Family Dairy Farms and Immigration Reform

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.

Chad Dechow was raised on a small dairy farm in New York State and is an Associate Professor of Dairy Genetics at Penn State.
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.

Chad Dechow was raised on a small dairy farm in New York State and is an Associate Professor of Dairy Genetics at Penn State.

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