Indiana dairy farmers can't find enough workers as it is, but that situation could get a lot worse if President Trump follows through with plans to crack down on the flow of illegal immigrants entering the United States.
The U.S. dairy industry is highly dependent on immigrant labor, according to a survey conducted by Texas A&M University Extension. The survey results were shared at the USDA Outlook Conference in February in Washington, D.C.
According to the survey of 1,000 farm owners, just over half of U.S. dairy workers are of immigrant origin. If those workers were removed from their positions, farms would see lower milk production, consumers would pay more for milk, and the U.S. economy would suffer billions of dollars in lost output and lost wages.
Also, according to the survey, a stricter immigration policy, along with forced deportations, would cause many farm owners to substitute robotic milking technology for human labor—a trend that is already starting to take hold.
In northern Indiana, farm owners are wary of federal action on immigration. They understand the need to enforce the laws, but they are also trying to make the best of a difficult situation. As farms have grown larger, the need for reliable workers has increased. However, they say few Americans are willing to do hard work anymore.
According to one farmer who has hired both Americans and foreign-born workers, the questions asked during an interview are revealing. Many of the Americans he has interviewed for jobs often ask, first and foremost, about the wages and how much they would earn. On the other hand, he said Mexican workers are more concerned with having a steady job and working in a family atmosphere. In many cases, their first question is, "When can I work?"
At the Indiana Dairy Forum in February, many farmers nodded their heads in agreement when a speaker complained about how difficult it was to find qualified workers, or "cow men," as he put it.
If President Trump follows through on his campaign promise to deport illegal aliens, many farmers say it would be a devastating blow to their operations.
According to the Texas A&M survey, only a third (33 percent) of U.S. dairy farms currently employ immigrant workers. However, farms with immigrant labor produce 79 percent of the milk in the U.S. That number is up 17 percent in the past eight years.
Brent Martin, who owns Martin Dairy along C.R. 13 between New Paris and Wakarusa, feels blessed to have good workers, including some who have been employed for 20 years. He thinks it's fair to give immigrant workers some form of identification, along with a Social Security number and a driver's license (if they earn it). This would allow them to be productive workers while also giving them some assurance that they won't be deported.
Martin employs 20 workers at his 1,600-head milking operation, where cows are milked 24 hours a day, except when the equipment is being washed. All of those workers have presented proper documentation, and Martin says he pays withholding taxes on their wages. While he doesn't worry about what the federal government may or may not do regarding immigration policy, he says that those 20 workers are vital to his farm's success. Without them, he said, "it (the farm) would be over with."
It's the same story at Homestead Dairy in Plymouth, where immigrant laborers are key to the farm's operations. Co-owner Brian Houin said the farm employs 45 immigrant workers, including some that have worked there for as long as 25 years.
If Trump follows changes long-standing policy and moves to deport illegal workers, Houins said it will have far-ranging impacts on all of agriculture.
"It's just going to make our food costs go up," he said. "I can't imagine what that would be like."
According to the Texas A&M survey, a 50 percent loss of immigrant labor would result in 45 percent higher retail milk prices. If 100 percent of those workers were removed, milk prices would jump by 90 percent.
Houin said he doubts that the Trump administration will repatriate millions of people, because of the disruption it would cause to the food system.
"We like our food too much," he said.
Doug Leman, executive director of the Indiana Dairy Producers organization, said that labor is the top concern for IDP's members.
Many people unfamiliar with modern dairy farming often misunderstand the problem, thinking there is an easy solution to what is actually a very complex problem. He noted that federal law prevents farmers from questioning the validity of a worker's documentation. This means that a farmer may unwittingly hire illegal workers.
That's why, in dairy circles, immigration has become an "ouchy" subject to discuss, as Martin said.
Leman said an immigration crackdown on farms would cause the U.S. dairy infrastructure to crumble.
"There's great fear in the industry if ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) shows up on the farm," he said.
Even with the current situation, finding good workers can be challenging. Farms are paying higher wages, but Leman said it's not about the money.
"It's hard to find people who are willing to work," he said, adding that dairy farming involves long, and sometimes odd, hours.
At Homestead, certain positions, like milking, have a high turnover rate, and dairy farms are at a disadvantage to factories when competing for workers. For example, most job applicants expect to have weekends and holidays off, but Houin said milking cows is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job.
Homestead Dairy is paying its workers 30 percent more (for starting wages) compared to three years ago. Houin said the difficult labor situation is one reason why the farm recently installed 24 robots, confirming the findings of the Texas A&M survey.
Houin laments that dairy farms are exempt from the H2-A visa program offered for fruit and vegetable farms. The H2-A visa program is intended for seasonal workers, but dairies have a year-round need for laborers.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) introduced new legislation, known as the Dairy Act, that would allow dairy farms to legally employ immigrant workers.
Both Houin and Martin, along with Leman, welcome the Dairy Act, but they say the measure is just one step forward. Federal law, Leman said, should provide a way for current workers "to come out of the shadows" and be productive citizens.