Too many of the nation’s dairy farmers are facing an ongoing, daunting challenge:
finding enough American workers to fill jobs on their farms, even when they provide
wages higher than those paid by other local jobs. This “between a rock and hard
place” dilemma has grown more acute as the national unemployment rate has dropped
– and will likely get even more dire, now that U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement has begun stepping up its efforts to locate and remove undocumented
That’s why NMPF has continued to drive home the point with lawmakers that it is
critical that any effort to solve the immigration quandary will require not just additional
law enforcement, but also a means to ensure that farm employers – including dairy
operations – have access to a legal, secure workforce.
This is not a new problem, nor is it limited to just a few large dairies in certain parts of
the country. To illustrate the extent of the concern, NMPF twice worked with
economists at Texas A&M during the past decade to assess the role played by foreignborn
workers in dairy production – and the potential consequences of not having those
employees. In its most recent national survey, the university researchers estimated that
150,000 employees worked on U.S. dairy farms as of 2014, and that approximately 51
percent of them were immigrants.
Because such a large volume of milk production depends on them, losing even just a
portion of foreign-born undocumented workers would have serious implications for both
farmers and consumers. In the worst-case scenario, a complete loss of immigrant labor
in dairy farming could cut U.S. economic output by $32 billion, resulting in 208,000
fewer jobs nationwide. Not only would farm workers be lost, but those further down the
value chain whose jobs are tied to crop, produce and livestock production would be at
The current environment is filled with a great deal of uncertainty and confusion about
the scope of the recent, stepped-up enforcement actions. I received a note last month
from a farmer in the Midwest who, after hearing of workers being deported from farms
in her state, expressed her growing level of concern:
“Our employees are very jittery. We’ve coordinated driving to grocery stores
and outlined ‘safe’ roadmaps (county & town roads) to get to the dentist, doctor
and grocery store. They’ve gotten their papers in order if they are deported so
that their children can be taken care of. They are scared, frustrated, and a little
angry. We as dairy farmers are too.”
Recognizing that the absence of a workable immigration policy is a threat to the
economic viability of dairy farms, NMPF continues to work with elected officials on
implementing a policy solution that adhere to two key principles:
1. Providing an affordable and efficient guest-worker program that ensures the
continued availability of immigrant labor for all of agriculture, including dairies; and
2. Permitting those currently employed or with employment history in the U.S. to
earn the right to work here legally, regardless of their current legal status.
Our point to elected officials is that, as important as border security and interior law
enforcement procedures are, such measures must be paired with a focus on current
and future agricultural labor needs. Creating a guest-worker program to bring in legal
employees will allow federal and state governments to focus resources on removing
bad actors from the U.S., and prevent the migration of others who are not coming here
for legitimate work opportunities.
The only current means of addressing domestic labor shortages in agriculture is the H-
2A temporary and seasonal foreign agricultural workforce program, intended to help
employers with short-term labor needs. Many jobs in farming and food processing are
not seasonal and thus can’t use the H-2A program at all – which is why dairy farmers
need another approach, not one centered on reforming H-2A.
Farm and ranch groups have collaborated in the past in formulating ideas for a new
national visa program that can provide a legal source of foreign-born workers to farm
employers. And we continue to reach out to the Administration and Congress in
support of workable policies to control our borders and provide a stable workforce.
Agriculture in America can’t grow without a reliable workforce. Immigrant workers are
an essential part of that picture today, and they must be part of it in the future. This is a
message we will continue to advance so that agriculture can help grow its contributions
to America’s economy.