DANE, Wis. — On a recent summer evening, dozens of farmers, public officials, dairy workers and rural residents took their seats in the lofty pole barn of Ripp’s Dairy Valley farm to talk about the health of Wisconsin’s dairy industry.
The main topic of the night, pushed to the forefront by the election of President Donald Trump: immigration.
“Well, it’s a hot topic, and every night on the news you hear about building a wall and what we’re gonna do, like we’re gonna kick everybody out,” Chuck Ripp, who owns the farm with his brothers Troy and Gary, told the group. “First of all, Trump has a lot of power, but I don’t think he has that much power. He doesn’t quite understand, I don’t think, everything that involves in our lives all the time here on the dairy farm.”
The farmers’ interest in immigration issues marks a shift. A generation ago, Wisconsin’s agricultural landscape was dominated by small and medium-sized dairy farms run by the families that owned them, and immigration wasn’t a top-line issue for dairy farmers.
But today, the nation’s No. 2 milk-producing state is home to a growing number of large, concentrated animal-feeding operations. These businesses, which operate 24/7, year-round, require work that some farmers insist most Americans will not do. The number of workers on dairies in Wisconsin has nearly doubled since 2006 to about 14,000, according to federal figures.
As dairies’ need for workers has grown, the move away from small family farms has dried up the pipeline that once supplied those workers, says Shelly Mayer, executive director for Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, the trade group that hosted the event at Ripp’s Dairy. Rural areas in Wisconsin and across the nation have been losing population. Between 2000 and 2010, Wisconsin’s population grew by 6 percent, but more than a quarter of Wisconsin’s 72 counties lost population.
“We’re just short of people,” Mayer said. “Immigration is... really a symptom of a rural labor shortage. I don’t think any of the farmers are trying to work around the system. They just need a person they can rely on to care for cows.”
‘I’d rather have a Latino’
Tim Keller, who milks 330 cows on his 600-acre farm near Mount Horeb, about 25 miles west of Madison, has another theory about the importance of immigrant labor to dairy operations: Immigrants work harder.
“Even if an American guy came up right now, I don’t know if I’d hire him,” said Keller, who employs five immigrant workers. “I’d rather have a Latino.”
Before Chuck Ripp’s farm started to grow, he and his brothers hired local high school students to help on the farm. But they never lasted. Now, 11 of the 12 non-family members who work there are Latino immigrants.
“We cannot find the American person to come in and work full-time on a dairy,” Ripp said. “It’s too many long hours. It’s too hard of work. And it’s seven days a week, 365 on a dairy farm... A cow does not take a day off.”
“We’ve run ads in the papers, looking for milking technicians or people to help milk cows and things like that,” he went on. “We don’t even get a bite. We don’t even get calls.”
More than half of all dairy workers in the U.S. are immigrants, according to a 2015 industry-sponsored study, and farms that employ immigrant labor produce 79 percent of the nation’s milk. Dairy farmers have become accustomed to cheap, flexible labor, said Jill Lindsey Harrison, a former University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty member who has studied the rise in immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin. But at 3.2 percent, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is near a record low, and some businesses complain they cannot find enough workers to fill positions.
There’s another reason some farmers may turn to immigrant labor: Immigrants are willing to work long hours under “pretty crummy” conditions to support themselves and their families, explained Harrison, who now teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder. Wisconsin farmers have said it is nearly impossible to convince Americans to take the jobs, which entail cleaning out stalls, covering night, weekend and holiday shifts, and working in every type of weather, including rain, snow, blazing heat and subzero temperatures.
Immigrant workers who do not have legal status are easier to manage because “they’re going to not ruffle any feathers,” Harrison said. They are generally “afraid to speak up for themselves and demand better jobs.”
What if farmers just paid more?
Neil Rainford, a longtime labor activist who has negotiated wages for employees in workplaces including a municipal sewer plant, a jail and an aluminum manufacturing facility, doesn’t buy the argument that Americans will not clean out barns or get up before dawn to milk cows.
The other fields Rainford has organized are “easily as dirty, dangerous and hard as dairy work,” he said. “In all those communities, it was a matter of what wages needed to be paid to get people to do onerous jobs that most people don’t want to do.”
“The labor market for the dairy industry in Wisconsin is the same as any other labor market,” he went on. “If demand outstrips supply, then the price — of labor, in this case — must increase to meet demand.”
Relying on immigrant labor drives down wages to “unnaturally low” levels for dairy work, meaning U.S. citizens cannot get jobs with family-supporting income in their home communities, Rainford said. (Rainford is a Madison-area field representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, but said he was speaking only for himself and not the public employee union.)
Undocumented workers do not qualify for public benefits like Obamacare or government-subsidized health care ― meaning they have to “labor without the basic social protections that are part of our social and legal compact, are easily exploited, suffer sub-market wages and benefits and are denied many of the basic minimums that we have agreed upon as a society,” Rainford said.
But raising wages could leave farmers short when the sometimes-volatile price of milk drops, Oconto Falls farmer Tim O’Harrow said at a forum on the future of the immigrant dairy workforce in Madison last month.
