Immigration changes could impact dairy business

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Immigration changes could impact dairy business

Premiere Date: 
January 31, 2013

Jayme Sellen explains why immigration is important to the Wisconsin dairy industry.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Turning now to news outside the big city and down on the farm. In America's Dairyland the odds are good that gallon of milk on your kitchen table was made possible by the farm work of a Mexican immigrant. Studies show that more than 40% of employees at Wisconsin dairy farms are immigrants, 90% of them from Mexico. It's estimated about half of those employees don't have legal US work papers. Because of Wisconsin's reliance on immigrant dairy farm labor and concerns about their legal status, a group of dairy industry organizations have formed the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, looking at changes in immigration policy. Jayme Sellen represents the Dairy Business Association based in Green Bay, and thanks very much for joining us on this.  

Jayme Sellen:

Thank you for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, what would happen on Wisconsin dairy farms if immigrant labor was not available? 

Jayme Sellen:

Oh, well, we obviously struggle with having enough employees to maintain and keep-- keep care and milk the cows every single day. The result of not having immigrant workers on the dairy farm would be a loss of production of milk. We'd have to reduce the amount of cows that we milk because they need constant care. They need care every single day of the year and multiple times and we just-- unfortunately, the pool of applicants out there is very shallow at this point in time.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, if studies are correct and half of that workforce may not be here legally, what does that mean for dairy farms and other dairy businesses which employ them?  

Jayme Sellen:

Well, they go through all the proper I9 procedures. They follow all the documentation requirements that the government requires them to. So we really need immigration reform in order to create a policy that we can work with. There's policies currently out there for seasonal agriculture, for harvesting fruits and vegetables, but those don't apply to the dairy industry because of the 365-day, multiple occurrences throughout the day, that these cows need to be milked, cared for and fed. So we really need to have an immigration reform policy that passes, that meets the needs of the dairy industry, specifically in Wisconsin, because we are a $26.5 billion a year industry for our state. We're really an economic engine for the state, and to lose-- to not have an immigration reform policy put in place is going to be really detrimental to our industry.

Frederica Freyberg:

So specifically, what would that immigration reform policy look like if it were to meet the needs of Wisconsin's dairy industry?

Jayme Sellen:

Sure. There's about-- there's a couple things that it needs to have. It needs to have a guest worker program that would allow a dairy farmer to bring in someone from a foreign country that has undergone a background check to work year-round on their facility. Like I said before, the agriculture for seasonal harvesting programs, they don't apply to our industry. They don't work for our industry. It also needs to address what to do with individuals that are currently here. There needs to be a way for them to earn legal status by paying fines, having background checks, paying any back taxes that they may owe. And then finally, we need to have some enforcement procedures put in place, such as an employment verification system so that we know whoever is-- whoever a potential hire is can legally be eligible to work here.

Frederica Freyberg:

So how do the immigration reform proposals at the national level, including this pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, square with the needs of the dairy industry? Are you both talking about the same things here?

Jayme Sellen:

Yeah, the senate version and the policies that I've seen from President Obama, pretty much both include a guest worker program. They both include a way to deal with securing the borders and verifying legal status of potential employees. And they also deal with current-- with current individuals that are here. So both policies are-- do contain proposals that are needed for the dairy industry.

Frederica Freyberg:

You know, one thing that people might wonder, in this economy especially, why aren't non-immigrants, kind of, the locals who grew up on dairy farms, taking these jobs?

Jayme Sellen:

Well, it's a very labor-intense work. It's really hard work to do. And despite putting out ads in the paper and trying other employer recruitment efforts, our farmers really struggle to get any applications. They could have an ad in the paper for months and not get any responses at all. And it's because it's really hard work. It's every single day. It's-- it's just difficult. And there has been a shift from the generations of past farmers, who wanted to stay on the farm. Now kids these days, they want to go off. They want to take vacations. So the desire to come back and work on the farm all the time without having employees is really just-- it's really hurting the future generations.

Frederica Freyberg:

Don't you suppose that if dairy farmers were able to pay more, that maybe they would get more applicants?

Jayme Sellen:

They pay competitive wages to begin with. They provide health insurance and vacation benefits already, and they still struggle to find employees.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. Jayme Sellen out of Green Bay, thanks very much.

Jayme Sellen:

Thank you.  

Frederica Freyberg:

We asked the Wisconsin secretary of agriculture for his view on this topic, and he told us, “A large percentage of the workforce involved in the production, processing and delivery of food in this country is made up of foreign guest workers. Without their involvement, food produced here would be more expensive and in some cases unavailable. Immigration reform that would keep the US food supply growing is absolutely necessary at this time.”


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