Dairy farms fear Trump's immigration policies
Donald Trump won big in Wisconsin farm country, but now large dairy farms that rely on immigrant labor are threatened by the president's hardline stance on undocumented workers.
The realities of Trump's presidency are sinking in, said John Rosenow, a Buffalo County dairy farmer who milks about 550 cows and has employees from Mexico.
Rosenow has become an outspoken advocate for comprehensive immigration reform nationally because it's needed to provide a stable, secure dairy workforce.
He's worried about the president's call to deport millions of undocumented workers.
"Trump said in his campaign he was going to do all this stuff," Rosenow said.
By some estimates, up to about 80% of the hired help on large Wisconsin dairy operations is immigrant labor — with a large percentage of those workers being undocumented.
Without the foreign-born help, many farmers say, they would be forced to quit milking cows because there aren't enough other people willing to accept such physically demanding jobs for $13 an hour.
"If you remove Mexican labor, farms would go out of business. That's a given," Rosenow said.
Rosenow said a "significant number" of his western Wisconsin neighbors — who don't employ immigrants — would probably want the government to deport undocumented workers, citing Trump's pledge to end illegal immigration.
"But it's not their business on the line," Rosenow said.
Bracing for trouble, he said, one large dairy farm operator in northwest Wisconsin is seriously thinking about closing and selling off a herd of 1,000 cows before the market gets flooded with livestock that nobody wants.
"If they get out early, they might be able to salvage something from it," Rosenow said.
Rural meatpacking and food processing plants also are threatened by Trump's immigration policies, as are furniture factories, although nobody knows for sure how deep the deportations could go.
Immigrants, including undocumented workers, play an important role in the U.S. economy because they fill the jobs that most Americans won't do.
Dairy farmers say they get almost "zero response" from native-born job applicants, even when the pay is comparable with nearby factories.
They say it's difficult to find reliable help, even in areas where people were born and raised on farms.
And the rural labor shortage isn't limited to dairy farms. Some manufacturers are running buses from Eau Claire and La Crosse, for instance, in order to attract workers.
Wisconsin's workforce is now shrinking rather than growing, especially in some northern counties, said Mark Tyler, chairman of the Governor's Council on Workforce Investment and president of OEM Fabricators Inc. in Woodville.
A few farmers say they've tried recruiting help from cities, thinking that a higher jobless rate in places like Milwaukee would be in their favor.
But that hasn't worked, said Jason Vorpahl, owner of Rockland Dairy near Random Lake.
"We need some way to keep our (immigrant) labor force, that's here, intact. I am OK with deporting the felons. And I am OK with deporting people who are looking for a handout and aren't working. But I am not OK with deporting the hard-working, tax-paying immigrants who are here right now," said Vorpahl, who employs about 26 people.
Erich Straub, a Milwaukee lawyer who handles immigration law cases, says it's difficult to glean much from Trump's statements on deportations and how they will affect the dairy industry.
"But if you want to know what the policy is, look at the people surrounding him that are making the policy. They are all adamantly in favor of rounding up people and deporting them," Straub said.
Straub said he's heard from dairy farmers who are worried that their workers will "just leave now" rather than wait for the government to come and arrest them.
"Their workers are terrified, based upon the executive orders that have been released, and the memos that are coming out of the Department of Homeland Security," he said.
One undocumented worker, from Green Bay, said she's very anxious.
She and her husband have been in Wisconsin for 17 years. They've bought a home, they have two cars and a comfortable life.
"We could lose everything. We have family in Mexico, but no place to stay, no job and no future there. If we have to go back, it will be very bad for us," she said, speaking on the condition that her identity not be revealed.
Some Mexican immigrants say they came here thinking of dairy farm jobs as temporary work, hoping to make enough money so they could return home and do something like start a business.
But once they get to the United States, they often find that it's tough to put away much money and pay off their debt from coming here.
