The Dairy Industry’s Immigration Problem

A worker connects milking equipment to a cow at Homestead Dairy in Plymouth, Indiana. Photo by Cassidy McDonald

By Cassidy McDonald and Janet Stengle

Doug Leman was born in Francesville, Indiana, and he expects to die in Francesville, Indiana. His family has lived in Francesville for three generations: His parents were dairy farmers. And so were their parents — and their parents’ parents.

Naturally, Leman became a dairy farmer, too. His four sons grew up helping with his 800-cow herd and he planned to pass the farm on to them. “Our goal was to build something so our sons would have a future,” he said.

But six years ago, Leman made what he said was the toughest decision of his life: He said goodbye to his eight employees and sold the farm in northwest Indiana. He handed over his keys at midnight, and another farmer was in charge by sunrise that morning.

And just like that, Leman ended a line of four generations of dairy farmers.

After Doug Leman (left) sold his farm, he became executive director of Indiana Dairy Producers, a job that allows him to visit farms often. Brian Houin (right) owns Homestead Dairy. Photo by Cassidy McDonald

His reason? He couldn’t make enough money to stay afloat. (Americans don’t drink as much milk as they used to.) He also had trouble finding reliable labor. The turnover for hiring and training local farmhands was too rapid, and subsequently blew his budget. Most of his workers were from Mexico.

“It’s not a glamorous job,” he said. “Dairying goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week… [Immigrants] are doing the jobs that nobody wants to do.”

For small farms in particular, profit margins are slim, and demand for milk is on the decline. Immigrant labor accounts for 51 percent of all dairy labor, and dairies that employ immigrant labor produce 79 percent of America’s milk supply, according to a 2015 Texas A&M report.

If the country were to eliminate immigrant labor entirely, the Texas A&M report found, the United States would lose an estimated $32.1 billion in output, and retail milk prices would increase about 90 percent. (That means a typical $2.50 gallon of milk would cost $4.40.)

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Explore state-by-state proportions of unauthorized (also called       “undocumented”) workers, based on estimates from the Pew Research Center. 

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Leman said his immigrant workers have been like family to him. He worked with one man who had just arrived from Mexico with a 6-month-old son. Years later, when his son turned 16 and his friends began to get their driver’s licenses, he couldn’t. He wasn’t a citizen.

Leman was unsettled. “This is the only home he’s ever known,” he said. “These are human issues.”

Now, Leman is the executive director of Indiana Dairy Producers, an organization that unites the state’s dairy farmers. He says the industry, all over the state, is in economic trouble.

“Our dairy producers are sucking air again,” he said.

Leman is in favor of allowing more immigrants to legally work on farms. He considers himself a “frustrated Republican” when it comes to immigration policies, and he says the national conversation underestimates the complexity of the issue.

“Let’s let them come out of the shadows and become really involved community members — and they will be,” Leman said. “They want to just be normal human beings and be treated like that.”

Despite the increased focus on President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, immigration issues in the dairy industry are nothing new. John Rosenow is a Wisconsin farmer with 1,000 cows and 20 employees — 10 of whom are Mexican immigrants.

“I think the climate is about the same as it has always been,” Rosenow said. “I’m always really concerned. One of the things I worry about the most is immigration.”

He says his employees have all shown him official documents, but he’s still afraid immigration authorities will find errors in the papers and deport his workers. If that were to happen, he said, “I’d go out of business, because I won’t have people to milk the cows — and if I don’t have people to milk the cows, I can’t exist.”

Rosenow advocates the expansion of the H-2A visa program to the dairy industry. Currently, fruit and vegetable farms that hire seasonal workers can utilize the H-2A visa program. But dairy farms operate year-round, and cannot use those visas.

The H-2A Improvement Act, however, has been introduced to the Senate, and would allow foreign dairy workers to live in the US for an initial three-year period.

Dan Graff, a history professor and director of the Higgins Labor Program at Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, says farms have historically relied on immigrant labor. Photo by Cassidy McDonald

But not everyone believes this is the best arrangement. Dan Graff, a history professor and director of the Higgins Labor Program at Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, says that farming has historically relied on low-wage, immigrant labor.

When federal government began writing worker protection laws in the 1930s, southern Democrats agreed to support the laws if farm and domestic workers — primarily African-Americans and Mexican-Americans — were excluded from the provisions.

“That’s an ongoing issue that should inform the discussions we have today about a farm labor problem,” Graff said.

Dairy farm workers are paid an average wage of $11.54 per hour, according to the Texas A&M report, and Rosenow said he pays his workers over $40,000 per year with housing.

