Too many of the nation’s dairy farmers are facing an ongoing, daunting challenge: finding enough American workers to fill jobs on their farms, even when they provide wages higher than those paid by other local jobs.
This “between a rock and a hard place” dilemma has grown more acute as the national unemployment rate has dropped – and will likely get even more dire, now that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun stepping up its efforts to locate and remove undocumented individuals.
That’s why the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has continued to drive home the point with lawmakers that it is critical that any effort to solve the immigration quandary will require not just additional law enforcement, but also a means to ensure that farm employers – including dairy operations – have access to a legal, secure workforce.
This is not a new problem, nor is it limited to just a few large dairies in certain parts of the country. To illustrate the extent of the concern, NMPF twice worked with economists at Texas A&M during the past decade to assess the role played by foreign-born workers in dairy production – and the potential consequences of not having those employees. In its most recent national survey, the university researchers estimated that 150,000 employees worked on U.S. dairy farms as of 2014, and that approximately 51 percent of them were immigrants.
Because such a large volume of milk production depends on them, losing even just a portion of foreign-born undocumented workers would have serious implications for both farmers and consumers. In the worst-case scenario, a complete loss of immigrant labor in dairy farming could cut U.S. economic output by $32 billion, resulting in 208,000 fewer jobs nationwide. Not only would farm workers be lost, but those further down the value chain whose jobs are tied to crop, produce and livestock production would be at risk.
The current environment is filled with a great deal of uncertainty and confusion about the scope of the recent, stepped-up enforcement actions. I received a note last month from a farmer in the Midwest who, after hearing of workers being deported from farms in her state, expressed her growing level of concern:
“Our employees are very jittery. We’ve coordinated driving to grocery stores and outlined ‘safe’ road maps (county and town roads) to get to the dentist, doctor and grocery store. They’ve gotten their papers in order if they are deported so that their children can be taken care of. They are scared, frustrated and a little angry. We as dairy farmers are too.”
Recognizing that the absence of a workable immigration policy is a threat to the economic viability of dairy farms, NMPF continues to work with elected officials on implementing a policy solution that adheres to two key principles:
- Providing an affordable and efficient guest-worker program that ensures the continued availability of immigrant labor for all of agriculture, including dairies
- Permitting those currently employed or with employment history in the U.S. to earn the right to work here legally, regardless of their current legal status
Our point to elected officials is that, as important as border security and interior law enforcement procedures are, such measures must be paired with a focus on current and future agricultural labor needs. Creating a guest-worker program to bring in legal employees will allow federal and state governments to focus resources on removing bad actors from the U.S., and prevent the migration of others who are not coming here for legitimate work opportunities.
The only current means of addressing domestic labor shortages in agriculture is the H-2A temporary and seasonal foreign agricultural workforce program, intended to help employers with short-term labor needs. Many jobs in farming and food processing are not seasonal and thus can’t use the H-2A program at all – which is why dairy farmers need another approach, not one centered on reforming H-2A.
Farm and ranch groups have collaborated in the past in formulating ideas for a new national visa program that can provide a legal source of foreign-born workers to farm employers. And we continue to reach out to the administration and Congress in support of workable policies to control our borders and provide a stable workforce.
Agriculture in America can’t grow without a reliable workforce. Immigrant workers are an essential part of that picture today, and they must be part of it in the future. This is a message we will continue to advance so that agriculture can help grow its contributions to America’s economy.
Jim Mulhern is the president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation. This article originally appeared on NMPF’s CEO Corner.