Immigration crackdown stirs dairy state fears

by The Journal Times
of Racine
Associated Press

“The cows will die.”

We thought that would get your attention; it certainly caught ours.

The quote came from Rosa Jimenez, 26, whose husband works on a Pepin County dairy farm, as she talked about the difficulties and fears facing undocumented workers in Wisconsin’s dairy industry in the face of President Donald Trump’s increasing crackdown on illegal immigration and his effort to move ahead with plans to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Yes, we need the work, but the farmers also need us because there are farms where 20, 25 or 30 people work, and nobody has pa- pers,’’ Jimenez said, “Imagine if they got rid of all or them, if they did a raid and took everybody. What are the farmers going to do? The cows will die.’’

Jimenez is not the only worrier these days. Dairy farmers across the state are nervous about the future of their farms and their state’s $43 billion-a-year dairy industry which relies heavily on immigrant laborers, many of whom are here illegally, according to the news report by Wisconsin Public Radio and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. [The full report ran in The Review, Wednesday, March 29]

Even as state legislators last week were busying themselves with the honorific job of naming cheese the state’s official dairy product at the behest of fourth-graders at Mineral Point Elementary School, there is talk in America’s Dairyland of selling off herds to cut losses before the labor market dries up and farms are forced to shut down.

“If ICE came in here and checked my employees and found they were undocumented and those 10 people left, my next option of course is to close down ... and try to find a market for my cows and sell out,’’ John Rosenow, a farmer in Buffalo County with about 550 cows, told reporters. “I wouldn’t be able to farm anymore and it would just about kill me. I mean the cows have to be milked. I know of no other source of labor.’’

The decline in recent immigration numbers has already pushed up wages for dairy farm work. While laborers used to command wages of $8 an hour, shortages have pushed it up to $11 to $13 an hour, and in some places as high as $15, according to a USA Today report this month.

That, too, puts pressure on dairy farms to survive.

Statistics in the news story from the dairy industry lend credence to Rosenow’s fears. An estimated 51 percent of all dairy workers in the United States are immigrants and, of those, more than three fourths are undocumented.

According to the news report, researchers estimate that eliminating immigrant labor in the dairy industry would “reduce production by 23 percent or 48 billion pounds of milk.’’ Shedding immigrant labor would cost the U.S. economy $32 billion and eliminate more than 208,000 jobs in dairying and related industries.

And, yes, that would cost consumers, too. The WPR Wisconsin Center for Public Journalism story posited it would drive up milk prices by 90 percent – pushing the cost of a retail gallon of milk from $3 to about $6.

There are possible solutions for the dairy state’s looming immigrant worker shortage. Seven years ago, a survey showed 85 percent of Wisconsin’s dairy farmers backed a proposal for a guest worker program for the dairy industry – but that has not happened. There are such programs for seasonal crops like blueberries and sweet potatoes, the news report said, but not for year-round employment like dairy farms. Cows are not seasonal _ they need to be milked.

The dairy industry is not alone in facing immigrant worker anxiety. As Oconto Falls dairy farmers, Tim O’Harrow told reporters, “This country cannot produce enough food to feed its own people without foreign labor. It isn’t just dairy. It’s workers in slaughterhouses, it’s workers picking fruit. It’s all aspects of food is being supplemented by foreign labor. Because American citizens will not, will not do the work. It isn’t a matter of how much money. It’s a matter of they will not do it.’’

Those are the fears that crisscross America’s Dairyland. There is some irony in the fact that Trump, who has steadily pushed for an immigration crackdown, was elected in part because of strong support in rural Wisconsin.

Some dairy farmers, like Jason Vorpahl of Random Lake, make a distinction for their workers. “We need some way to keep our (immigrant) labor force that’s here intact. I am OK with deporting the felons. And I am OK with deporting people who are looking for a handout and aren’t working. But I am not OK with deporting the hard-working, tax-paying immigrants who are here right now,’’ Vorpahl said.

There is irony, too, in the fact illegal immigrants have helped build the current $43 billion state dairy industry which accounts for half of all the state’s agricultural revenue as the number of dairy farms has decreased steadily, but their size has increased. Immigrant labor has allowed that to happen.

The question now is whether Trump and Congress can parse a solution to campaign promises versus the state’s need for a reliable dairy workforce. Otherwise, the cows will die.


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