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Got Milk? In 2014, Half of All U.S. Dairy Workers Were Immigrants

Olga Reuvekamp is among dozens of immigrants who have bought dairy farms in South Dakota since 2000, helping to stem the decline of milk production in the state. Her 4,500-head farm is dependent on immigrant labor, though, and she says there are no good visas for dairy.

In the early 2000s, South Dakota initiated a foreign recruitment campaign to bolster its declining dairy industry. The state took out ads in international dairy magazines, attended trade shows, and even had a Dutch immigrant pitch the state’s case abroad.

The state succeeded in convincing about two-dozen, mid-size family farms to relocate from overseas, in part by allowing them to purchase unlimited acreage — many states restrict foreign land ownership — and by helping them apply for low-interest loans. “The purchase was fairly easy,” says Olga Reuvekamp, whose husband and three young children moved to Elkton, South Dakota, a small town on the Minnesota border, in 2006. The family, like many in this wave of immigrants, came from the Netherlands, a country with a rich history of family dairy farms but with little room to grow and government limits on milk production.

But even before they arrived, U.S. immigration policy proved difficult. The family waited two and a half years in their home country for U.S. authorities to approve a conditional work permit, and then spent five years here submitting documents to U.S. authorities to prove they were farming the land as promised. “Our attorneys had about a five-foot stack of papers,” she says. “It’s an incredibly expensive and time-consuming process. There were other dairy farmers who spent $60,000 on visa and attorney fees and in the end had to leave.”

The state estimates that each dairy cow in South Dakota adds $14,000 a year to the state’s economy.

It’s somewhat surprising that a family planning to contribute as much to South Dakota as the Reuvekamps would face so many visa hurdles. The state estimates that each dairy cow in South Dakota adds $14,000 a year to the state’s economy. Since buying their 500-acre property, Hilltop Dairy, in 2006, the Reuvekamp family has already increased the number of milk cows they own by 40 percent, reaching 2,000 head in total. They also added 1,500 calves along with feed production. Their dairy hires local welders, electricians and others to assist with year-round maintenance on the equipment; hires additional local help during harvest; and provides milk to the nearby Bel Brands plant to be processed into Mini Babybel cheese.

Reuvekamp says her ambitions for the future of her farm, however, are currently being hampered by U.S. labor challenges. In recent months, Hilltop Dairy has been short 24 workers. The Reuvekamps wanted to hire American-born South Dakotans, and made that an early focus of their recruiting. “But after all kinds of crazy attempts,” Reuvekamp says, “we found there is just no interest in this industry and these type of jobs by unemployed Americans.” So the farm instead employs almost entirely immigrant dairy workers—a trend that has touched the dairy industry nationwide. According to the National Milk Producers Federation, in 2014 half of all U.S. dairy workers were immigrants, and losing those workers would nearly double retail milk prices, costing the U.S. economy more than $32 billion.

Finding a sufficient number of immigrant workers, however, has not been easy in recent years. U.S. farms growing fresh produce have access to visas for temporary foreign workers. Obtaining these visas is cumbersome and difficult for many farms to navigate, but it’s not even an option for the country’s dairy establishments. The visas used by farms are only for seasonal labor, and dairy work is year round, leaving Reuvekamp to compete with other farms for the small pool of immigrants in South Dakota who already have temporary or permanent visas or citizenship.

Now South Dakota has a renewed push to double the state’s dairy herd, this time by attracting large-scale operations. But even industrial farms need labor. “We’re all fishing from the same pond,” says Reuvekamp.

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