DANE — On a recent cool, summer evening in the rolling hills just outside Madison, the capital of America’s Dairyland, the lofty pole barn of Ripp’s Dairy Valley farm briefly transformed into a town hall meeting.
As twilight descended, a crowd of more than 60 farmers, public officials, dairy workers and rural residents grabbed bowls of ice cream and took their seats for the event, sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, to learn about farming and discuss the direction of the state’s signature industry.
Chuck, Troy and Gary Ripp, owners of the farm, a large operation with about 850 milk cows, faced the crowd and fielded questions. The main topic of the night, elevated to the forefront by the election of President Donald Trump, was 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 told the group. “He (Trump) doesn’t quite understand, I don’t think, everything that involves in our lives all the time here on the dairy farm.”
Immigration as a top-line issue for dairy farmers would have been unthinkable just a generation ago when Wisconsin’s agricultural landscape was dominated by small and medium-sized dairy farms run by the families that owned them.
Now, 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 farmers insist most Americans will not do.
Nationally, more than half of dairy workers are immigrants, according to a 2015 industry-sponsored study, with farms that employ immigrant labor producing 79 percent of the nation’s milk.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism asked farmers, academics, a union activist and the state’s recently retired agriculture secretary how Wisconsin’s dairy industry came to rely on immigrants to keep it afloat — and what could be done to put it on a more sustainable and legal path.
The answers include raising wages and benefits paid to dairy employees, increasing automation so jobs are less physically demanding and farmers need fewer workers, and changing federal law so immigrants can work here legally.
How did we get here?
Shelly Mayer believes the problem is broader than the dairy industry.
“We’re just short of people,” said Mayer, executive director for the Wisconsin dairy producers’ group that helped organize the get-together at the Ripp dairy farm. “Immigration is … really a symptom of a rural labor shortage.”
Between 2000 and 2010, Wisconsin’s population grew by 6 percent, but more than a quarter of Wisconsin’s 72 counties lost population. Most of the losses in Wisconsin and nationally were in rural areas where the main industry is agriculture, WCIJ has reported.
And these days, Wisconsin businesses complain they cannot find enough workers to fill positions as the state experiences near-record 3.2 percent unemployment.
At the same time, federal figures show the number of hired workers on dairies in Wisconsin has nearly doubled since 2006 to about 14,000 — a reflection, Mayer said, of the move away from family labor that fueled small farms that once dominated the industry.
Ben Brancel, Wisconsin’s recently retired agriculture secretary, said the nation’s “cheap food” policy puts pressure on farmers to keep down costs, including labor. Immigrants, he said, “provide valuable support for our food-producing systems.”
‘Rather have a Latino’
Another factor is what farmers such as Tim Keller describe as a lack of work ethic by U.S.-born workers. Keller milks 330 cows on his 600-acre farm near Mount Horeb, about 25 miles west of Madison. He has five immigrant workers, including his “right-hand man” who hails from Uruguay. Keller said the employee, who is here legally, has worked for him for 11 years.
Keller said he voted for Trump but disagrees with the administration’s threats to deport all undocumented immigrants. His Hispanic employees are hardworking — and highly valued, Keller said.
“Even if an American guy came up right now, I don’t know if I’d hire him,” Keller said. “I’d rather have a Latino.”
Eleven of the 12 non-family members who work on the Ripp farm are Hispanic immigrants.
“We cannot find the American person to come in and work full-time on a dairy,” Chuck Ripp said in an interview. “It’s too many long hours. It’s too hard of work. … We’ve run ads in the papers, looking for milking technicians or people to help milk cows and things like that. We don’t even get a bite. We don’t even get calls.”
In recent years, dairy farmers have become accustomed to cheap, flexible labor, said Jill Lindsey Harrison, a former University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty member who studied the rise in immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin, a trend that started around 2000. Harrison, who now teaches at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said such workers are willing to work long hours under “pretty crummy” conditions to support themselves and their families.
Immigrant workers who do not have legal status, Harrison said, are easier to manage because “they’re going to not ruffle any feathers.”
Activist: Boost pay, benefits
Neil Rainford is a longtime labor activist who has negotiated wages for employees in workplaces including a municipal sewer plant, jail and aluminum manufacturing, which he said are “easily as dirty, dangerous and hard as dairy work.”
“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,” said Rainford, a Madison-area field representative for AFSCME who was speaking for himself and not the public employee union.
Rainford does not buy the argument that Americans will not clean out barns or get up in predawn hours to milk cows.
“The labor market for the dairy industry in Wisconsin is the same as any other labor market,” he added. “If demand outstrips supply, then the price — of labor in this case — must increase to meet demand.”
Rainford said 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.
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.”
Brad Barham, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the group that immigrant labor “is not replaceable by domestic labor — it’s not going to happen.”
Shortage prompts higher wages
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 Hispanic 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.
Chuck Ripp said in an interview that raising pay too much could hurt the dairy industry, which has been hit by low milk prices.
“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.”