Editor’s note: California dairy producer Randy Mouw gave the following statement to the House of Representative’s Agriculture Committee regarding the labor needs of agriculture in the U.S. Mouw testified on behalf of Western United Dairymen, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF).
Good afternoon, members of the House Agriculture Committee. I want to thank you for holding this hearing to look into the labor needs on our nation’s farms and ranches. While I’m told we are not here to take an in-depth look at any specific legislation, I am happy to be here to add my voice to those calling for a federal legislative solution to the most difficult challenge facing food production in this country today.
My name is Randy Mouw. My wife, Rose, and I milk 1400 cows in Ontario, California, with 17 employees.
The availability of labor on this country’s dairy farms is critical to those in our industry, but it has far wider implications for so many other sectors of the economy. Large herds or small, and in all parts of the country, dairies are family-owned and -operated, but additional labor is a must. Dairy farming is labor-intensive and well-trained, outside labor is a necessity on most farms.
I believe this issue is about border security, food security, labor force security and economic security.
Immigration reform is a must for U.S. agriculture, because I can tell you from my own experience that not one person who has walked on my dairy looking for work in the past five years is a person who was born in this country. And based on my conversations with other dairymen, they will tell you the same story.
This is not a matter of cheap labor, either. I would invite any member of Congress who believes that to come and walk just a day in my shoes. The jobs on my dairy are year-round, relatively high-paying, and we provide a number of benefits including health care, bonuses and opportunities for advancement. No, it’s not a matter of us wanting cheap labor; it is a matter of us having any labor at all.
Let me add here early and emphatically that I am a strong supporter of more effective border security as is every other dairy farmer I know. People should not be coming to this country illegally. But the fact is people are coming to this country, sometimes legally, sometimes not, in search of an opportunity for a better life. And ordinary U.S. citizens, including small businessmen like me, cannot be put in the position of being made la migra, or the immigration police, and be responsible for sorting the real documents from the fake ones. It is the responsibility of Congress to find politically viable solutions and enact them.
The farmers I know would also like to see recognition by Congress that this is nothing less than a food security issue for our country. The headlines of the day tell us we’re too dependent on other countries for oil; we don’t want to go down the road of being food dependent as well. Sure, our food can be produced elsewhere. The question is why would we make that choice? We also read about outsourcing and jobs leaving this country. I have already been asked to relocate to China, with my business. Without sensible immigration reform, the outsourcing of our food production and processing is a very real possibility. Is that what consumers really want?
By all accounts border and port agents inspect only a very small percentage of food shipments coming into this country while every tanker load of milk I ship is tested and every animal I sell is inspected for safety and quality. Consumers can take a great amount of reassurance from so rigorous a system.
Farmers all across the country have supported several attempts by Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform. For many reasons, that has not happened. I am here today to join with other witnesses at this hearing to encourage Congress to enact what is achievable – to improve labor force security by providing a sensible, fair and workable program for a legal immigrant agricultural workforce.
Jobs on dairies are year-round. You have doubtless heard this before, but I must say it again – the H2A program does not work for dairy. Like many dairymen, I milk my cows three times per day. That means there is a harvest on my farm three times a day, 365 days a year, weekends and holidays included. The H2A program, on top of all the issues others have raised about it here today, requires both the worker and the job to be seasonal and temporary. We gave up seasonal dairying in this country 50 years ago and that is part of why we are the most competitive volume milk-producing country in the world.
Something else we gave up in this country many years ago is asking job applicants certain questions because of what they look like. I don’t know the residency status of my workers because our anti-discrimination laws prevent me from asking. Let’s not return to those bad old days now.
For dairy, there are three key principles that must be included in a legislative solution:
1) an affordable, efficient guest worker program that ensures the continued availability of immigrant labor for all of agriculture, including dairies
2) a provision that allows those currently employed or with recent employment history in the U.S. to earn the right to work here legally, regardless of their current legal status;
3) a provision that specifies the responsibility for ultimate verification of the legal status of a worker lies with the government, not with employers
I have workers at my dairy who have been with me for more than 15 years. In addition to enjoying relatively high-paying, year-round jobs with some benefits, many of them perform work that requires a significant amount of training and skill. The cows must be well cared for or my milk quality suffers and my culling rate goes up, both with negative effects on my bottom line.
