Thursday, July 30, 2009

Got Milk … Workers?

Jesús Rodriguez, a Mexican who can't read or write, sometimes mixes up the numbers that identify the cows that he milks. But he can easily tell one brawny black-and-white Holstein from another, and discern when they are sick, in heat or just plain moody.

Farmer Ray Souza credits immigrants like Mr. Rodriguez, an employee for nearly 20 years, for saving the U.S. dairy industry. "I haven't had a non-Hispanic want to do this work in 10 years," says Mr. Souza, a descendent of Portuguese immigrants, a group that helped turn California into the nation's largest dairy state.

Not stealing jobs from US citizens, as is the usual anti-immigrant refrain, but filling jobs others don't want, as has been the case across generations.

Dairy farmers from Vermont and New York to Wisconsin and beyond have become increasingly dependent on immigrants, many of them Latin Americans who are in the U.S. illegally. Unlike other agricultural work where laborers are hired for short, seasonal stints, dairy-farm laborers often stick around for years, forging close ties with their employers.

But that has also left dairy farmers vulnerable, as rising unemployment in the U.S. heightens tensions over the hiring of illegal immigrants. Dairy farmers say that without immigrant workers, a labor shortage might force some to shutter their businesses, depriving rural communities in the U.S. of a key economic engine.

But groups that call for a crackdown on illegal immigration say that the farmers want an amnesty that would unfairly disadvantage American workers.

It is patent nonsense to say that; people who do are anti-immigrant.

View Interactive
See data on dairy farms' immigrant workers.

"You'd bring thousands of people who would work in dairy farming and then compete with Americans for jobs in manufacturing, construction and services," says Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a national organization that lobbies for immigration reduction. Given the recession, "this is a time when we know it's possible to find Americans to do this work. If you had the right recruiting, pay and working conditions, you could handle this with Americans."

Good point: recruit with promises of good pay and good working conditions, and more people would want to do the work. That would result in higher prices. And just how does this guy know that there are US workers who would do such work? What does he know about farms?

But, in the long term, he adds, "we are going to need a foreign-guest worker program geared toward agriculture."

Ah, a little realism. In the long-term many of his workers would not want to stay on a farm, what with all that bullshit.

The dairy industry in California's San Joaquin Valley used to be dominated by Portuguese and Dutch immigrants and their descendants. "Now Hispanic immigrants are the ones who do this work," says Mr. Souza, standing in front of the red barn that his grandfather built. "One day, another group will come."

The high turnover and low reliability of local workers posed major problems for dairy farms that wished to grow, according to TomMaloney, who studies agricultural labor at Cornell University.

What would Roy Beck say about that?

"In the mid-'90s, I saw dairy managers who were afraid to expand their businesses because they couldn't find dependable help. Then, some dairies began to hire Latino immigrants, and found they were reliable and had a tremendous work ethic," says Mr.Maloney , a senior extension associate in the Department of Applied Economics & Management. "Now they can't imagine operating without them."

Dairy farmers in Europe have begun to use robotic milkers to reduce dependence on manual labor. But due to the high capital investment required, adoption in the U.S. is likely to be slow, Mr.Maloney says.

Phil Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis, believes if labor gets much more expensive in the dairy sector, those higher wages could spur investment in technology -- "although it's not clear at what wage," he says. Currently, the average hourly wage for dairy workers in California, for example, is $11.38. Even though minimum wage is lower, he says, "I would suspect a whole lot of 18-year-olds prefer to work at McDonald's for minimum wage than milk cows."

On Mr. Souza's 250-acre farm, people occasionally drop by looking for work. "Once Americans get the job description, they lose interest real quick," he says. So six out of the eight employees are Mexicans. They deliver calves, milk cows and scrape manure.

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