Migrant Worker Shortage Increases Strain on Oregon’s Dairy Farmers

Under the current agricultural guest worker program, farmers can hire foreign laborers for a maximum 10-month season only. But try explaining that to the cows, which must be milked year-round, two to three times a day. “The guest worker program doesn’t meet the needs of dairy farmers,” says Tami Kerr, executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association. “Dairy farming is a 24/7, 365-day business. There is no such thing as seasonal.”

As a result, Oregon’s 228 dairy farms — family owned operations that have been in business for generations —  scramble to recruit workers locally, although without success. “We have work that needs to be done. We’re paying well above minimum wage and still can’t get enough employees,” Kerr says.

The Oregon dairy industry produces 2.6 million pounds of milk a year, 70 percent of which is sold outside the state — in all contributing $1 billion to the state’s annual economy.  And while for years farmers have relied on immigrant labor to milk, feed, calve, and otherwise care for their cows, the number of migrant laborers has dropped dramatically in recent years, thanks to improved economic conditions south of the border and tighter immigration controls in the United States. “We need access to new workers,” says Kerr, who notes that the state’s entire agricultural industry is suffering from labor shortages; 72.6 percent of the miscellaneous agriculture workers in Oregon are foreign-born. “I can’t overestimate the importance of fixing our immigration system.”

We’re paying well above minimum wage and still can’t get enough employees.

One critical element of reform would be to provide the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States with a pathway to residency. “A lot of people have been in this country a long time,” says Kerr. “We need a program so employees feel safe driving to and from work.” Many of those workers have built long careers in the dairy industry and cannot easily be replaced. “Our current workforce is trained and experienced. That ties in directly to the high quality of our milk,” says Kerr. “You have to know how to move animals. And when you’re milking our cows, you have to treat them like ladies.”

Reform can’t come fast enough, she says. Dairy farmers already reeling from slumping milk prices are feeling the added strain of worker shortages. And record rains last winter only added to the workload. “The cows have been inside since October, and farmers have had to put in extra long hours,” says Kerr. “It’s a really tough industry right now. Whether you have a small or large farm, labor is huge issue for everyone.”

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