“We sort of lock ourselves into these economic arrangements where we then tend to think that they’re inevitable,” Graff said. “If you take one step back and say, well, we have a system where the labor force is highly vulnerable and underpaid… maybe we should rethink that whole sector if it has to rely on it that way.”

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 Step inside a milking station at the world’s largest robotic dairy, opened March 2017.

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Leman believes the future of the industry lies with innovative farms like Homestead Dairy, a 4,000-cow operation in Plymouth, Indiana that houses the world’s largest robotic milker.

Homestead’s owner, Brian Houin, is obsessed with data. His cows wear ankle trackers, which Houin said function like Fitbits. Each calf is genetically tested at birth and the herd’s every move is stored on an app that Houin checks constantly.

Brian Houin checks on his herd with a dairy app. Photo by Cassidy McDonald

But Homestead is an outlier in the dairy industry, well ahead of the technological curve. Houin’s efforts have yielded major cost savings that other dairies may never be able to access.

Watch how HD operates robotic milkers:

Leman, it seems, was forced to rethink the farm as a viable source of family income. Leman’s four sons now have steady jobs and are making more money than they ever would have on a farm, he said — a bittersweet outcome.

“It’s great, but it’s sad,” he said. “My youngest grandkids don’t really even know what a cow is.”

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America’s Drunkest Cities

By Janet Stengle

Men’s Health magazine ranked the top ten drunkest cities in America, based on a study by the Centers for Disease Control.

The study measured alcohol-related deaths, DUI arrests and binge drinking in each city. Men’s Health then compiled the data in an unscientific method.

How drunk is your city?

US Top 50 Swim Cities 2016

By Janet Stengle

San Jose-Santa Clara, Calif. edged out Ann Arbor, Mich. to claim the title of top swim city for the first time in Speedo and USA Swimming’s annual study.

The study compared each city’s swim qualities in relation to population, including factors like new member growth, number of USA Swimming members, club excellence, and number of high-level competitors.

South Bend-Mishawaka came in at 28. Did your city make the list?

Birkenstocks Losing Cool Factor

By Janet Stengle

In the Sept. 2016 issue of Notre Dame’s Scholastic, the magazine threw it back to Sept. 12, 1999 for the monthly #tbt segment. A student’s 90s Birkenstocks were featured, a pair very similar to the model students walk around in today.

Nearly 20 years later, Birkenstocks are still trendy. The New York Times reported a successful summer for Birkenstocks in 2014, notably in New York, far from its West Coast base.

But is the brand’s cool factor slipping? Chacos, another type of sandal, are also popular for Notre Dame students.

Chacos

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Photo by Clara S.

Birkenstocks

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Photo courtesy of birkenstock.com.

Comparing Birkenstocks and Chacos on Google Trends shows that since 2004 in the United States, Chacos has become a more popular Google search than Birkenstocks, surpassing the longstanding shoe in 2010.

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Perhaps price is a factor. On the Chacos website, a pair of women’s sandals ranges from $67.99 – $105.00. A standard pair of women’s Birkenstocks is $99.95.

Birkenstocks sticks to footwear – sandals, clogs, boots and shoes. But you can find Chacos socks, t-shirts, and even dog leashes.

Searches for both Birkenstocks and Chacos rise dramatically each June, then fall during winter months. Chacos are likely a more popular summer shoe.

But when searches for both descend in winter, the shoes even out before spiking back up. Birkenstocks may still reign as a more popular winter shoe, easier to wear with socks since 1999.

The Politics of Hamilton and Vice President Pence

By Janet Stengle

The cast of Hamilton, the American Musical had a message for Vice President Mike Pence, and America listened.

On November 18, 2016, Pence attended Broadway’s hit musical with his family. Audience members booed the then Vice President-Elect as he walked in. After the show, the cast addressed Pence directly.

“We, sir — we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us,” actor Brandon Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, said.

Google Trends shows that searches in the United States for both “Hamilton” and “Mike Pence” immediately increased after the cast’s words on Nov. 18.

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Zooming out to view the comparison in the past year, searches for “Hamilton” sharply increased on Nov. 18. But the most searches for “Hamilton” occurred on June 12, the day of the Tony Awards. The show won 11 Tonys after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando early that morning. Lin-Manuel Miranda honored the victims in his acceptance speech for Best Score.

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Searches for Mike Pence peaked at his nomination on July 20. In a larger view, it shows less Google searches for Hamilton compared to Pence, even after November 18. But the two searches often intersect – today, the searches are nearly even.

Broadway musicals, or any cultural events, can interlace with politics, affecting what Americans pay attention to. Pence said he “wasn’t offended.” But Trump tweeted directly after the event, demanding that the cast “apologize!” and later called the musical “underrated.”

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Looks like Hamilton is still a force in American politics.