In Shelly Mayer’s view, the United States isn’t facing an immigrant labor shortage but a rural labor shortage. Specifically, a farm labor shortage.
Mayer is the executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers® (PDPW), a national development organization for dairy professionals. She sees the labor shortage problem close up, and it’s nationwide. “We have fewer farms, and fewer farm kids who can understand the work and what we need, and grow into it,” she says.
But one population is ready and willing to fill the gap: foreign-born workers. “In many cases, their society is more agrarian, so they are open to the farming life,” Mayer says. “It’s not that they can’t find another job — it’s that they want to work in agriculture. They know that they are going to work with their hands, work in all sorts of weather and work until a job is complete.”
Farmers aren’t asking for anything special. They just want a dependable, stable workforce of people who care for living things.
Dairy is a $43 billion industry in Wisconsin, a state that ranks second in milk production and first in cheese production. And it’s an industry that’s heavily reliant on foreign-born labor. 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 study. By current, informal estimates, immigrants now make up some 80 percent of the hired help on Wisconsin’s large dairy operations. Most are from Mexico.
Yet it’s becoming increasingly difficult for dairy farmers to find immigrant labor, and Mayer says farm families are struggling to find enough workers to keep their businesses afloat. Dairy work is not easy, Mayer says. It requires a level of training and commitment that many entry-level jobs don’t. “You can’t just pull on a pair of blue jeans and start working,” she says. “A cow is more demanding than a boss.”
A coalition of dairy and agricultural associations have for years called for immigration reform that would allow farmers to hire foreign workers year-round. The H-2A visa, the only existing agricultural guest worker program, allows U.S. employers to hire foreign help for seasonal labor only, something that doesn’t fulfill the year-round needs of dairy farmers. “Christmas is a regular workday. Every single day is the same,” Mayer says. “Dairying is not seasonal work.”
Nonetheless, 80 percent of the country’s milk is produced on farms that employ — and depend upon — foreign-born labor, and immigrants comprise about half of all workers on U.S. dairy farms, according to the National Milk Producers Federation.
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.
“Farmers aren’t asking for anything special,” Mayer says. “They just want a dependable, stable workforce of people who care for living things.”