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Immigrants Ready, Able, and Needed on Wisconsin Dairy Farms

Mar-Bec Dairy has 900 dairy cows and grows feed on 1,800 acres. To keep the operation running, owner Marty Hallock depends on immigrants:  9 of his 17 full-time employees are from Mexico. “These people are committed to dairy farming,” he says, “and absolutely vital to my operation.”

Without these steady foreign workers — some of whom have been at the dairy for more than a decade — Hallock says he’d be in serious trouble. Located in Mondavi, in west-central Wisconsin, his farm is a 45-minute drive from the nearest city of Eau Claire, and the pool of available laborers in his area is almost nil. “People work where they live, and farm communities don’t have a ready supply of labor,” he says. “It’s important to this farm’s success that I train them and keep them.”

Why do we want to scare away good, hard workers?

Hallock values his workers’ reliability and dedication, and he goes out of his way to create a hospitable work environment. For instance, he has a Spanish speaker visit every two weeks to give talks on worker safety and other employee issues. “It’s no big deal,” he says. “Language is just something I have to keep in mind. It isn’t really a barrier.” He also gives his employees a sense of ownership in their jobs. “People think that because farm work doesn’t require a college degree, it’s unskilled labor, but it takes a lot of skill to vaccinate animals the right way or calve a cow,” Hallock says. Caring for animals comes naturally to his workers, he says: “They all tended to animals while they were growing up. Working hard when it’s hot outside, or when it’s freezing cold, is something they’re willing to do. I don’t think I could replace this crew with U.S.-born workers even if I wanted to.”

In Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District, which hugs the state’s southwestern boundary and includes Mondavi, only 2.3 percent of the population is comprised of immigrants. But these immigrants are vital to the region’s agriculture industry, where they make up 5.2 percent of the workforce. Mirroring national trends, the foreign-born population is also far more likely than the U.S.-born population to have less than a high-school degree, making them more likely to fill low-skilled jobs; 27.7 percent lack a high school education in the district, compared with just 8.3 percent of U.S.-born residents who do. The foreign-born are also more likely to be of working age.

Hallock is a member of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, where some of his colleagues express the same frustration: Although immigrants make up just 4.8 percent of the state’s population, they comprise upward of 40 percent of the hired labor force on its dairy farms, according to a 2009 university study.

Nationwide, a loss of immigrant labor would put an estimated one in six dairy farms out of business, cost the United States $32.1 billion in lost economic output, and cost hundreds of thousands of U.S.-born workers their jobs. Retail milk prices, meanwhile, would nearly double.

Hallock knows the hard choices his workers have made to come to the United States. “So why do we make it so difficult for them to stay here and succeed?” he asks. His workers’ friends are reluctant to immigrate because of the political rhetoric they hear coming from the United States, “and they’re afraid of the consequences once they get to this country,” he says. “It disappoints me that this is the image we create. Why do we want to scare away good, hard workers?”

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