Family Dairy Farms and Immigration Reform

Chad Dechow
Associate Professor, Dairy Cattle Genetics
Department of Dairy and Animal Science
The Pennsylvania State University

Published in American Thinker, April 18, 2010

The American Farm Bureau (AFB) has declared the “Season Right for Meaningful Immigration Reform.” The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has issued dire warnings of farms being forced to close their doors and store milk prices skyrocketing if immigration reforms that guarantee an uninterrupted flow of low-cost laborers are not enacted. Such claims ignore decades of store milk price trends and the heavy loss of dairy farms this country has already experienced despite (and perhaps because of) the steady pace of illegal immigration.

Results from an NMPF survey indicate that 62% of the nation’s milk is supplied by farms that employ immigrant labor (page 2). There is little doubt that the dairy industry has restructured itself in a manner that encourages reliance on immigrant labor. But what of the numerous traditional family dairy farms who do not require hired labor, or those that intentionally hire local employees to boost the local economy? Illegal immigration has robbed such farms of their one competitive advantage, and it is no coincidence that such farms have largely disappeared from the countryside.

The negative impact on family dairy farms is of negligible concern to the nation’s largest dairy farm lobbying voice. Here’s how NMPF treated 297 small family farms responding to their survey (page 4):

Farms with less than 50 cows were excluded from analysis because even though these smaller farms account for 46.8 percent of all U.S. dairy farms, they represent only 7.4 percent of milking cows and 6.7 percent of milk production. Further, farms with less than 50 cows rarely utilize hired labor. The inclusion of the smaller farms that did not use hired labor would, therefore, bias the results.

Whom is the NMPF hoping to fool? It doesn’t take a scientific peer review to understand the source of bias in this study. The bias is ignoring 46.8 percent of farms because they don’t fit the narrative that our nation’s cows will go unmilked without immigrant laborers.

There is no class of American citizen that I admire more than our nation’s farmers, and it is not greed that motivates dairy farms to rely on immigrant labor. Despite hourly wages that average slightly less than $11.00 per hour including benefits (pages 6-7), it is not uncommon for farm employees to out-earn their employers. When margins are tight, farm families tighten their belts. Even then, farms are lost that have been in a family for decades or centuries. It’s easy to understand why some believe that their farm cannot survive without the availability of cheap labor when so many farms have been lost, but this does not address the underlying problem. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, farm milk prices have fallen well behind the pace of store milk prices. Mass-scale immigrant labor will make that situation worse, not better.

The most disingenuous argument made by the NMPF is that store milk prices will skyrocket (page 8) if we return to a system that relies on farm families supplying our nation’s milk. Attempting to scare consumers into thinking that they won’t be able to afford to feed their families ignores the history of milk pricing and of the NMPF’s own attempts to raise milk prices.

Retail milk prices have risen at the pace of inflation despite farm prices that have failed to keep pace. In other words, it is those in between the farm and the consumer who make big profits out of the system structured around illegal farm laborers, not our farmers. Most damning is the NMPF’s assertion that the loss of immigrant laborers will drive up consumer costs because of a reduction in the national milk supply when they are attempting to do that very thing through management of a program called Cooperatives Working Together (CWT). In May of 2009, the NMPF and the CWT program paid hundreds of farmers to sell their cows in order to reduce milk supply and raise milk prices. The very next month marked the release of the NMPF immigration report warning of severe milk price increases if the milk supply was reduced because of the loss of immigrant labor. Losing cows is a terrible problem if the loss of illegal immigrants is the cause, according to the NMPF, but apparently not if a few family dairy farms are “retired” by an NMPF program.

Our farms and national security have not been the only victims of lax immigration policies. Rural sociologists have documented how shifts in agriculture impact rural communities. A review of over seven decades of peer-reviewed research with regard to what the authors describe as industrialized farming concluded:

Adverse impacts were found across an array of indicators measuring socioeconomic conditions, community social fabric, and environmental conditions. Few positive effects of industrialized farming were found across studies. The results demonstrate that public concern about industrialized farms is warranted.

Hundreds of young people that have had the wonderful experience of growing up on a farm would love to provide their children with the same. Their dreams have been undermined by cheap labor on large-scale farms, and research has made clear that the quality of life in rural communities that formerly relied on our farms has suffered.

America does not need to choose between affordable food and the rule of law, or between vibrant rural economies and our nation’s sovereignty. We need to empower our family farms by not allowing their competitors to undermine their existence by flooding the milk market on the backs of illegal immigrants. Let’s hope that our usually well-intentioned farm lobby gets the message while a few family farms still exist.

2 thoughts on “Family Dairy Farms and Immigration Reform

  1. Well written.

    Replacing owner labor and locally hired labor with near slave wage labor has helped kill business in small rural towns and hamlets. Workers are now paid near minimum wage (sometimes more, sometimes less), and have little left to spend in town. Most are not paid enough to support their families locally and send what they can spare back home wherever their kids live. I am less concerned with whether the workers are immigrants or not than am am that they be well-compensated for their work and have a day or two off once in a while. The lack of options and bargaining power that undocumented workers (and all that compete with them for jobs) have contributes to the low wages paid by large farms. And all others suffer for it.

    I doubt if any set of laws will significantly change immigration patterns; but rural communities would benefit if whoever shows up to milk were better paid. One has to wonder if much of this problem would be solved if the the 1930’s era exclusion of farm workers from the National Labor Relations Act were removed. Those hiring American or legal resident workers would, in almost all cases, already be in compliance or could be with minor adjustments. After all, those legal workers have the option of going to industries covered by the NLRA and the better farmers are retaining them by keeping wages and benefits competitive. Only those units which pay very low wages for long hours to workers who do not have those options (because of their immigration status) benefit from retention of a different set of rules for farm workers.

    I thank the author of this article for recognizing that our obligation at long grant universities to improve the lives of those engaged in rural life is not restricted to the owners, and that it extends to the far more numerous workers and communities that provide the labor that makes everything work.

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