Ryan Klussendorf was born and raised on a Wisconsin Dairy farm, and today he owns his own operation, tending to 130 cows daily. “Farming isn’t a glorious lifestyle,” he says. “It’s 24/7/365. But it gets in your blood.” Klussendorf’s business, Broadlands Grass Farm, is small enough that he can perform most of the labor himself, but he’s well aware that the state’s agriculture industry relies on immigrant labor to get the job done.
“There’s a mindset now that any job that doesn’t require a four-year degree is ‘beneath you,’ and as a result Wisconsin has to rely on immigrant labor for dairy,” he says. “We cannot get Americans to fill these jobs. And that’s just a fact.” Klussendorf adds that it plays an even bigger role on the national stage. “What it comes down to is: Do we want to import our labor, or do we want to import our food? We have high standards in the U.S., and when we’re forced to import food, you can’t be as sure about the safety regulations,” he says. “But with a lot of produce, farmers who can’t find labor are moving their businesses into other countries. And it’s all hurting our local economies.”
These people are part of our community. They own grocery stores, restaurants, they’re quite successful.
The National Milk Producers Federation estimates that without foreign-born workers, one in six dairy farms in the United States would not have the labor necessary to remain in business and would close, costing the country $32.1 billion in lost economic output and the loss of more than $200,000 other jobs, most of which are held by U.S.-born workers.
Wisconsin would be particularly hard hit. “America’s Dairyland” is home to 9,520 licensed dairy farms, 96 percent of which are family owned. Combined, these farms form the backbone of an industry that contributes $43.4 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy. And they depend 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 university study.
Klussendorf would like to see major immigration reform, starting with a streamlined application process that encourages more people to try to come to the United States legally. Programs need to provide a greater number of year-round agricultural work visas, not just ones limited to seasonal work, which leave dairy farms without an option to legally hire migrant labor. While Klussendorf acknowledges that undocumented immigration is a complicated subject, he’s opposed to mass deportations. “These people are part of our community. They own grocery stores, restaurants, they’re quite successful,” he says. In Klussendorf’s own congressional district, in northern Wisconsin, the immigrant population contributes $120 million in taxes each year and holds $329 million in annual spending power, according to New American Economy research. “They are paying taxes, building a life. It’s not like they’re here for nothing.”