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Special Report: Impact of Immigrant Labor in Wisconsin

President Donald Trump has made immigration reform and border security a top priority of his administration, vowing to increase deportations of people who enter the United States illegally.

“To be able to have milk on our tables, we need to have immigrant labor.”

The president’s tough stance on undocumented workers is concerning for some dairy farmers, like Daniel, who rely on immigrant labor.

“20 years I’ve been here, I haven’t had a single application to a white guy to apply [sic].”  

Daniel, a legal U.S. citizen, co-owns a dairy farm in Southeast Wisconsin. He says his staff works long hours in tough conditions, calling the job messy.

“You work holidays, every day here. There’s no day off, weekends, nights, every day.”

All of Daniel’s employees are undocumented.

“Every single farm you go around here is all immigrants.”

An estimated 51% of all dairy workers in the United States are immigrants, many of them undocumented, according to a study by Texas A & M for the National Milk Producers Federation. However, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development says no government agency keeps track of exactly how many immigrant workers are in Wisconsin.

“We have a lot of immigrant labor in this state. This is the second largest milk producing state,” said Mark Stephenson, Director of Dairy Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dairy is a big player in the “dairy state,” contributing $43 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy. Stephenson is concerned what an abrupt loss of a workforce would do for many farms in the state.

“We would probably have some farms that go out of business. They can’t deal with this. Other farms would pick up the volume, but either you are going to pay labor more or purchase the equipment to have technology solve some of the labor issues for you. But that’s very expensive, so, ultimately milk becomes more expensive. You as a consumer are going to pay for it.”

Milk prices could increase by 90% if farms lost all immigrant labor, according to the same Texas A & M report.

“It is horrendous for a farm to suddenly have a morning when you wake up and you’ve got a couple thousand, 3,000 cows to milk, and your labor force is gone. This is a real problem. Cows need to be milked continuously,” said Stephenson.

“This is work that is hard. It’s demanding. It’s long hours. It may not be under the best of conditions. So, there are lots of folks who simply don’t want these jobs.”

Both Stephenson and Daniel agree recruiting workers to dairy farms is challenging. The current political climate is not helping ease minds.

“The uncertain environment has caused people to leave already. They are having problems right now with full staffing on farms,” said Stephenson.

“If for some reason they haul away all these people, we’ll be in big trouble because the cows will get sick. A lot of cows will die,” said Daniel, who provides housing on site, so workers don’t have to drive.

Daniel says the biggest fear is not ICE raids at his farm, rather, being pulled over and arrested.

“They scared.”

Daniel knows he’s breaking the law, but says without his staff of 25, who works 12-hour shifts daily, he’s concerned he may go out of business.

“Where am I going to find people to milk 2,000 cows? The training, the procedure. It’s not just [milking] cows, there’s a procedure to milk the cow.”  

That arduous training is part of the reason why Daniel would like to see a longer Visa option for dairy farm employees. It’s year round work, not seasonal, which is what the H2A program covers.

“It’s really hard to always train new people,” says Daniel. “I got guys here; they’ve been here for 10 years. They have families, kids who were born here. They go to school. They only here to support their family.”

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