Farmers, labor groups say illegal immigrants not taking away ag jobs

Jul 9, 2010
by DTN

When Loren Greenfield’s family built Hilltop Dairy in 2002, they had a lot of early labor help from the surrounding community. High school and college students came to help milk at first, but local workers quickly disappeared.

Immigrants, legal or not, are an important part of many dairies across the U.S., and U.S. citizens are not jumping to take those jobs when they open up.

Hispanics, however, kept showing up to look for jobs.

Greenfield said he saw the advantages of a workforce that had a strong work ethic and is flexible about hours. Local people, basically whites, aren’t as willing to do the graveyard shift at a dairy.

“Will they work nights, weekends and holidays? Not necessarily, and I think that is why we have relied on Hispanics,” Greenfield said.

A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies concluded about 5,300 dairy workers in the state are Hispanic immigrants. At least 2,600 of those workers are in the country illegally—though researchers noted there were no official statistics.

Hispanics make up about 40 percent of overall dairy labor, but that percentage increased to more than 60 percent at the state’s largest dairies. Nearly 90 percent of those immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin come from Mexico, the university study reported.

The report highlighted that immigrants have become heavily integrated into Wisconsin’s dairy industry. Farmers accept the labor, but the industry recognizes that farmers and their workers could be at legal risk if officials take a hard-line approach on illegal immigration rather than pass a reform bill.

“They are in no-man’s land,” said Shelly Mayer, executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. “They don’t know where to go for help. They try to verify what they can. But Hispanic laborers, they don’t want to speak out. They don’t have a voice.”

Hilltop Dairy has 15 employees on the 800-cow dairy, of which nine are Hispanic. Greenfield said he has a mix among his immigrant workers. There are some who have brought in their families and want to build a life in Wisconsin, while others are single men who plan to go back to Mexico.

“They get their paychecks and they will be here one or two years and go home,” he said.

When Greenfield has an opening, word-of-mouth generally leads to a lot of applicants. Currently, there is a lot of competition among Hispanics, because the job market in other industries is tighter.

Greenfield said, as an industry, dairy producers back AgJobs. The industry needs a program that will allow people to come into the country, be given visas, and then allowed to get drivers’ licenses and other state requirements. He said immigration law is skewed to benefit professionals such as doctors, or college students, but discriminate against people willing to perform hard labor.

“If you want to work in a dairy or a factory, it’s going to be 10 years before you can come into the country,” he said.

Immigrants at Wisconsin dairies are just a small portion of more than 2.5 million farm workers nationally, of which as many as 50 percent could be illegal immigrants, according to the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Migrant Farm Worker Justice Project. Recently, however, those groups took a novel approach to call out critics of immigrant farm laborers.

Tongue-in-cheek, UFW offered to aid the nation’s unemployed by creating The premise is that if someone wants to replace a farm worker, then UFW will help that person find a job. The group bets few citizens will take up UFW on the offer; this demonstrates that illegal immigrants are not taking away anyone’s job on the farm.

“Somehow, undocumented workers are getting as much blame for our troubles as Wall Street,” said Arturo Rodriguez, president of UFW.

“If we were to deport all of the undocumented farm workers, it would collapse agriculture as we know it today,” Rodriguez said.

“We are a nation in denial of our food supply,” he said.

UFW sees AgJobs as a practical solution to the farmworker problem, but the group realizes that there is too much of a political divide to get a bill such as AgJobs through Congress this year.

“We need to deal with the issue of our food supply,” Rodriguez said. “We can no longer deny we have a crisis, a problem here. The reality is that farm workers who are here today are not taking any jobs away.”

If passed, AgJobs would give legal status to a farm worker who can prove he worked at least 150 days in the two previous years. Those workers, as well as their immediate families, would receive a “blue card” and as long as they continue to work in agriculture for the next three to five years. Those families would then be eligible to apply for green cards.

The farm-worker groups backing AgJobs acknowledge it doesn’t cure all problems. For instance, AgJobs doesn’t classify people working in meatpacking or poultry processing plants as farmworkers.

Joe Mertens of Park Farms Inc., in Kiel, WI, has six workers for his 400-head dairy operation. He can get workers, and keep them, but he’s not 100 percent sure they are legal. Mertens asked what is the problem with these workers who stay if their only crime is being in the country illegally?

“I would like to see amnesty, to be honest with you, but that’s my own opinion,” Mertens said. “I think other people who have immigrant labor would side with me that there has to be a way of doing this without sending everybody back and reinventing the wheel.”

For now, there is too much jumping through hoops for dairy farms to get steady workers. The H-2A program is impractical because the work isn’t seasonal, it’s con- stant. Cows have to be mmilked twice a day, every day. LLarg er dairies are a 24-hour op- eration.

“H-2A is fine for a crop, because there is down time,” Mertens said. “We never have downtime. It’s not a job a lot of people want to do. It’s repetitive, it’s dirty. It’s milking cows for eight hours.”

A provision in the AgJobs bill being bounced around Congress would allow dairies to have year-round workers, but those employees would still be guest workers and have to return to their countries after three years. Some dairies interviewed by DTN/ The Progressive Farmer have had the same Hispanic employees for as long as 11 years.

“When you have some good people, why do you want them to go back?” Mertens said. “You spend years getting them trained to be a herdsman, why do you have to give them up? Every other business in town wants to keep good people.”

Another challenge agricultural employers face to find labor is that there is little opportunity in farm work to advance. At a dairy, maybe one person can become a herdsman.

Cory Schmidt of Grandview Farms, WI, has seven employees, six of whom are immigrants, for his 450-cow dairy. Most of his Hispanic workers came via Washington state. An immigration bill legalizing farm workers would alleviate a lot of problems, he said.

“Let me put it this way, I don’t have a lot of white people knocking down my door looking for a job.”

Schmidt said he thinks the Hispanics at surrounding dairies have integrated well into the community, but there are complaints.

“This topic gets so complicated, because you talk to people who say Hispanics are getting free health care or they complain about the schools and kids who don’t speak English, but the parents come here and they work and the kids mix well into the schools; and if you look at Wisconsin, we were all immigrants,” he said. “It wasn’t 50 years ago everyone around here was speaking German.”—DTN