Dairy farmers, in dire need of workers, feel helpless as immigration reform sours
When Mike McMahon’s Latino employees need to go to the bank, the pharmacy or the grocery store, he makes sure someone drives them to town, waits while they run errands, and then brings them safely back to his dairy farm.
Even then, there is no guarantee law enforcement in their small, rural community won’t spot the workers, ask for their IDs, and put them on a path toward deportation if they cannot prove they are here legally. It is a risk that dairy farmers in this agricultural region have faced for years, but it is hitting them harder as immigration reform languishes in Washington and the nation’s demand for milk-heavy products like Greek yogurt soars.
“It’s just crazy,” said McMahon, who has several hundred cows at his farm more than 200 miles north of New York City.
“I’m a lifelong Republican,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m telling you, there are days when I think about switching.”
McMahon and other dairy farmers in central and upstate New York are in a quandary. On one hand, farms have thrived because of several factors, including the popularity of yogurt in recent years and drought in other milk-producing countries. At the same time, they are battling to find the reliable, year-round labor that 24/7 milking operations require.
Locals won’t do the dirty, manual jobs, farmers say, and immigration laws limit farmers to importing only seasonal agricultural employees. That does not help dairy farmers, who need year-round workers.
“The nation’s food system is at risk if we can’t get this fixed,” McMahon said one chilly day as scores of cows stood placidly in his farm’s milking parlor, which was pungent with the smell of manure. Workers went up and down the rows, checking to see that cows’ teats were attached to the metal milking machines.
Last month, Dean Norton, a dairy farmer who is president of the New York Farm Bureau, traveled to Washington to argue for reform, including a guest-worker program catering to dairy farmers. At this point, though, given the partisan divide in Washington, few people expect to see change any time soon.
“Less than 15%, and that’s probably a high number,” Norton said when asked the chances of dairy farmers getting help from lawmakers.
The dairy farmers have seen some relief lately because of a slowdown in milk demand. They attribute this to several things, including the stronger dollar, which makes U.S. milk more expensive to overseas buyers, and stockpiles of milk from China. But fluctuations in milk prices and demand are cyclical, and Norton said as long as things like cottage cheese and yogurt grow in popularity, so will dairy farmers’ labor woes.
Without new immigration laws, he and other farmers say, the nation will lose dairy producers, because farmers will switch to growing crops whose workers are eligible for temporary guest-worker visas.
“The U.S. dairy industry absolutely cannot survive without this,” said Dale, a dairy farmer who has moved toward robotic milking to avoid the labor problem. Like many dairy farmers, he did not want his full name or his farm’s name used because he was concerned that immigration officials would target his business.
Robotics are too expensive for most farmers; each machine costs about $250,000. They also cannot do the tasks that farmers say humans must handle, including cleaning teats and udders, and basic farm maintenance.
The problem has simmered for years, but it became more urgent with the Greek yogurt boom since yogurt maker Chobani’s arrival in upstate New York in 2005. Seven years later, New York was the nation’s yogurt capital, surpassing California to become the No. 1 producer. That success was fueled in large part by the demand for Greek yogurt, which is denser and creamier than regular yogurt.
“You’ve got to have really, really good milk. That’s the key to great yogurt,” Chobani spokesman Michael Gonda said as he led a visitor through the Chobani factory in the hamlet of New Berlin.
In a 150,000-square-foot warehouse, which is kept at a steady 34 degrees, more than 1.5 million cases of yogurt in flavors ranging from the usual, like strawberry and blueberry, to the unusual, like green tea, waited to be shipped to retailers. Machines worked at dizzying speeds, slapping labels on white yogurt cups that made their way via conveyor belts into filling rooms. There, more machines squirted fruit into each cup and topped the fruit with dollops of creamy, white yogurt.
Chobani is now one of more than 40 yogurt producers in the state, and it is by far the largest. In 2000, the state had about 14 yogurt processing plants.
Dairy farmers say the yogurt boom has been a blessing. “It happened overnight,” said Dale, who watched the state’s dairy industry shrink through the 1980s and ‘90s. “All of a sudden, New York had all these great yogurt things going on.”
He and McMahon said they tried to stick to local labor but succumbed to hiring migrant workers as their workloads increased.
Both men, and Norton, blame the problem more on attitudes than on economics. McMahon, for example, said his farmworkers all started at $2,000 a month and get a three-bedroom house plus utilities and other benefits. Even so, McMahon said attempts to hire locals have failed.
“Nobody wants to go out there and deal with cows and get manure up their sleeves,” said McMahon, who once advertised three straight weeks to find workers. Three locals applied, and only one worked out, he said. He now depends on Latino workers, most of them members of an extended family from Mexico.
Keeping them safe from immigration is a constant concern. Anyone obviously foreign-born sticks out in these largely white communities. The area is about 100 miles from the U.S.-Canada border, and there is a 360-bed immigration detention center in the region.
Mary Jo Dudley, who heads the Cornell Farmworker Program at Cornell University, said in a report in October that the state would need more than 2,200 additional farmworkers and about 100,000 more cows to ensure the steady production of sufficient milk to satisfy yogurt makers’ needs.
“Most people think of border and immigration issues as happening in the Southwest, but it’s a real issue up here,” said Dudley, who regularly visits dairy farms and hears stories from farmers and their workers about the latest detentions and scares.
McMahon told of one trusted worker, Antonio, who got word from his wife in Mexico that their young son had a brain tumor. He was desperate to visit them, so McMahon gave him some cash, wished him luck and let him go. Antonio was caught in Brownsville, Texas. By the time he was deported, his son had died.
McMahon hasn’t seen Antonio since and does not expect to, because of the cost of hiring coyotes to guide people over the southern border.
“I pray to God Jeb Bush is our next president,” McMahon said, “because he’s married to a Mexican woman. He gets it.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.