Dairying and Immigration in Wisconsin

Bob Panzer
Bob Panzer

The population of Wisconsin is made up of immigrants. The Applied Population Laboratory at UW-Madison has many papers, maps, and research documents on the settlement of Wisconsin and the contributions immigrants have made to Wisconsin over the years.

Wisconsin has experienced waves of immigrants from most European countries. In recent years Hmong, Cubans, and others have immigrated to Wisconsin. In the past 20 years Wisconsin has experienced a rapid influx of Hispanic/Latino immigrants.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services estimates that Wisconsin’s population was made up of 1000 Hispanics/Latinos in 1950; this excludes the number of Hispanics/Latinos that worked under the 1943 Emergency Farm Labor Program that allowed for thousands of farm workers to travel to Wisconsin annually to work in the farm crop industry. This program operated until 1964 and involved bringing workers from Mexico, Jamaica, British Honduras, and the Bahamas.

The Pew Research Center estimates 370,000 Hispanic/Latino immigrants now call Wisconsin home, and 28% of them are foreign born. It is estimated that 76,000 of the 104,000 are non-citizens and that 51% of them have been in the United States for more than 16 years. The Pew Research Center has determined that less than 8% have been in the United States for less than 5 years.

It is estimated that there are approximately 12,550 hired farm laborers in Wisconsin and approximately 4,460 are from Mexico based on research from the UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies. It is estimated that immigrant farm laborers work an average of 57 hours per week and take off between 4 and 5 days a month.

Texas A&M researchers have surveyed immigrants involved in working on dairy farms in the U.S. and found the average wage was $11.54 an hour on dairy farms in 2013. It has been estimated that perhaps maybe 1250 or more of the Hispanic/Latinos working on Wisconsin farms are non-citizens here illegally. That is a difficult number to get real confident about. Farms that hire farm laborers are to obtain a Social Security card from the job applicant and verify this information with the federal government. The federal government has not done a widespread effort at auditing worker documents in the dairy sector.

What would happen if the federal government did a widespread effort at auditing worker documents in the U.S dairy sector? The National Milk Producers Federation hired Texas AgriLife Research at Texas A&M University to conduct research on this question. The research concluded that if there was a complete loss of immigrant labor there would be a loss of one-in-six dairy farms and a cut of $32.1 billion in economic output in the United States. It is estimated there would be a job loss of 208,000 jobs in the United States and that retail milk prices would increase 90 percent with the loss of all immigrant labor. Retail milk prices could possibly jump to $6.40/gallon.

One word of caution on this study. The survey did not distinguish between documented and undocumented foreign-born workers. The survey did point out that 71 percent of the survey respondents had low or medium levels of confidence in the employment documents of their immigrant workers. Farms need employees and are willing to continue to hire immigrants even with a major lack of confidence in employment papers offered by the new hires.

What is the next step for dairy producers? Can the industry continue to produce and possibly grow in the future with full knowledge that the labor force available to them is one that could be gone if the federal government decides to enforce hiring practices? Can farm lenders continue to lend into this environment of uncertainty? Can and should dairy producers begin to move forward with greater automation of milk harvesting with robots? Can we begin to make some decisions concerning immigration reform that may allow for better decision making by dairy producers and others?  At this moment in time Wisconsin is awash in a surplus of milk and will this continue?

It is interesting to read some of the discussion on the internet on the topic of immigration in the dairy industry. There is lots of finger pointing at this time. There appears to be no general consensus on the topic of immigration and the dairy industry at this time. There is a need for leadership at this time.

Bob Panzer farms in Chippewa County, WI and is a retired lender that offers farm management consulting in the Midwest and Great Plains regions. He may be contacted at 920-539-8728.