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Immigration and Dairy Farms

This video from VICE is absolutely spot-on. If you have 20 minutes, give it a watch.


The farm where I worked and kept my cows for many years was about 300 cows, then expanded to 500. It supports the farmer and his wife (who works full time), their grown son, and their grown daughter with her husband and two children. Her husband is mostly a stay-at-home dad.

The herd manager is a white high school dropout that is damn good at his job and has been with the farm for over a decade. He works 6 days a week, about 80 hours, for $15/hour plus overtime. The assistant herdsman is a white two-year program recent graduate that started working there as a grunt at age 14. They used to get all their labor from their white neighbors. A divorced guy who would do a few nights a week after his day job. A mentally disabled youth who could only work 20 hours a week because of some dumb laws. Mostly high school kids - they'd show up drunk for the 4am shift on Sunday, mix all the cows up and Monday morning the herdsman would be pissed because he'd have sick, stressed cows. My general experience with high school boys on the farm is that they are loud, mean, careless and completely unreliable. They didn't want to switch to Hispanic labor - racism? I don't know. That was probably part of it. They were afraid of the language barrier, afraid of the legal mess.

When they went from 300 cows to 500 they decided to take the leap. I don't know if they are legal or not. I never know on the farms I visit. It's probably a mix most places. I do know that they have never done better as a farm than they are right now. I have never seen the herdsman so happy because fuck-ups are so rare now. Milking cows for their Hispanic employees is a career. They've been doing it for years. It takes some skill to do it well - not college degree level, but a lot of long hours doing it over and over again and you get damn good at it. The wage I encounter is usually between $8 and $9 an hour for an average grunt.

I live in Minnesota. Very few people around here realize that immigrant labor in agriculture is just as integral here as it is in vegetable fields in California or Florida. A buddy of my dad's used to sing this song at parties, "Who's Gonna Build your Wall?" I told him to add the verse "Who's Gonna Milk your Cows?" and he looked at me like I was crazy. I had to explain that milking cows belongs right there with the other list of jobs commonly held by immigrants.

What's happening on dairy farms in New York is not happening in other dairy states, yet. It scares the shit out of me. Dairy farms are price takers - unlike the vast majority of businesses, we have no control over the price we get paid for our product. None. That means we have very little power to raise our wages, install more milking machines (to reduce the time on each shift or the need for labor overall), or most other solutions. If those solutions would even attract "legal" labor - which I doubt.

If you want to help farms do things right, or stay in business, or not have to get bigger and bigger and get controlled by corporations, buy directly from farmers. Because of food safety regulations dairy is one of the hardest industries to sell directly to consumers (where we can set our own prices!), but some of us have managed. It's a ten-year goal for me. I'm not big on special labels and certifications because in my experience 99% of dairy farmers have their heart in the right place regardless of adjective, but if you know your farmer you will know where their heart is at.

I'm probably speaking to the choir here, but thanks for listening. As always, feel free to ask me any questions about (dairy) farming. Here's a cute picture of my baby girl Amethyst for your trouble.

Illustration for article titled Immigration and Dairy Farms

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