"Expenses come up that they hadn't anticipated," said Julie Keller, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island and co-author of a report titled "Milking Workers, Breaking Bodies: Health Inequality in the Dairy Industry."
Far from ideal
While dairy farm jobs offer some stability as year-round positions, most are far from ideal, according to Keller.
"Immigrants are clustered in arduous, entry-level positions with low wages, late shifts, monotonous work, extreme temperatures and constant exposure to manure," the report notes.
These are also some of the most dangerous jobs in America, with many injuries and a few deaths.
In 2010, a 17-year-old immigrant from Mexico was crushed while herding animals on a Wisconsin dairy farm and died from his injuries. A year later, a 23-year-old immigrant worker was fatally trampled by a bull on another Wisconsin dairy farm.
Although farm safety training is a critical issue for all workers, it is particularly important for immigrants who have a language barrier.
Fear of encounters with local law enforcement also nags foreign-born laborers. Keller and her colleagues interviewed dozens of immigrants in rural Wisconsin and upstate New York.
"Some workers told us that their fear of law enforcement was so great that they only left the house to go to work and, twice per month, to buy groceries," the report noted.
Some farms discouraged their immigrant laborers from leaving the property at all if there was on-farm housing.
"Driving became a double risk. Workers might be viewed as insubordinate, and they risked arrest," the report said.
Keller said she met dairy farmers who were great employers and cared about their immigrant employees.
"You can have good bosses and bad bosses, just like in any job," she said, but most of the employees she spoke with lacked health insurance and basic benefits.
Out of the shadows
Unlike migrant workers who can get a work permit for seasonal agricultural jobs, foreign workers on dairy farms can't get the H-2A visa because their jobs are year-round rather than temporary.
That would change under one dairy industry proposal aimed at getting undocumented workers out of the shadows.
"A vast majority of these immigrant people aren't concerned with becoming citizens. They just want to be able to come here and work," said Paul Fetzer, a dairy farmer in Elmwood with 26 employees.
"Rather than leaving everything in limbo, like it's been for the last decade at least, let's just get something done that allows immigrants to come here legally and work. They also should be able to go home, when they want to, and come back again," Fetzer said.
Clamoring for help, some big farms that milk cows 24 hours a day have raised wages to $15 per hour. More typically, it's between $11 and $13, according to workers.
"Not long ago it was closer to $8," said Scott Gunderson, a University of Wisconsin-Extension agent in Manitowoc County.
Some farms now offer health insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan and perks such as gasoline for employees' cars and beef for the dinner table. Wages aren't likely to climb much higher as farmers are under pressure to make ends meet themselves.
"If we paid people $20 an hour, we may just price ourselves out of business. In fact, we would," said Shelly Mayer, a dairy farmer from Slinger and executive director of Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.
Getting to work is a problem for people seeking jobs at big farms located in some of the state's most rural areas.
It's difficult for some people to get across town for a job, let alone 40 miles to a dairy farm, said James Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board in Green Bay.
A low unemployment rate complicates things, too.
"Even some of our really good jobs in this area have trouble filling second and third shifts," Golembeski said.
Farmers say many immigrant laborers who come to them have little or no experience milking cows, but they do well if they've worked around livestock.
"If there isn't a hint in someone's résumé that they've been exposed to agriculture, in some fashion, then it just isn't a good match," said Tom Mickelson, president of AgJobs LLC in La Crosse.
One largely untapped source for dairy farm workers is an unlikely place: the state Department of Corrections farms near Waupun, Fox Lake and Oregon.Combined, those farms have a herd of 1,093 cows.
Inmates in those operations learn valuable skills, including milking and animal health care. Upon release from prison, some of them have found jobs on dairy farms near Elmwood, Eagle River, Bayfield, Marshfield, Greenleaf, Reedsville, Pulaski and Randolph, according to the Department of Corrections.
They learn basic employment skills as well.
"They learn to get to work, to get through work, and to get work done," said Wes Ray, director of the Bureau of Correctional Enterprises that oversees the farms.