And mechanization is not an option for all jobs on dairies. Cows must be monitored at calving, and young calves need specific kinds of care. Robotic milking machines may work for some operations, but the technology still needs to be perfected and the cost to purchase and install them must come down significantly for them to be a viable option on a large dairy.
Milk is also one of the most perishable foods produced in this country. It cannot be stored for long periods on the farm awaiting a better price or labor to harvest it. The jobs on my dairy, working with cows and equipment, are not for amateurs. Well-trained workers are simply a necessity on my dairy and nearly all other dairies in the country every day of the year.
Farms also provide open space. That is very important in my part of southern California. When a dairy farm goes out, houses and parking lots come in.
Milk production in California is the largest sector of the largest industry in the state. It had a farm-gate value last year of nearly $5 billion and contributes $47.4 billion and 434,000 jobs to the California economy. Average herd size in California is now about 900 cows.
Our dairy farms are large because there is a large population to supply. And farm land is expensive so economies of scale are the rule instead of the exception. Producing a lot of milk is a necessity in order to cash flow the cost of the land, not to mention the cost of all of the corn that California dairy farmers buy from the Midwest each day. That all adds up to the need for outside labor. But people who were born in this country do not seem to be interested in jobs on dairy farms – so dairymen have turned to those who are willing to do this kind of work.
Some of my employees have been with me for years. It’s the same for most dairymen I know, and some of those employees are like family to us. I have had employees come to me for advice on family issues like how to deal with certain situations with their kids and when and where to buy a house. Like all families we’re dedicated to one thing – getting the job done for ourselves and our children.
No one in the dairy business has set out to break the law. Dairy farmers need labor. Seeing an unmet need, workers have come here for an opportunity.
What we need now is an enforceable law that provides a workable solution to this problem this year. Nothing less than the food security of this nation and the economic health of rural communities are at stake. PD
Dairy Producer in Ontario, California
Q. What was your assessment of the opinions in Washington, D.C., related to the U.S. agricultural labor situation?
I was surprised that there was as much interest in the issue, even though there wasn’t any legislation to put to a vote. It wound up being a bigger thing than I thought it would be.
Q. In the last few months have you found hiring labor for your dairy difficult?
For mine personally, it’s not as bad. It is a little bit harder to get more qualified laborers. I haven’t gone to the resort of advertising yet or doing any of that, but I make my guys aware of what I need. I make sure my barn supervisor gets a name of everyone who comes around looking for work. I now have a bigger base of who to call, if I do need someone.
Q. What was your opinion of the other testimonies you heard given by presenters from other agricultural industries?
The need is definitely there. We are short on workers, and we haven’t developed a good way in the U.S. to fill those vacancies. Also, technology has not caught up to replace these workers with robotics or other mechanical means. We need the human touch with fruits, vegetables and other things. There are just some parts in agriculture that machines can’t do.
It’s the same thing with cows. Robotics might work in certain instances, but robots are definitely not ready for everything yet.
Q. In your opinion, is the situation going to get worse or better in the next few years?
Worse, unless something major is done. We must be doing something good on the border because we are stopping some illegal immigrants.
The irony of all this discussion is that we have already done such a good job sealing the borders that we have stemmed the tide of illegal immigrants. Yet we need to figure out how we will open the border up again, when we really do need those people as laborers.
Q. Tell me your perspective on the Social Security Administration’s proposed “no-match” letters?
I think that employers should never be the ones to decide whether a document is legal or not. We’re in a Catch-22. We need the workers, and we offer good benefits and higher pay to attract good people. But we are being put into a situation where just because there was a bureaucratic glitch or something got reported wrong we are going to be the ones who have to figure things out. I think we’re being charged as guilty until proven innocent, instead of the other way around.
It puts us in a situation we shouldn’t be in. It should be the government that verifies legal documentation, not us. To put us, as employers, in a position of being the immigration police is not a place we want to be.
Q. What is the biggest challenge on your dairy today?
Margins and making a profit. This year was better, but last year was difficult. I think the labor issue just drives home the point that you have to be able to make a profit, feed your family and keep your business running. Otherwise, if we can’t say we need any employees, the labor issue is totally moot. PD