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Wisconsin Dairy Farms Rely on Immigrant Labor

John Holevoet is the director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Milk Marketing Cooperative, a Midwest trade group. The Green Bay, Wisconsin, organization advocates for the industry and the farmers and workers that drive it — and that includes the region’s immigrant residents.

“In Wisconsin, we rely pretty heavily on immigrant labor, especially in the dairy industry,” Holevoet says, adding that immigrants impact the state’s economy in other fields, as well. “We really struggle to find labor in rural parts of our state, and that’s not just in farming. It’s everywhere. We have an aging population and a shrinking workforce. And I know we’re not alone in that.”

People invest in being here. They put down roots, buy homes, and raise families. They’re as engaged in the community as the native-born population.

Nationwide the immigrant population is younger than the native-born population, so its workers can fill more of those jobs. In the Green Bay area, 69 percent of immigrants are between the ages of 25 and 64, while just 53 percent of native-born residents are, according to New American Economy research. “American laborers just aren’t around,” Holevoet says. “And the ones that are, there aren’t many young men or women that want to do this hard, physical work.” Holevoet adds that dairy industry jobs are high-paying, permanent positions. “We have cows that need to be milked every single day of the year,” he says. “People hold our jobs for 10, 15 years. They make a living, and a good living. You can start out as a milker here earning $45,000 a year and we still struggle to fill those positions.”

Holevoet says the dairy industry has come to lean on immigrants from Mexico and Central America, people who have become integrated into the fabric of their local communities. “People invest in being here. They put down roots, buy homes, and raise families. They’re as engaged in the community as the native-born population.”

Most of the farmers that Holevoet knows hire documented immigrants. But he says undocumented residents also play a role in the local workforce. “We really want to see a way for our existing workforce — regardless of status — to have some kind of legal status in the U.S.,” he says. “We should give them a lawful status to remain here if they aren’t here legally, and we should also create a mechanism to bring in additional workers as needed, both for agriculture and other industries that have open jobs that you just can’t fill,” he says. “And here that’s just a bunch of jobs.”

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