For several years, I’ve told a story about a Kansas dairy that lost its Hispanic workers.

When their Hispanic workers walked out on June 24, 2000, Meier Dairy was plunged into a crisis. Suddenly, the owners found themselves having to work 18-hour days in order to milk and maintain a 600-cow herd. One day, they worked 22 hours.

The Meiers weren’t sure why the employees left so abruptly. Perhaps the workers wanted to return to Mexico. Perhaps they didn’t like the no-smoking rule that had been established  in the milking parlor.

What did become apparent was that few, if any, of the people in the surrounding communities wanted to work there. The communities had virtually zero unemployment, and most of the townspeople wanted to do something other than milk cows. Fortunately, the Meiers got some leads on more Hispanic workers. They also applied for the H-2A temporary agricultural program that allows non-immigrant aliens to work at farms in the absence of qualified domestic workers.

This pretty well sums up the situation that many dairies face today. Dairies are increasingly dependent on foreign-born workers because they can’t get domestic workers to do the same work. Face it, many American workers don’t want to perform the hard physical labor that would be required of them on dairy farms.  

Foreign-born workers are vitally important to agriculture. Seventy-seven percent of all hired crop workers in this country are foreign-born, according to the 2005 National Agricultural Workers Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor. (The 2005 survey reports on data that were collected in 2000-2002.) The Labor Department does not have separate statistics on dairies, but one can reasonably conclude that foreign-born workers make up at least half of the dairy workforce in this country.

We could go on and on, but suffice it to say:

  • The anti-immigration law passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December would cause great harm to agriculture.
  • The U.S. Senate seems to be taking a much more reasoned approach to the issue of immigration reform, although it still hadn’t passed anything as of mid-April.
  • A guest-worker program should be included in any legislation that is finally agreed to between the House and the Senate.  

We hope a final immigration-reform package can be passed that recognizes the importance of foreign-born workers to American agriculture.