With 430 milk cows, Mitch Breunig’s family farm, Mystic Valley Dairy, in Sauk City, Wisconsin, is a large operation. The round-the-clock job of caring for the animals is done by the farm’s eight full-time employees, seven of whom are immigrants from Latin America.
“They come to Wisconsin for the opportunity to work on farms,” says Breunig, who also serves as vice president of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. He adds that all of his workers are “trustworthy, reliable individuals. They’re doing a great job, staying out of trouble, following the rules — they get along fine. And it’s not easy work. They have to help care for the cows 24/7, 365 days a year.”
The laborers are among the more than 48,500 immigrants who are playing a vital role in the region’s economy. In Wisconsin’s Second Congressional District alone, foreign-born residents collectively held more than $1 billion in spending power and paid $1 billion in taxes in 2014, according to data collected by New American Economy.
Like many farmers, Breunig would have a difficult, if not impossible, time operating his family’s dairy farm without immigrant workers. In previous years, he says: “We used to have people stopping by the farm, asking for a job. But that doesn’t happen now.” The farm has also tried hiring high school students for some of the less skilled work, but school and farm schedules don’t sync.
As we struggle, more and more, to find Americans willing to do farm work, we should make it a smooth process to find and employ legal immigrants.
The work of a dairy farm involves far more than milking cows. Milk sales may be the farm’s top revenue source, but Mystic Valley Dairy, recently honored by Holstein USA for its “herd of excellence,” also breeds calfs, and sells bulls and embryos. So it needs workers committed to learning the technical aspects of dairy farming to ensure a future of continued high-quality production. Breunig calls his immigrant workers committed employees, who like working with cows.
But current immigration policy creates a hurdle for him and other dairy farmers, who do not have access to foreign guest worker programs. The only agricultural visa for foreign guest workers is for seasonal workers, and dairy farms need workers year-round. Breunig would like to see reform that brings undocumented immigrants out of the shadows so they can work in the country legally. “In our area, we have people who don’t have legal status and live in the dark. They want to be invisible so they go about their business quietly, afraid to even go into town and shop,” he says. “As we struggle, more and more, to find Americans willing to do farm work, we should make it a smooth process to find and employ legal immigrants.” The alternative, he says, is to import our food from other countries, something that would make food more expensive.
“It gets to be a struggle in rural communities to find good workers,” Breunig says. “If rural communities are going to thrive, we need good, reliable people to do the work, no matter where they come from.”