lives. The hopeful start to a new decade quickly became something few of us could have imagined, with lockdowns and regulations completely transforming most peoples way of life. At the same time, the pandemic heightened preexisting differences in peoples way of life: BIPOC populations have disproportionately born the burden of the pandemic, from their outsized participation in ‘essential jobs’ to the increased death toll due to COVID.
Perhaps sparked by the pandemic’s spotlight, the looming election or newfound time indoors people began to take notice. Social media platforms like instagram became sites of education and organization in response to injustices across a variety of arenas. Petitions and support of Black Lives Matter took on new life, with many previously disengaged people stepping towards activism as it appeared in their feeds.
So, what does this all have to do with apple orchards on instagram?
Like many other Midd Kids, the news of COVID-19 cases in Addison County early in the fall caught my attention. A feeling of safety – at times verging on imagined immunity immunity – in pandemic quickly became part of the privilege that accompanied attending Middlebury in 2020, so 28 confirmed cases nearby was a noteworthy disruption.
News reports revealed that the cases were isolated to a nearby orchard and posed little threat to the broader Vermont community. A bit more digging revealed that the 28 people impacted were Jamaican seasonal workers on H2A visas, who had all been living in one worker house at Champlain Valley Orchards. News coverage emphasized that these cases were being handled and most importantly, were not a risk to consumers who might have visited the orchard or purchased products (Press Conference). Conveniently, the acres of the orchard dedicated to apple picking are separate from the areas where the fruit pickers harvest so your average tourist would have never even seen the farm workers. One of the best ways to support the affected people, according to the orchard, was to continue purchasing their products (Champlain Valley Orchard).
After a summer of instagram flooded by instagram ‘activism,’ I became curious about how the situation was being handled on social media. As I probably should have guessed, there was nothing. No angry posts demanding better living conditions, nothing about boycotting, no infographics about migrant worker programs. Apparently most of us were content with our local apples and weekend outings, without having to think about the exploitative system through which we import people to work on the farms…and then fail to recognize their contribution. Visibility may not be the answer in all cases, but in a sea of hundreds of posts tagged to the particular orchard the lack of mention of the workers was deafening.
The portrayal of Vermont offered by Instagram reminded me of an old SNL skit, which pokes fun at the fact that at Vermont is so white “that even the people that wash the dishes and pick the fruit are white,’ (YouTube). While Vermont is demographically very white, the whitest part of the state is the way it presents itself. Tourism sites like visit-vermont.com offer Vermont not only as a place but “a state of mind that values outdoor beauty, good food…and attractions for family and kids.”
While this description does not overtly mention race, the out-of-doors, family and the specialty food items that Vermont boasts all have strong ties to whiteness. The curated outdoors hold cleansing potential, particularly for urban populations like the kids visiting through the Fresh Air Project (Vanderbeck). Food has also become a site of cultural production: from racial stereotype-based branding like Aunt Jemima to Martha Stewart’s over-manicured food presenting WASP ideals (Bently), pancakes and maple syrup are far from neutral.
Efforts have been made to diversify tourism campaigns but as long as the main attractions to the state remain tied into constructions of upper middle-class whiteness, there will be work to be done (VT Digger). Skiing, maple syrup and yes, apple orchards, all contribute to the white image of Vermont and help explain why COVID impacted workers apparently don’t fit into the glossy portrayal we might find on instagram.
We Midd Kids live just down the street from many of these workers, who return each year (often around the same time we arrive for classes) to sustain Vermont orchards. Even when their stories made the news, many of us did not understand that the ‘J-Crew’ workers are essential to our versions of Vermont nor did we appreciate that the conditions they work under led to their health situation.
Instead, some of us only interested ourselves enough to joke about ‘avoiding the COVID orchard.’ My hope is that by digging a bit deeper, we all can get into the habit of looking beyond instagram portrayals. And while instagram activism certainly is not the solution, portrayals of the real situation (instead of ignoring it) might be a great place to start. At the very least, we can acknowledge the ways in which instagram falls short.