“If we pay [workers] more, how do I get the money out of you [consumers]?” O’Harrow asked attendees at the Cap Times Idea Fest. “Milk is a commodity. We don’t control the price.”
Immigrant labor “keeps the economy of rural Wisconsin humming,” argued Brad Barham, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It is not replaceable by domestic labor — it’s not going to happen.”
How much is fair?
Farmers insist their immigrant workers are paid fairly, and that pay is rising.
In just the past year and a half, Ripp said, his farm boosted starting wages from $8.50 an hour to $11 — plus housing — as the flow of immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border has slowed. Workers with their own housing start at $12 an hour, he said. Some of his longer-tenured Latino workers earn $15 an hour.
Dane County, where the Ripp farm is located, considers $12.50 an hour and above to be a living wage.
America’s No. 1 milk producer, California, is raising the minimum wage for nearly all workers, including those in agriculture. By 2023, farmers and other employers will have to pay at least $15 an hour. Employees working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week also will be eligible for overtime pay.
But raising pay too much could hurt the dairy industry, which has been hit by low milk prices, Chuck Ripp said in an interview.
“As labor costs go up, people go out of business, plain and simple,” he said. “If it gets too high, people are going to say, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ We’re going to lose some farms. And I don’t think that’s what the economy wants.”
“We could probably get [U.S. workers] to come with a lot higher wages,” Ripp added. “But the turnover would be very high.” Troy Ripp said that it would probably take three to four domestic workers to cover the shifts that one of his immigrant laborers is willing to work.
Machines vs. immigrants
Farms can deal with labor shortages with the help of Congress, increased automation and better pay and benefits, said Philip Martin, a professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis.
Martin said farm owners need to increase mechanization — such as automatic cow feeders and robotic milking systems — to improve productivity, make jobs less physically demanding and ultimately shrink the size of the workforce. Similar labor-saving devices have led to a sharp decline in the proportion of the U.S. workforce engaged in agriculture, he noted. About 200 years ago, 72 percent of the country’s employees worked on farms. Today, that figure is less than 2 percent.
Mark Misch sees the trend toward mechanization as he travels the Upper Midwest selling cow water beds, which are considered more comfortable for the animals.
“A lot of people are looking into robots to replace the labor, having a robot do it,” said Misch, who works for DCC Waterbeds in Sun Prairie. “It could be a robot that milks the cows. It could be a robot that feeds the cows. There’s robots that push the feed up to the cows, so the people don’t have to do those jobs.”
Former ag secretary: Change the law
More machines and better pay will not be enough, Martin says. He noted that Congress is considering expanding the guest worker program to include dairy workers.
Currently, the so-called H-2A program is confined to seasonal farm workers. Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) has proposed allowing dairy farms to bring in guest workers, calling it “a small starting point of relief” for farmers in need of labor. The measure passed the House Appropriations Committee in July, but still needs full House and Senate approval.
Ben Brancel, Wisconsin’s recently retired agriculture secretary, agrees that immigration law needs to be changed. Brancel, who served as a Republican lawmaker and state-level director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said politicians in Washington, D.C., need to stop arguing immigration policy “at the extremes” and adopt law changes that recognize the need for immigrant labor in agriculture while still limiting the people who can qualify for citizenship.
“Unfortunately right now, there isn’t any stability in immigration policy,” said Brancel, who retired from public service in August to run his beef cattle farm in central Wisconsin.
Chuck Ripp also wants changes. He worries about his workers being arrested because some cannot legally drive in Wisconsin. And some of his employees ― such as Sergio Rivera, who has worked on the Ripp farm for 14 years — can go long periods without seeing their extended families because they fear being barred re-entry into the United States.
“I like [to go] back to Mexico to see my family... but right now it’s just more hard,” said Rivera, who cares for calves on the farm.
Being denied re-entry would mean Rivera would be separated from his wife and daughter, who live with him on the farm. That bothers Ripp.
“I really like these guys. I get to know them well, they’re working hard for me,” Ripp said. “It would be nice for me to know that Sergio could go home and then in a month come back. But right now, we’re all afraid that once they leave, once they go into Mexico, can they get back into America?”
There is anecdotal evidence that some immigrant workers are leaving Wisconsin in the face of heightened enforcement.
In the Chicago regional office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which encompasses six states including Wisconsin, arrests are up under Trump, from an average of 538 per month at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency to an average of 776 per month for the first six months under Trump.
At the same time, deportation rates have gone down, in part because of record backlogs in the courts. In the Chicago region, the pending case backlog is about 25,700, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Despite the threat of arrest emanating from Washington, Harrison, the former UW-Madison faculty member, said she does not expect a wave of voluntary departures.
“You’ve got people who are desperate to be here to work,” Harrison said. “So they’ll keep a low profile. They’ll say ‘yes’ to what’s offered to them. They’ll make as much money as they can while they can. It’s heartbreaking.”
Elise Foley of HuffPost contributed to this story, which was reported in collaboration with HuffPost as part of its Listen to America bus tour, which is stopping in Milwaukee Oct. 6. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.